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How to get government services to step up their game

By Trevor Watkins

Everyone knows we have a great Constitution. Hardly anyone knows what it contains, particularly most “civil” servants. How could this be changed?

Most people are really only interested in things that affect them directly – saving money, saving time, cool things, interesting experiences. Tell them that Teazers can stay open because it has a constitutional right to do so, or that Metrorail is obliged by law to provide more guards on trains.

The key clause in the Constitution for everyday living is number 33, “Just administrative action”.

(1) Everyone has the right to administrative action that is lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair.

It is the word “reasonable” in clause 33.1 with which we can conjure. I take the view that an administrative action can be considered reasonable if it applies equally to both the administrator applying the action, and the citizen to whom it is applied.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Speeding fines

Many local municipalities effectively collect an additional tax on motorists by rigid enforcement of speeding fines. If a motorist cannot keep a ton of metal acted on by the varying forces of engine, gears, brakes, gravity and wind within 10% of some arbitrary speed, while simultaneously keeping a lookout for braking cars in front, insane taxis to the sides, and avoiding being rammed from the rear, then that motorist is liable for a significant fine for each and every violation. Not surprisingly, many of us fail.

Yet this same municipality, which sets such a high standard and harsh penalty for the motorist, may have non-functioning robots, potholed roads, missing road signs, and yet suffer no penalties for any of this. A dead robot is every bit as dangerous as a speeding motorist, and is a threat to far more people than any one vehicle. It requires no great skill to keep a robot functioning, particularly when its maintenance is paid for by a host of taxes and levies. Radio stations supply us with long lists of dead robots on an hourly basis, making official ignorance no excuse whatsoever.

I propose that all income from fining motorists for traffic violations go into a privately administered trust. Whenever a motorist encounters a municipal violation of its responsibility, such as a dead robot or a bad pothole, that motorist may issue a summons against the municipality for its breach. Upon conviction, these “citizen fines” will be paid out of the aforementioned trust directly to the citizen. Should the trust be unable to pay, then the municipality itself must fork up. Since many thousands of these citizen fines could be issued each day, I would expect municipalities to react with alacrity to every hint of a failing traffic light. I would also expect a brisk trade in proxy citizen fines, with entrepreneurs camped at dead traffic lights, completed forms in hand, buying names and signatures from passing motorists for a percentage of the fine.

Long queues
Government and queues appear to be synonymous. Home affairs, licences, pensions, if it’s a government department it has a queue around the block in front of it. Most of the time the government department requires you to get and pay for a piece of paper that you never wanted in the first place. And you may be required to queue for days to get it. Like doctors, government departments treat you as though your time were of no value.

However, in their wisdom, our government also chooses to tell us what the minimum value of our time should be – the minimum wage per hour. I propose that all government departments be required to install a clock that issues a ticket printed with the current time and date when a button is pushed. On arrival in the waiting area of any government or municipal department, our citizen would obtain a timestamp ticket. On final completion of the bureaucratic task at hand, this ticket could be redeemed as a discount on the cost of your transaction, or for cash, or as a credit against your annual tax return. The value of the ticket would be the number of hours expended multiplied by the minimum hourly wage, as set by the government. Finally, the bureaucrats would have a real incentive to deal with the burgeoning queues in their departments.

Once again, one would expect entrepreneurs to frequent government departments, offering to wait in queue for you in return for your timestamp ticket proceeds – everyone wins, except perhaps that sour-faced person behind the departmental window.

I assume that virtually every South African has experienced the frustration of trying to communicate a problem to our bureaucracy. The phone rings without answer. If it is actually answered, the person you seek is not in, or that post is not even filled. His boss is not in, his boss’s boss is not taking calls, and no one knows who the head of the department is, but he isn’t in either.

If and when you finally get someone to admit responsibility for anything, and they understand what you are talking about, they take down all your complaints in painfully slow detail. They promise to follow up on this immediately, and that is the last you ever hear from them. Months go by while you try to find out what happened to your complaint. Finally, in deep frustration, you give up, as they knew you would all along.

I propose a government complaints website, similar to in the business sphere. This site would record the responsibility hierarchy of every government department, with the name, work, home and cellphone number, and email address, of the responsible person at every level. Most of this information is a matter of public record, but almost certainly the government could not be relied on to maintain it accurately. Therefore, like Wikipedia, visitors to the site would have an opportunity to update the responsibility hierarchy with any new information they may have, thus allowing it to grow and remain reasonably accurate.

When a disgruntled complainant arrives at the website he would look up the appropriate department in the hierarchy, using a standard tree structure, or a search tool to guide him. On finding the appropriate section, our unhappy citizen could simply take note of the appropriate names and phone numbers, and do the rest himself. Alternatively, he could type in his complaint and submit it via the website. The website would:

– Add this complaint to a list under that specific bureaucrat’s name and job position;
– Keep a count of the total number of complaints added, and dealt with satisfactorily; and
– Email the complaint to the named bureaucrat, and to the bureaucrat’s boss, and his boss’s boss.

Now we’re cooking with gas! This faceless bureaucrat’s bosses are being deluged with specific emails detailing specific problems from hundreds of different people. Anyone can visit the website and extract statistics on the number of complaints outstanding, the number resolved, by individual bureaucrat and position. It becomes quick and easy to say that this is the worst department, and this is the Worst employee. Responsibility can no longer be evaded, although, of course, it may continue to be ignored. Instead of a disorganised background buzz of dissatisfaction, lacking specific details, names and dates, government would now be faced with well-organised, unassailable evidence of the deep anger and frustration of its citizens.

And, of course, a cottage industry would spring up, in which your complaints would be posted on the website by internet café entrepreneurs for a small fee, if you yourself don’t have internet access or understanding.

How do we do it?

South Africans know how to get things changed – just ask the residents of Khutsong, or the Treatment Action Campaign. We could start a movement based on the simple ideas described above. We could call it Clause 33, or Citizens for Administrative Justice. We could set some simple short-term goals, like traffic fines going into a trust, and then lobby for support. We could raise petitions, email letter campaigns, marches on Parliament, the usual stuff.

And then we could wait to see if democracy is really working in this country.

Trevor Watkins is a semi-retired libertarian living on the south coast of the Eastern Cape. He maintains and contributes to several blogs and discussion groups. He is optimistic that South Africa can rise above its present problems.

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