After several weeks of inevitable procrastination, last week I finally made the long planned trip to some government office. I was to meet an important government official to be rendered a very crucial service. By important government official I am not referring to the level of importance that comes with powers to declare most things illegal and everything else free for self. But important enough to justify driving over 500 kilometres to meet such an official.
Having waited a few hours for the official to arrive from his usual duty station to our rendezvous at the headquarters, I was glad when he ushered me to a chair before pulling out the documents for our transaction. There were a total of five pages to be filled in triplicate. The officer asked his colleague if the photocopier was “still” out of order, which the colleague affirmed.
Having been around for a while now, I knew better than to wait for a solution from the two, because they did not have any. I ignored the big tax that I pay and went for the more productive of two choices; I could have thrown tantrums and told the officers what I thought of their office, which would have been against my personal culture, or I could have found the solution to my problem. Driving over 500kms is not something you do just to tell people where they belong in the animal kingdom. In the interest of accomplishing my mission, I offered to go and make copies for myself at a nearby copy shop to which the officer gladly obliged and gave me the documents. In no time I was back and just like that, we did what was necessary and I left with some schedules of when to check progress.
My photocopier experience above is not really the big deal. The big deal is how situations of “out-of-service” equipment are ruining the country. There is a painful truth that many accounting officers would rather give excuses for, than acknowledge that taxpayers are being robbed in daylight. There are many highly educated people in offices, who are paid just to tell customers that there is no service 60% of the time. While the lack of this and that is often true, it always beats me why fixing something like a photocopier or a computer, should be difficult.
The reason equipment stays out-of-service is not because no one reports it. That is part of the problem, but even where it is reported, there is nothing that obliges the service technician to act with urgency. It’s a very free and simple choice whether to go for tea or attend to the computer. While dead computers and photocopiers are the culprit, I honestly believe our laissez faire attitude is responsible for poor service delivery or no service at all. Our public service especially lacks service standards and we are generally content with mediocrity. Anything is acceptable as a reason not to provide a much needed service because there are no quality management systems (QMS) to address these issues. This (QMS), I have to come to accept is another alien concept.
Some incapacities are easier to understand in a new country like South Sudan than in a country that will be celebrating 52 years of independence and is categorized as middle income. Routines like servicing regular equipment should not affect service delivery. If they do, then it may be time to change the procurement strategy. For example, if you rent photocopies and other major equipment, with the necessary service agreement, all the breakdown headaches will go away. Small procurement changes like this will slowly take you into full privatization without wasting time with fruitless and expensive strategies that lead nowhere. That of course only works if you don’t privatize to yourself.
Now, if you’re wondering why fixing photocopiers is difficult, consider this; You ask businesses to collect plastic money on your behalf, only to tell them years later that it’s okay, they can keep the money, because you don’t know how to receive it. That there is no system in place to collect the money is incompetence of VIP proportions. Before people believe that collecting government money is difficult, this is how easy it is: The responsible officer requests the creation of a vote for the money. This is followed by a directive for every business to pay their dues into this vote, which they cannot defy. I believe the alcohol levy can provide a benchmark on “how to collect”. The plastic money was collected and no one can eat a collection unless advised to do so. But unfortunately, just like the photocopier, the levy was a strategy without a process and the gates were left open as usual!