Monday, October 05, 2009

Zuma's hotline: Clever or crazy?

By Onkgopotse JJ Tabane

Related:
South Africa's complaint hotline scores 40 calls a minute

Zuma hotline 'dysfunctional'


Whoever came up with the idea of President Zuma’s hotline is either very crazy or very brilliant.

There is an interesting story to be told on both sides of the reality of the consequences of this bold initiative. First of all it is an indictment that citizens in any well functioning country should have to resort to phoning the highest office in the land for things that are supposed to be resolved by well paid civil servants at municipalities and government departments. It is ludicrous that the president — if the logic of this call centre is to be followed — would have to resolve the fact that my dustbin has not been collected this week. So if anything 10 000 calls on day one of this social experiment points to the disfunctionality of our civil service at all levels.

Now it is one thing to have a telephone ring and a civil servant answer. It is another to have the query attended to. Government, unfortunately, is not too well known for answering and attending to any kind of correspondence and doing something about it. If you don’t believe me write a letter to a government department or minister and see what response you get or when you will get it.

Three months ago I wrote a letter to the city of Johannesburg after having difficulties with my electricity bill for many months. I am still waiting for a reply. Now if I called President Zuma’s hotline to report this terrible service, will my letter jump the queue?

So I wonder if people like me — who have been ill treated by civil servants — decided to call this line, what will come of it? Why, if Zuma can make such a high risk PR gimmick part of his schedule in the name of service can’t Mayor Amos Masondo do the same so that he can resolve my query speedily? Why can’t Mvuso Msimang, the DG of Home Affairs, also have a hotline so that if my wife suddenly discovered that she has been illegally married to a foreigner she does not resort to violence or suicide as has recently happened. Why can’t ministers take time to man the phone lines — and given that the ministers now exceed the calendar it would mean that over a two-month cycle, every single day, you and I can have a minister who can actually be within earshot from the hundreds of call centre agents who soon will get fed up with the repeated calls of unresolved queries that will soon fall victim of the old age bureaucracy of our civil servants.

Let’s follow my query. I suppose it will land on a desk of a 50-something year-old civil servant with thirty years experience with an urgent/dringend red sticker with Zuma’s face on it or something to add to good measure. This will mean it will take precedence, thanks to a presidential directive, over all other letters, including the one I wrote three months ago gathering dust in the huge in tray of our very efficient civil servants. If you have worked in a government department you will know that a response to a letter to a minister can easily take three months. This is after it has traversed the entire organogram of a department — being signed off and countersigned sometimes by up to seven people — readying it as a draft that the minister must sign to respond to you.

So it seems to me that to avoid the red tape the Zuma hotline is the way to go. The taste of it all will be in the follow up. It is for this reason that only serious matters need to be the subject of this line. You cannot for example call to say hello to the president. You cannot call to congratulate the Boks on their recent victory (for that, join Julius at the airport).

From PR value, this is an excellent gimmick. Without the necessary follow up this is a PR disaster waiting to happen.

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