The size of South Africa’s public sector means the challenges faced somewhere have most probably been solved elsewhere. How do we share and replicate these solutions?

Not too long ago, if you applied for a new identity document or passport, you had to guess when the right amount of time had elapsed to make the trip to the Department of Home Affairs office to fetch it. This guessing game got old very quickly, especially when businesses were already using SMS technology to communicate similar details about important events.

Today, many of us take the SMS-driven enquiry service at Home Affairs for granted. You apply in person for an ID, but are able to check via SMS whether it is ready for collection.

“Most people don’t know that the first SMS track- and-trace service at Home Affairs was started by the CPSI,” says Pierre Schoonraad, Chief Director of Research and Development at the CPSI.

“People were finding out, purely by chance, that they had been ‘married on paper’ to a foreigner, due to an illegal change of records. With such activities taking place, citizens soon became worried and wanted to check their officially recorded marital status at Home Affairs. So we responded to this problem.

“We conceptualised and developed a small SMS system and implemented it at Home Affairs. That made it possible for people to send an SMS to a centralised number, and find out what their official marital status was.”

The idea then became the foundation for something much bigger. Home Affairs went on to implement SMS status checks for new passports and identity documents as well.

“Home Affairs really took ownership of that first solution. This is what the CPSI is about: transferring ownership to the responsible government department and for them to take it further,” says Schoonraad.

Root causes

The CPSI shares best practices, which come from several sources, with the public sector. However, when presented with a public service challenge, the CPSI isn’t looking for just any solution. When you’re faced with a challenge in service delivery, it is most important to dig deep into it and understand what is really going on, says Schoonraad.

“It is critical to figure out what the root causes of the problems are. Only then do we come up with ideas on how to resolve these. For example, if there are often long queues in a waiting area, the solution isn’t immediately a queue management system. We need to understand why people are queuing in the first place, how we deal with the queues and the processes behind these. The innovative ideas that come out of that eventually evolve into solutions that will really work.

“To get that understanding, we bring in experts from the private sector, public sector and NGOs. We then brainstorm and start solving the problem on the ground.


“We compare the emerging solution with best practices here or in other countries, and if it passes the grade, we take it further. Sometimes we find that international solutions are too expensive, so we may then draw in local experts to design more cost-effective approaches.

“If no existing solutions can be found, we start a programme to develop something. We have tested and piloted many solutions to demonstrate the value.”


The CPSI’s approach to innovation differs sharply from that of the private sector, says Schoonraad.

“Most people write about innovation in the private sector as ‘an open funnel’, where you take a lot of ideas, sift through these and then convert one or two viable ones into a product or process.

“The CPSI also does this, but when we start out, we don’t just start with ideas. We start with the challenge at hand, delve into the root causes, and then come up with ideas.”

Sometimes the private  sector approaches the CPSI with wonderful technology solutions in search of a problem, he says.

“That is one of the most difficult ways to start out. You don’t want to enforce a solution on people faced with a problem, since they will probably not take ownership of it. We try to match solutions that are out there with the root causes of known problems in public service.”

The CPSI basically plants the seeds of viable solutions,

hands these over to those responsible, and moves on. “There are more than a million public servants in

South Africa, but fewer than 20 staff at the CPSI. It is impossible for such a small entity to drive innovation across the entire public sector. It is much better to have people championing innovation in their own departments, take it further, and replicate it to other areas, than for us to drive it from the outside. These innovation champions are closer to the problems.”

Innovation cannot cure poor management or corruption, he says. But where there are persistent problems, and current solutions don’t work despite trying every possible option, the CPSI can assist. Especially where there may not be budget available to implement conventional solutions.

“We find alternate ways of resolving the problem, using existing technology, wherever possible, so that no one has to reinvent the wheel. We believe that all the public service delivery challenges can be overcome. We are here to facilitate and support people who are ready to start solving public service challenges,” he concludes.