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Thuli Radebe, CEO of the Centre for Public Service Innovation (CPSI), looks back at the highlights and challenges.

A developing country like South Africa faces considerable challenges when it comes to service delivery. These challenges include both the sheer scale of the population that was previously underserviced, and its rapid movement into the urban centres – something that has been confirmed by the 2011 census results.

By contrast, rural communities remain a substantial constituency, presenting the challenges of a population density that is much lower, and distances that are much longer.

The final challenge is, of course, the perennial one faced by all public services: so much to do, so little  money!

South Africa’s government departments are responding in a variety of ways to these challenges, with varying degrees of success. Technology has a big role to play, but even more important is the ability to think laterally, and to come up with new (and perhaps even low-tech) ways of solving problems and getting the services to the people.

“You have to draw a distinction between excellence – where officials perform their delegated duties excellently, and something completely new – an innovation,” comments Thuli Radebe, CEO of the CPSI. “It’s the innovations we are looking for.”

In 2001, Cabinet acknowledged that there was a need for a central organisation to identify and nurture truly innovative ideas – and then replicate them across the civil service. Cabinet also noted that innovation is a process that requires specialist focus and hard work, and approved the establishment of a new organisation that could remove that distraction from the line departments.

The Centre for Public Service Innovation was thus born as a Section 21 company, changing its status to a Government Component in 2008. Radebe took up her position as CEO in 2007.

The vision

Radebe inherited a small team of five contract employees working out of a few offices on SITA premises. She set out to build up a permanent team with strong in-house capabilities and specialised skills. She also had a vision to create an exciting Multimedia Innovation Centre (MMIC) that would itself act as a demonstration of the kinds of innovation the CPSI is trying to promote, and a catalyst for innovation.

“I had a vision for a space that would get public servants excited about the concept of innovation, and then provide a space away from their everyday distractions where they could develop innovation,” Radebe says.

It’s working: the MMIC is well-booked.

One of the CPSI’s main aims is the unearthing of innovation. Radebe’s team recently criss-crossed the country, encouraging public servants to enter the annual Public Sector Innovation Awards. The awards have a completely independent judging panel that is made up representatives of the various Premiers’ offices, non- governmental organisations and the private sector.

In the ten years that the programme has been running, it has recognised not only an annual Public Service Innovator of the Year, but also winners in the categories of Innovative Partnerships in Service Delivery, Innovative Use of Information Technology for Effective Service Delivery, Innovative Enhancements to Internal Systems within Government, and Innovative Service Delivery Institutions.

The awards programme is complemented by an annual Public Sector Innovation conference, which aims to create innovation networks and spread great ideas.

Finding solutions

The CPSI’s other major focus is actively looking for ways to address specific challenges. Having identified a challenge, Radebe and her team invite the line department and interested non-governmental organisations to collaborate to find a solution. Business is a key component of this process.

Once the solution has been brainstormed, the next step is getting a pilot running to test the solution in  the field. In order to make her limited budget stretch, Radebe’s model is obtaining private-sector funding for these pilots. If the pilot is successful, the concept is given back to the line department for mainstreaming – and the company has a potential business opportunity.

YOU HAVE TO DRAW A DISTINCTION BETWEEN EXCELLENCE, WHERE OFFICIALS PERFORM THEIR DELEGATED DUTIES EXCELLENTLY, AND SOMETHING COMPLETELY NEW – AN INNOVATION OR AN ADAPTATION OF AN INNOVATIVE SOLUTION IN A NEW ENVIRONMENT –THULI RADEBE

Radebe is passionate about replicating successful innovations across government. She cites one of the Centre’s successes, the track-and-trace solution for Home Affairs. The system aims to counter fraud while keeping citizens informed of the progress of legitimate transactions. It works by sending an SMS when a process within Home Affairs is initiated (for example, a passport application) and at various stages until completion. Fraudulent processes will thus also be detected. It’s a solution that works very well, and that could be adapted and adopted by other departments.

Another great innovation came about when Radebe’s team encountered a visually impaired teacher who was much less productive than he could have  been because it was so hard to access information to make lessons more interesting, and to keep up with developments in the profession and the syllabus. The CPSI collaborated with the South African National Council for the Blind, the CSIR and other visually impaired teachers to find and adapt an appropriate electronic handheld device to access information in a format that can easily be used.

Now, says Radebe, learners who see the device want one of their own, as they find it so useful.

One of Radebe’s favourite solutions – low-tech but truly innovative – was created by the principal of a primary school in Limpopo. This enterprising public servant set up a permaculture vegetable garden on the school grounds to supply food to the local old age home and the school itself. She looked further, and used the garden to provide employment to some of the very poor parents of her learners.

“That principal looked beyond the confines of her mandate to see how she could make a wider impact on her community – that’s public service innovation,” Radebe says. She publicised the project at the Innovation Conference and was thrilled when Helen Joseph Hospital latched onto the idea – not only to grow much-needed fresh vegetables but also to provide therapy for stroke and psychiatric patients.

Looking to the future

Radebe is not a woman to spend too much time looking over her shoulder. While she believes the Centre is now on a sound footing and is beginning to make real progress, much more needs to be done. The key challenge is to improve the funding model, making more funds available and also more accessible. She would like to see even just one percent of departmental budgets set aside for innovation, so that the Centre could access that money to mainstream successful pilots relevant to that department. “More political sponsorship from the line ministries would also be great,” she adds. “Their buy-in is needed to create the right culture of innovation, and give impetus not only to developing innovation but to sharing it. If we get that right, there’s nothing we can’t do.”

STORY:  JAMES VAN DEN HEEVER