A South African hospital had run out of inhalers for asthmatic children. Making do with what she had, the physiotherapist on duty simply made a hole in a plastic drink bottle, and used that instead.

“She was thinking solution, not problem. That’s the basis of what we are trying to do,” says Pierre Schoonraad, Chief Director of Research & Development for the Centre for Public Service Innovation (CPSI).

The most effective solutions are often the simplest ones, and the centre hopes to help public servants in their quest to find solutions to the key challenges that the country faces. GovInsider caught up with Schoonraad and Muzi Ntombela, Deputy Director of IT Support, to learn more about how the centre is fostering an innovative spirit among the public service.

Like an ATM, but for medication

To address the lack of pharmaceutical personnel in the country, a non-profit organisation, Right to Care, created Pharmacy Dispensing Units (PDUs) that dispense medication much like ATMs dispense cash. CPSI is currently helping Right to Care to scale up their automated pharmacy solution to other hospitals across the country.

The benefits of PDUs are several: improved stock control and increased convenience for patients. Queues at hospital pharmacies and wrongful dispensing of medication have also been eliminated. At Themba Lethu Clinic in Helen Joseph Hospital, Johannesburg, for instance, these automated machines reduced waiting time for medication from four hours to 45 minutes.

There are currently PDUs in four shopping malls and several hospital pharmacies, with plans now underway to install them in the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital – “one of the largest hospitals in the world”, says Schoonraad. While the cost of two units will be approximately 13 million rand, or over US$1 million to install, “the robotic setup starts paying for itself in about six months”, he notes.

Pharmacy personnel have also been “very positive” about introducing automation into their work, says Schoonraad, and “are not concerned anymore about their job being replaced”. “The menial part of their job has been taken over with a machine and now they can actually do the professional work by consulting with patients, talking through side effects of medication and so on.”

Panic buttons

Over the past five years, the centre has worked with the police to reduce response time in informal settlements, or slums. Each home was fitted with basic alarm systems that, when triggered, would send texts to police vehicles and the local community policing forum.

It used to take police 48 hours to respond to incidents in these areas; it has now been reduced to a mere seven minutes as each alarm is GPS-located, explains Schoonraad. The centre tested 600 of these alarms in one community, and saw a 9% reduction in crime, he adds.

“We’ve got more than a thousand alarms that are operational in various parts of the country, and now the big thing is to support further rollout and application,” he says.

Such a solution has uses beyond public safety. The education department is interested in using these alarms to keep ICT equipment in schools safe, Schoonraad continues. “It’s costing them an arm and a leg to secure, so can we install these alarms into schools and link them to community patrols and the police?”

Testing and failing

These two examples are how the centre is facilitating “a testing and piloting process” to introduce innovative solutions to the country. It hopes to “create a setup where you can fail without consequences for those that are innovating”, according to Schoonraad. It is easier to innovate without the rules, regulations and compliance issues in the public sector that make it “very difficult” to test and fail, he explains.

“You want to create an environment where you can control risk,” Schoonraad says. “It’s better for us to create an enabling environment for innovation to happen.”

“You want to create an environment where you can control risk.”

The centre’s annual Public Sector Innovation Awards is one way that they identify interesting ideas, prototypes and solutions that could be replicated on a national scale. If it works in one school or hospital, it could work elsewhere, Schoonraad points out; the centre will then facilitate the process of taking it further.

An important factor is to work closely with public servants, and “not assuming that you know what their problems are”, says Ntombela. “Inclusivity plays a vital role in shaping what the solution and the outcome of the solution is going to be,” he believes.

Essentially, the centre hopes to remove the roadblocks that may stop innovative solutions from benefiting people across South Africa. With this enabling mindset in mind, it will be a less daunting task for public servants to tackle the big challenges that they face today.

Images by Neon TommyCC BY 2.0 and Right to Care South Africa