Inspired by Mandela, South Africa wants to re-engage with citizens

By Joshua Chambers and Apala Bhattacharya

Minister for Public Service, Ayanda Dlodlo, outlines her plans to take on corruption and measure service impact.

On 18 July every year, people across the world mark Mandela Day in honour of South Africa’s pioneering president.

This weighs on the mind of Ayanda Dlodlo, South Africa’s Minister for Public Service, as she sits on a balcony in the midday sun. She has come to Tbilisi, Georgia, to attend a summit on open government.

Dlodlo believes that Mandela’s legacy has much to offer public servants. “He taught us that you can come and introduce something, leaving it to other people to fix its implementation,” she says. Mandela set South Africa on a new path of hope, bringing people together and forging a sense of belonging. “I can think of no other leader that has had such an impact over a five year period”.

Dlodlo is inspired by this mindset in her role heading up public sector innovation. She tells GovInsider how she believes South Africa can overcome corruption, increase citizens’ trust, and bring more diversity to government.

Measuring impact

Dlodlo’s public service career started in the military wing of the African National Congress, fighting to end apartheid. She went into exile in her youth, returning in 1994 after the desegregation of the country, and has since held senior positions including Minister of Home Affairs.

This February, she was appointed Minister for Public Service, and her “top priority” is to set standards across the country. Service quality varies markedly across the country, she says, and this needs to be monitored and improved. “You might find that the type of water that you have in Johannesburg could be better than the type of water that you have in Cape Town,” she points out. “You can't have a situation where people will flock to another province because the quality of services there is much better”.

Government must also measure the impact of projects to prioritise resources. “You might build 10 houses, offer them free of charge to people - that's what South Africa does for the poor - but what impact does that type of service have on that type of community?” Currently, South Africa doesn’t measure this at all, she notes.

Building trust

By measuring this impact, government can boost trust between citizens and government, Dlodlo notes. “We're not good at feedback and reporting to citizens in a manner [so] that they understand that our government is actually working for us”.

Dlodlo believes that South Africa can learn from India on citizen engagement. Their innovations are often simple; for example, some Indian states have “set up walls that give information to villagers,” she says. “As they go to draw water they pass that wall and see what their government is doing”.

Engagement is about more than communication, however. Government must also listen and respond to citizens’ suggestions. “People could come up to say: ‘We actually don't need that, even if you want to give us this, it's not what we want. We want X’,” Dlodlo says.

In September, Dlodlo is hosting South Africa’s largest hackathon for the youth to design a system to measure the impact of public services, “and not just outcomes”, she says. “We do not have all the answers in government”, she notes. Government will use this hackathon to decide on new technology projects and citizen engagement processes.

Already South Africa has engaged young people to build new platforms. A young entrepreneur realised the need for better communication, and so built ‘GovChat’, an app that allows people to communicate better with governments on public services. It hosts online forums that allow people to discuss policies with government officials - similar to India’s MyGov initiative. Today, the app has been downloaded by seven million people, she says.

Women in politics

Government must diversify the number of voices it hears, Dlodlo argues. Already 41% of parliament are women, while the judiciary is 36% female. “Bringing in women is about bringing in diversity, bringing in people who are people living with disabilities is bringing in diversity, people of different races - all of that speaks to diversity,” she remarks. The country’s population has more women than men, so current statistics are not representative of the nation.

South Africa is still performing much better than the rest of the world. Only 22% of women hold seats in the Upper Senate of the US, and most of the Western world does not have anything close to gender equality in its political systems. Only Rwanda and Bolivia have more women than men serving in their Parliaments.

Women are better at public service delivery, Dlodlo believes. “I have seen that where women are responsible or in position, things look a lot better in terms of delivery,” she says. “I'm not sure whether it's the nurturing side of the female that comes into play, or it is the pressure put on them by society or the expectations of cynics that women will never be able to do this”.

Tackling corruption

The Minister is on a mission to tackle corruption, which the former South African President is currently on trial for. Dlodlo is setting up a team to conduct checks and balances on ministers’ spending habits. “Now I'm bringing in people who will be able to help with the detection of corruption, doing lifestyle audits,” she explains.

Developing countries often prioritise health and education - those areas that impact a citizen’s life the most - while turning a blind eye to corruption, so long as they can ‘get things done’. But “transparency and anti corruption cannot be viewed as less than health services and education”, Dlodlo emphasises. “Ultimately, that money that is destined to help in a facility like a clinic gets diverted, and the citizens do not get access to that,” she continues.

Unfortunately in South Africa, corruption is not limited only to the political sphere, and it is part of Dlodlo’s mission to inculcate a sense of integrity across all sectors. “It’s the person that the police officer wants to arrest who takes out the wad of dollars and says ‘You know we can sort this out between men’,” she explains. The culture must change.

The Minister is particularly inspired by the app, Eyes and Ears, which monitors budget usage in the Kaduna state of Nigeria, she says. The app lets citizens update the government on the progress of public infrastructure projects. Project monitoring staff can then keep a better track of where the money is going and any graft.

Dlodlo has set a strong vision for her public sector since coming into office. Inspired by the legacy of Mandela, she doesn’t want to obsess about the nuts and bolts; she wants a movement that re-engages citizens, understands their ideas, embraces diversity, and learns from other nations. To her, Mandela’s spirit should inspire people on more than just the 18th July.

This interview was conducted at the Tbilisi summit run by the Open Government Partnership in July 2018.

Ayanda Dlodlo will be speaking at Innovation Labs World. Register here to join us on 25 September in Singapore.