A clever way to improve service delivery

By Ryan Falkenberg, 24 May 2024 – Originally published by BizCommunity.

It’s no secret that South Africa has a service delivery problem. In the run up to elections, government departments and state owned enterprises (SOEs) have come under the microscope for their ability to deliver on big budget items like infrastructure and health. Then there are the regular power outages (even in areas not being load shed), water outages, and potholes.

The same is true for more personal things, like renewing your passport or driver’s licence, claiming a maternity payout from UIF, or registering a new business. Try to do any of those things online and you’ll most likely have to navigate a poorly designed website that isn’t particularly helpful.

If you go in person, you face long queues staffed by demotivated workers. This kind of service delivery has an outsized impact on the country’s most vulnerable people. Children, the elderly, the disabled, and others should have easy access to services that allow them to live a full and dignified life. But poor service delivery also hurts the economy. Load shedding alone cost the fiscus R899m a day in 2023.

Over the years, numerous solutions have been suggested. More on-the-ground civil servants, fewer managers, privatisation, and eradicating corruption all have merit. But they also take time and cost a lot of money and South Africa doesn’t have much of either right now. We must focus on areas where quick interventions can make a big difference.

One such area is customer service. Thanks to issues elsewhere in the system, many government department contact centres are overloaded with queries and complaints. People trying to get help from them often have to spend hours on the phone before they even speak to a person. It’s exacerbated even more in times of crisis, such as in the aftermath of a natural disaster when people are desperate for information.

The emergence of intelligent virtual agents offers a way to change the entire customer experience quickly. These service experts can deal with most of the high volume queries on their own while also helping human agents address the lower volume, more complex ones.

Virtual agents are far more capable than chatbots and can now operate at the level of human experts. They offer citizens a way to resolve most queries themselves, either via WhatsApp, website, app, email or even via voice. They don’t ask you to wait and can work with relevant back-office systems to update details and trigger required actions. They are also available 24/7/365 so you are assured an immediate response no matter the time of day.

By offering people an effective way to get service questions answered and requests immediately processed, government departments and state owned entities can transform the perception of service delivery.

Yes, there may still be potholes or issues with water, but if citizens can at least feel they can get an account query resolved, a service request logged, or an application status provided, without the added frustration of waiting in line, important goodwill can be earned.

Ultimately, there is no doubt that substantial action is needed to improve service delivery in South Africa. The country’s people and its economy need it. Some of that action will take a fair amount of time and investment. That does not, however, mean that we should underestimate how big of a difference seemingly small interventions can make. Deployed properly in the right areas, they can provide certainty and free up budgets to improve on-the-ground service delivery.

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