Tenuous transport: Hundreds of passengers queue for taxis after Metrorail suspended services on a Cape Town line in December 2017. Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF
Tenuous transport: Hundreds of passengers queue for taxis after Metrorail suspended services on a Cape Town line in December 2017. Picture: RUVAN BOSHOFF

When Tony Blair was Britain’s prime minister he promised: "The trains will run on time." To attain this, he established a delivery unit in 10 Downing Street. His agenda was to achieve a set of goals through a focus on implementation.

I head a delivery unit in the Western Cape government and had the benefit of advice from Michael Barber, who ran Blair’s unit and is now renowned for delivery in the public sector.

In my work, I am constantly reminded how hard it is to get tangible results and how important it is to make implementation a national priority. In Cape Town, the majority of commuters rely on Metrorail, yet every day suffer late trains and cancellations.

Lives would be radically transformed if trains just ran, let alone ran on time.

The delivery conundrum is being felt everywhere. As a result, delivery units have become popular.

Even the best governments find that in a world of rapid technological advancement and challenging social media, bureaucracies are hamstrung by organisational rigidities and compliance, and innovation finds little favour. Add in poor accountability and corruption, and the schism between citizens and their government becomes untenable.

South Africans know this only too well, hence the palpable relief when Jacob Zuma left the Presidency and the unenviable demand on President Cyril Ramaphosa to unravel corruption and improve policy execution.

Delivery will need to be tackled amid the governance mess. It is impossible to do this across an entire government at once. Prioritisation is critical — select a few strategic priorities to implement with a focus on results and performance. The Western Cape is doing this and the Gauteng government recently adopted a similar approach.

We have delivery units, responsible for a selection of interventions that are driven with urgency and are accountable to the premiers. Delivery units get unique oversight over the entire delivery process because they carry the authority of the political principal.

They also help shift the balance from policy and planning to implementation, which is focused on outcomes that achieve measurable change. Continuous measurement and performance tracking using real-time data is critical. The Western Cape government delivery unit is responsible for six priorities or game changers.

These include energy security, which tackles a new energy future premised on renewables. It is now possible to legally connect rooftop solar photovoltaics to the grid of 20 municipalities in the province, with 13 already having approved feed-in tariffs. In 2015 it was the first metro that had this.

Youth development is fostered through three game changers: eLearning, after-school programmes and apprenticeships.

Legacy game changers, notably the Reduction of Alcohol Harms, offer a prism through which to improve lives in some of our most violent areas, and the Better Living Model, which is a multibillion-rand, mixed-use, mixed-income development in Cape Town designed to transform apartheid’s spatial patterns.

While all the game changers are highly innovative, the youth-related ones promise extensive systemic change.

We have looked at pupils’ underperformance and their lack of preparedness for the 21st century, while being cognisant of the long-term strain on education resources. More has to be achieved with less. There has to be a strategic rethink of the pedagogic system in SA. We have homed in on eLearning as the catalyst for change.

We are also working with the Western Cape education department and the Centre for e-Innovation on broadband connectivity, technology in schools, teacher training, digital content and an integrated administration system.

As a result, almost all of the 1,500 schools in the province have connectivity, with bandwidth capacity now being expanded significantly.

Technology-enabled classrooms have increased threefold to more than 6,400, while digital devices for pupils have moved from zero to more than 32,000 in just two years.

Critical to the success of the game changer is principal and teacher support and computer competency. Many teachers are volunteering for information and communications technology training. The After Schools Programme is already having a profound effect in the most disadvantaged schools.

We are not only focusing on the number of pupils participating, but also on the quality of programmes.

We started with just under 20,000 pupils attending consistently. We now have almost 80,000 and are on track to meet the target of 112,000 by March 2019. Efficiencies have also improved significantly.

From a 60% rise in the after-schools budget over three years, the cost per pupil has halved, the number of pupils has increased 300% and the number of schools involved almost doubled.

The importance of the apprenticeship game changer is an easy sell, but getting traction on the ground has proved difficult. We have also had to enforce our focus, just a few sectors and technical and vocational occupations.

Higher education is the mandate of national government, so we only have persuasive powers to achieve some bold reforms. Yet we are moving along our trajectories and for the first time have a treasure chest of data, thanks to the national Department of Higher Education, that we are analysing in-depth to monitor progress, identify problems and pinpoint employers willing to offer more apprenticeships.

Our delivery unit has been in place for three and a half years.

We can attest to how hard it is to innovate and change the way of doing business within the public sector, but it is possible if the leadership, prioritisation, focus and sense of urgency is there.

Cargill heads the Western Cape government delivery unit.