Picture: 123RF/Kheng Ho Toh
Picture: 123RF/Kheng Ho Toh

With  schools reopening for the new year we are guaranteed yet another stampede as administrators suddenly wake up to the fact that textbooks that were budgeted for have not been delivered.

Corruption would probably have contributed to the diversion of funds for the provision of these, but a far bigger structural and systemic reason for hiccups in service delivery is the use of outdated and inefficient tools of planning, budgeting and measurement.

As the GDP and population of a country grow, so does the fundamental necessity for robust ICT platforms to increase administrative effectiveness and efficiency, transparency and accountability, to promote an honest government.

Making headlines before the festive season was the controversy surrounding the integrated financial management system (IFMS) implementation by the government. This is an IT-based budgeting and accounting system that manages spending, payment processing, budgeting and reporting for the government departments and other entities. An IFMS bundles many essential financial management functions into one software suite.

Endorsed by the World Bank as a preferred tool to replace antiquated budgeting systems that were cumbersome and wasteful as they led to duplication, and counterproductive as they left budgeting processes open to corruption, IFMS was adopted by cabinet as the preferred system in 2005.

Sadly, though it cost the government more than  R1bn, the system has yet to be implemented even though its benefits are clear to everyone. Why the delay? When it comes to matters of policy formulation South Africans are the biggest dreamers. We wax lyrical on new ideas and their possible efficacies. We rush headlong to embrace them. The challenge, however, is implementation.

This lack of implementation can be blamed on indecision by those in positions of power. In this instance, this lack of implementation can be traced to a turnover in the finance ministry which, from a policy point of view, is the custodian of this planning tool.

Since 2009 we have had six ministers of finance (two of whom had brief tenures in the hot seat). This turnover has undermined forward planning and continuity. Some focused on playing political games at the expense of performing the job at hand.

But even more concerning has been the turnover at the State Information Technology Agency (Sita). From a technological perspective Sita is the custodian of technological innovations in the government and state-owned entities. Any further instability at Sita will clearly undermine all the government’s good intentions  of using technology to enhance good governance and  improving service delivery.

Lack of planning and continuity in the upper echelons of state machinery sadly filter down to the provinces, impacting negatively on service delivery and leaving budgeting systems open to abuse at local level.

Properly handled, the IFMS could have the auditor general’s controls embedded into it. This would make the auditor-general’s work easier. The office of the public protector and agencies such as the Hawks could also be hooked into the system so that they could monitor transactions at will. That way, they could save money and time should there be a need to investigate a specific transaction.

What is to be done? I believe the IFMS needs a more powerful champion. The Presidency seems to be the logical home for the IFMS. Located within the Presidency are several initiatives meant to enhance service delivery and stimulate growth in the economy, which would in turn create jobs and lay foundations for social stability and prosperity.

One of these is the National Development Plan (NDP). As part of the country’s policy framework the NDP is wonderful. But for it to work it needs a strong financial management underpinning. The IFMS is that tool. It can give teeth to the NDP, among other well-meaning initiatives. Properly managed, the IFMS is a powerful “all-seeing” tool that has to be unleashed if we are to give meaning to the common phrase of “giving power and service delivery to the people through technology”.

At a most basic level the IFMS will enable staff at, say, Chris Hani  Baragwanath Hospital, to look into a “provincial hospitals window” on their computers and see which hospitals have an oversupply of medication they are running short on. They can then make their request or order online. It’s an efficient, quick, reliable and less costly way of working that trumps unreliable phone calls to administrators who might not be at their workstations when their services are urgently needed.

I am suggesting that the IFMS be located within the presidency for the simple reason that it is a powerful lever to create the required momentum and, as  President Cyril Ramaphosa has publicly said, is fresh and ready for new challenges. And, most importantly, the buck stops with the presidency.

• Msibi is managing executive: sales & marketing at ICT-Works.