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Picture: Chris Van Lennep
Picture: Chris Van Lennep

In his February 2020 state of the nation address President Cyril Ramaphosa said water-use licences, “which are so essential to operations on farms, factories and mines”, had previously taken up to five years to process. He went on to say: “We are able to announce that water-use licences are now issued within 90 days.”

At the time this was actually aspiration, not reality. The licences had been a problem over many years, holding up billions of rand worth of investment in new forestry, farm and factory projects. The department of water & sanitation was processing only about a third of licences within 90 days. Many took longer than 300 days. Some took years. There was a backlog of more than 1,000 unprocessed applications.

Now, the department is processing more than 70% of those licence applications within 90 days. It’s targeting to get as close to 100% as possible. The backlog has largely been eradicated.

It is a case study that should be required reading for any and all of our new ministers who want to make a difference to service delivery. The department dramatically improved performance. It did so without new policies, or regulations, or new people. The strategy didn’t need more money from the public purse. It just needed management. And it needed leadership that was willing to focus on fixing the basics, backed by strong political support.

At the core of the turnaround plan were operations management methods that are standard stuff in the private sector, but are all but unknown in SA’s public sector, says the department’s director-general, Sean Phillips. Business process re-engineering and continuous improvement were the tools the department used.

These are routinely taught in MBAs and industrial engineering degrees. They are seldom on the menu in public management degrees. Which is one reason many government processes still rely on archaic and dysfunctional bureaucratic systems — instead of on modern management practices designed to make employees’ lives simpler and production more efficient.

There is much to be done to improve the quality of the licences and eliminate mistakes

The water-use licence lessons could easily be applied to a host of other areas of public service delivery that involve repetitive processes. Public hospital records. Municipal road maintenance. Mining licence applications. Visa applications. Indeed, the home affairs department itself has proved it can be done. Under its then director-general, Mavuso Msimang, home affairs cut processing times for ID book applications from an average 127 days to 40 days in just 18 months between 2007-2008. That case study informed the water licence project, which drew on similar management tools.

The project began in late 2020, when water-use licence applications were put on the newly formed Operation Vulindlela’s list of growth-boosting priorities. Operation Vulindlela worked with the department to identify what needed to be done and it facilitated donor funding to bring in business process re-engineering to assist. But it was the department that drove the process. It eliminated some of the licence requirements that were irrelevant or impossible to implement. By mid-2021 it had a plan of action in place with time frames. From mid-2022 it started to see results. The department has recently hired 120 additional technical staff to help it improve even further.

It had the advantage, an April 2023 internal case study noted, that many of the officials were scientists, with a professional culture. Not that there wasn’t resistance to change: they needed motivation, though it helped when processes were simplified and customers more satisfied. And they needed standardised and streamlined management processes for the more than 50 steps that can be involved in a water-use licence application. The way business process re-engineering works though, is that it involved officials themselves in measuring inputs and outputs and coming up with ideas on smarter ways of doing things — and continuing to do so.

As the April 2023 case study put it: “In addition to the urgency that the president’s announcement gave, a key difference this time was that leadership listened to the suggestions made by the officials regarding how to respond and were willing to make the hard decisions that included, directing all effort and scarce resources towards this improvement.”

Often in government, ministers and senior officials believe their role is mainly to waft about at the level of high-level strategy and policy. But those will gather dust unless they pay attention to people and processes in their departments and lead from the front, as Phillips and former water & sanitation minister Senzo Mchunu did.

It’s still far from perfect. There is much to be done to improve the quality of the licences and eliminate mistakes. The department receives about 1,500 applications each year, and has the delicate task of balancing the need to promote economic development with the need to protect SA’s water resources. And there’s still a backlog of about 100 licences, even if most of these are more complex ones, in sectors such as mining.

Under its new minister, former ANC chief whip Pemmy Majodina, the department will have to take care to stay the course and avoid backsliding on the licences. And that’s just one item on the list of priority water reforms, perhaps the most straightforward. The others involve far-reaching changes to the whole structure of the sector, as well as to the pricing of water.

The department is now acting as regulator for the sector, but moves are under way to establish an independent water regulator. The management of SA’s water resources, including the processing of water-use licences, is being devolved to Catchment Management Agencies.

Legislation is on the president’s desk to establish a national water resource infrastructure agency that will take ownership of SA’s 350 large public dams, giving it the balance sheet to raise the finance for the huge investment SA needs in new dam and pipeline infrastructure. And then there’s the thorny issue of water pricing, which is still not cost reflective for the agriculture sector, which uses more than 60% of SA’s water.

All of those are tough challenges. But the department has at least paved the way for others on how to fix the basics of service delivery. And ironically, it’s only now that the water-use licence regulations are being updated to make the 90 days a requirement. The fact that the last set of regulations set the bar really low at 300 days didn’t stop a turnaround.

• Joffe is editor-at-large.

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