Why the private sector is more responsive than govt

Jack Bloom says the state is slow moving, indifferent and inept

A 16-story government-owned building with 302 flats has stood empty for two years because the lifts have not been fixed.

I discovered this when I visited the residential buildings next to the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Hospital that were built to accommodate student nurses.

The hospital blames the provincial public works department, but this is only part of the problem.

Government departments often don't even know how many properties they have, what they are worth and what their current condition is.

Year after year the Auditor General complains about their inadequate asset registers.

It would be unthinkable for private companies not to know what they own and to strive to make best use of all assets.

They would be highly unlikely to abandon a building merely because the lifts are broken since fixing them speedily would enable profit to be made from tenants.

But the workings of government are typically slow, and there are different incentives to that in the private sector.

There are no shareholders to push for profits and dividend payments.

Nor is there a daily share price that influences the behavior of company directors.

Government bureaucrats can relax safely in the knowledge that departments will not go out of business even if they fail abysmally.

They have no competition for services like identity documents and drivers licences.

Whereas a company would expand production and opening times to accommodate consumer demand, government departments will bumble along unless public outrage forces change.

A spokesman for the Gauteng department of roads and transport has admitted that the call centre receives "500 000 calls a month, but they can help only 66 000 per month. This means we can answer only one in every five calls."

An improvement was only promised after magistrate Daniel Thulare ruled that motorists could drive without licenses as long as they could prove that their learners' licences had expired while waiting for a date to be tested for a drivers' licence.

A state utility like Eskom suffers from political appointments and directives. Former Eskom boss Ian McRae says that "Eskom would have been spot-on if government had not interfered" as new generating capacity would have come on stream in 2006 if the planned power investment plan had gone ahead in the 1990s.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan noted in his budget speech that "Too often, the culture in the public service and in state owned enterprises is to ratchet up salaries, spend on frills, travel in luxury and spend more on marketing the agency than in fixing the service."

When companies become too bureaucratic and unresponsive to consumers, they will get a sharp wake-up call when they lose business to competitors who offer better service.

Toyota became complacent about their safety record, and are now paying a heavy price with mass vehicle recalls and loss of consumer trust.

But what will jolt the Gauteng Health Department into running a better service and not wasting assets like the Kempton Park hospital that has been empty for the last 12 years?

Patients should be less submissive and demand what is set out in the Patients Rights Charter.

Their best weapon, however, is at election time when they should vote out parties that fail to deliver. Otherwise they have no-one to blame but themselves.

Jack Bloom is a Democratic Alliance member of the Gauteng Legislature. This article first appeared in The Citizen

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