The rot starts at the bottom

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IOL CT_oped broken windows3 INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS It is time to run a broken windows campaign. I just started mine, by refusing to be party to what I feel to be tender-rigging, says the writer.

Catherine Wijnberg is starting her “broken windows” campaign, by refusing to be party to tender-rigging.

Cape Town - A few days ago I received an urgent call from the DTI asking me to submit a tender for training, along with a request to backdate the quote, as the closing date for the tender had already passed – even though I had not received any prior notice of the opportunity.

This is not the first time I have received such a request – the process of using dummy providers for alternative quotes in tenders is well known, both in the private and public sectors.

Such a “managed” tender method usually means that a provider has already been selected, and may in fact have been part of writing up the tender specifications themselves, but two alternative quotes are still needed to render the tender process valid.

These are either provided by unsuspecting puppets, or via dummy quotes written up by friends or colleagues who understand the status quo and are happy to help out, usually in return for future work.

Although this process is rife and readily accepted, I think it is time that as citizens of South Africa we start to question this type of incompetence (or is it corruption?) by asking three important questions.

First, in creating layers of bureaucracy and red tape around tenders, is it the integrity or the competency of those entrusted with managing the process that we doubt? Are we hiring the wrong people, or failing to train, mentor and motivate them? If we simply accept that people cannot do the job and choose rather to rely on rigid systems and processes to manage them, we are missing a huge opportunity to unlock their talent.

Ultimately, by mistrusting and disempowering staff we risk working with a circulating pool of mindless slaves to the process, rather than unleashing a workforce passionate about reaching their full potential as productive individuals.

The question is, are tick-boxes and checklists the only solution? Coming from the SME (small and medium-sized enterprises) sector where productivity and ROI (return on investment) are critical to success, and staff are often used at 110 percent in a flexible and cross-cutting manner, the rule-bound bureaucracy of government and the corporate sector is a frustrating concept.

Certainly as organisations grow, systems and processes are needed, but when checks and balances become more important than the people in position of authority, one has to wonder about the wasted brainpower of those paid to perform a role for which often the taxpayer foots the bill.

Second, if bending of the rules is a behaviour so accepted at the bottom end of the scale, is it any wonder that tender fraud exists all the way to the top? Our media are constantly filled with examples of corruption and tender-rigging in the government sector.

But what many people don’t realise is that it happens in the corporate sector too, only there it is called fraud and often results in criminal charges and job loss, so the incidence is somewhat lower.

Most likely if you investigate the culture of an organisation, public or private, you will find that when petty dishonesty is accepted at the bottom end, major dishonesty will be found in the leadership as well. The famous case of New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s “Broken Windows” strategy is worth reading.

This is the highly publicised strategy whereby his administration reduced overall crime (including major crimes such as murder) in the city by simply enforcing the minor rules such as litter and traffic violations.

So, if you are the leader of an organisation, when did you last do an audit of your staff’s acceptance of “petty crimes”, such as tender-rigging? And if you found it existed – what would you do about it?

Last and most important, what can be done to change things and get South Africa on the road to real productivity?

In plain language, our vast civil service is widely perceived as grossly unproductive at best and patently corrupt at worst, so how do we remedy this? As anyone passionate about productivity and performance knows, what you measure you manage, and what you manage you influence. However, simply deciding to measure something is not enough; one has to measure the right performance indicators, or things can go horribly wrong.

Let me illustrate with a simple example. Imagine a frustrated sales manager who wants to improve sales results among his underperforming team. He instructs his sales staff to record how many calls they make per day – setting a target for call performance, and some incentives to reach higher productivity.

As any experienced performance manager will know, the outcome of these efforts will be more calls, not necessarily more sales. If he wants to achieve improved sales, his measure should be “sales made” or “leads converted”. In this way good staff might spend the day researching, preparing and wining and dining prospects and far outperform a team member who religiously makes and ticks off dozens of calls a day.

I believe that a fundamental problem in government is that they measure, monitor and manage the wrong things. It is not the three quotes in the tender process that are crucial to success – it is the outcome of the tender itself.

It is not enough, for example, to simply measure outcomes (were the 100 people actually trained as promised”) but much more important to assess the impact or ultimate result of the training. How many of the newly trained people actually started a business, and survived a year? This is a far more powerful (and telling) measure of the success of the tender, but more difficult to quantify and track.

If we were measuring impact, our minister of education could not rest on the laurels of “I spent my budget”, but would be compelled to question “how many children passed matric, and at what cost?” or even better – “how many children completed university and entered the workforce, and at what cost?”

Simply put – the rot in government starts with their monitoring and evaluation process, one that is measuring and monitoring the wrong results. The expediency of tick-boxes and process not only encourages after-the-fact tender compliance measures, as I have experienced, but a general erosion of the free market system that any economy looking for growth and competitiveness desperately needs.

It is time to be far more rigorous about the performance we demand from our people, across the board.

I believe that it is time we all ran a “broken windows” campaign. I just started mine, by refusing to be party to what I feel to be tender-rigging.

What are you going to do?

* Catherine Wijnberg is an entrepreneur and innovative strategic thinker in the field of small business growth and development. She is director and founder of Fetola (www.fetola.co.za ) – business growth professionals for small and medium-sized organisations, who generate accelerated success of SMEs across South Africa. She holds a Masters degree in agriculture from the University of Queensland and an executive MBA from Henley Management College, and serves as a trustee and chairperson on several philanthropic boards.

** The views expressed heer are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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