Alarm over govt depts’ failure to answer calls, e-mails

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 31 May 2022

As government services increasingly become remote, the Democratic Alliance (DA) has raised the alarm that the majority of phone calls and e-mails sent to public sector departments go unanswered.

The official opposition has released the findings of its recent research, saying there is “near-complete collapse in government capacity”, with seven out of every 10 phone calls or e-mails to national or provincial departments going unanswered.

The damning DA research comes as the adoption of digital technologies has changed the trajectory and pace of delivery of services in the public sector.

After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, many government services shifted online, which means telephonic and e-mail communication became paramount.

Explaining the methodology used for the study, Dr Leon Schreiber, DA shadow minister for public service and administration, says: “Over the past three weeks, the DA tested the basic capability of 140 national and provincial government departments to answer telephone calls.

“From the South African Police Service, to provincial departments of roads and infrastructure, we systematically made at least three phone calls to each of these departments in order to ask a tailor-made question related to the work of the department. The contact information was principally sourced from the government contact directory. In each case, we rang the phone for at least 30 seconds.

“We also sent e-mails with questions that members of the public would realistically ask to 37 national government departments. For example, we asked the Department of Social Development for information on the current list of available grants. In the case of the Department of Mineral Resources [and Energy], we asked for information on how to apply for a mining permit.

“And at the basic education department, we enquired whether a learner could be expelled from school because she is pregnant. In cases where the initial e-mail was not answered, we followed up with two additional e-mails.”

At the end of this process, Schreiber says, each of the 140 national and provincial departments had received at least three separate phone calls, while each of the 37 national departments also received three e-mails.

In total, the DA made 420 phone calls and sent 111 e-mails, which according to Schreiber, was to ensure the accuracy of the analysis.

The Presidency and Department of Communications and Digital Technologies were also included in the research, with the DA saying they both failed to answer the phone or respond to e-mail.

According to the DA findings: “In total, 22 out of 37 national government departments failed to respond to e-mails. In seven of these cases, the department did not even have a working e-mail address at all. This means that e-mails from members of the public would never even reach the inboxes of these departments.”

It notes the seven departments without functional e-mail systems are agriculture, forestry and fisheries, arts and culture, energy, public enterprises, rural development and land reform, sports and recreation, as well as water affairs.

The study also found 15 departments failed to respond to e-mails, including the communications and Government Communication Information System (GCIS), while 24 national departments failed to answer the telephone after three separate attempts.

The situation, Schreiber says, is even more dire in the eight provinces run by the governing party, “to such an extent that only 22% of the 91 departments in those eight provinces have the capacity to answer a phone call after three separate attempts”.

ITWeb approached the GCIS for comment, but more than 24 hours later, it had not responded by the time of publication.