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Home affairs deploys tech to fight snaking queues

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The Department of Home Affairs (DHA) is developing an online appointment system to mitigate challenges such as long queues at its branches, as well as the illegal practice of blocking slots to sell them.

Department officials revealed this information to the home affairs portfolio committee in Parliament this week, in an update on the interventions it is taking in its war on queues and network challenges.

The DHA – whose core function is to manage identity, civil status and migration of citizens – has embarked on a modernisation process of its systems and services, which includes the "war on queues" campaign.

Home affairs director-general (DG) Livhuwani Tommy Makhode told the committee the appointment system is akin to the one clients use to make bookings for passports and smart ID cards with their respective banks.

“We have just developed this appointment system, which has been finalised,” he states. “This [has been done] in-house, working with colleagues from SARS, and we believe that we will be able to deploy this appointment system.”

According to implementation estimates, the department is looking to deploy the appointment system this financial year (2021/22), with the DG noting it will be gradually deployed, starting at the offices with high traffic volumes.

“This appointment system is integrated to the national population register; therefore, allowing clients to use their ID numbers to book a slot. We believe this will prevent agents that operate illegally in some offices from blocking slots. We do know that they then sell those [slots] to clients.”

Makhode indicates the system consists of three segments. The first allows the client to enter his/her ID number; the second part allows them to provide details such as name, contact number and e-mail address; and then complete the process when they get to the third step.

“You will also have the option to edit the appointment date if you change your mind, in terms of the time you would have chosen for the slot, and enter the preferred time.

“The system will allow users to select an appointment slot, province and the branch office. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we also thought it’s important to include a declaration form which a client will need to complete and then confirm their appointment, etc.

“We are also exploring, through our own internal developers, how to add other multimedia platforms, and that includes WhatsApp and USSD on the appointment system. This is to enable better access for almost everyone.”

Sorry, we’re offline

It’s become common knowledge that DHA offices experience interruptions and network downtime issues more often than not, something minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi decried as an ongoing issue for several years now in his opening remarks to the committee.

On the issues of unstable systems and network downtime, the DG says the department has engaged with the State IT Agency (SITA) to address some of these challenges.

“Some of the disconnected sites were attended to, and we believe those that were attended to are now resolved,” he states.

“Secondly, we have been in discussions with SITA to look at a go-to market strategy for access links. The minister of communications and digital technologies has spoken to issues of procurement to enable us to avoid this onerous procurement process that has long been awaited by the Department of Home Affairs.”

According to Makhode, one of the things the department needs to do is ensure upgrades and maintenance of the dilapidated network equipment, particularly its routers and switches.

The second task, he notes, is upgrading the switching centres, and the third is around the expansion of the SITA core network in order to reduce regional network outages.

“We are also exploring alternative services and ensuring we look at other service providers, whether that speaks to mobile or fibre where it is appropriate.”

Boosting bank cooperation

Commenting on the partnerships with the banks to offer some home affairs services, in particular the application of smart IDs and passports, Makhode said it really needed to be strengthened.

When it introduced eHomeAffairs in 2016, the DHA partnered with major banking outlets – First National Bank, Absa, Nedbank and Standard Bank – to fast-track the rollout of smart ID cards and replace green-barcoded ID booklets.

eHomeAffairs allows citizens to skip the long queues at home affairs branches by making applications online. Using the portal, citizens are able to apply for their smart IDs and passports online, and finalise the application process at certain bank branches.

Says Makhode: “We’ve been having discussions with SITA to ensure there is dual connectivity because that’s what the banks have been asking us for.

“Currently, there are 27 bank branches that are operational and available to service clients requiring DHA services. We envisage that once issues around the dual connectivity are sorted, we will be able to roll out to a further 43 sites.

“This initiative mainly assists us with reducing long queues at our offices, but also to expand the service platforms and allow citizens to apply for smart ID cards and passports online.

“We will continue to roll out these pilot sites as soon as possible,” he concludes.

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