Lutsinga: Striking the right service delivery nerve through technology

The Gauteng department of infrastructure development has been delivering a huge variety of projects, with more in the pipeline

The Gauteng department of infrastructure development has been delivering a huge variety of projects, with more in the pipeline

Monday is one of the most important days on the calendar at the Gauteng department of infrastructure development’s (GDID) offices at 63 Fox Street in the heart of the bustling Johannesburg CBD, the heartbeat of Gauteng’s multi-billion rand economy.

It is in the spacious state-of-the-art Lutsinga Infrastructure House on the ground floor of the 17-storey building that every 2pm without fail, MEC Jacob Mamabolo, heads of departments, directors general, their deputies, project managers and other senior staff gather for some dead serious business.

With its long rectangular wooden tables, microphones and black leather chairs, Lutsinga resembles any ordinary government department’s boardroom, save for the large high-definition screens mounted on the walls.

Here, using innovative technology developed in-house by GDID staff, Mamabolo and his team are able to monitor progress on all construction and maintenance projects falling under the department’s jurisdiction.

The space where the Lutsinga is now based was just an unused part of the building until Mamabolo took the reins as MEC, following a reshuffle of the provincial executive by premier David Makhura seven months ago. Mamabolo was moved from his portfolio as human settlements MEC to GDID, which is the custodian of all Gauteng’s immovable assets, totalling more than R30-billion. At human settlements his mandate was to build houses for the people; now he is responsible for building schools, clinics, heritage sites, government service delivery points — and also maintaining them. It’s a daunting task by all accounts, but Mamabolo is passionate about effecting positive change in society, and he brings also with him a bag full of handy tricks.

“In March we agreed to create an Infrastructure House, put all systems under one roof,” Mamabolo told the Mail & Guardian from Lutsinga recently.

“From where I’m sitting, this is the best I could do. [It is] one major intervention, accounting for every single cent spent,” he said with deep passion and pride, like a schoolteacher celebrating the completion of a daunting challenge by his class. 

Lutsinga, which means “nerve” in Venda, serves as the operations nerve centre and performance monitor of operations for the GDID. With its slogan “staying ahead of times in infrastructure delivery” it has already attracted interest from other African countries, including Uganda and Botswana.

Launching the project in Johannesburg in May, Mamabolo explained the changes to be brought about through Lutsinga. “Gone are the days where project managers would run projects from Excel spreadsheets and scraps of paper that only they understand. We are automating the reporting process so that reporting lines are clear, standardised and transparent, which will allow the department and all its stakeholders to get inside the project delivery life cycle.”

In his budget speech before the Gauteng Provincial Legislature in May, Mamabolo revealed that setting up Lutsinga cost slightly below R5-million. The system houses all five of the GDID’s core delivery technology systems, which include the Immovable Asset Register, the Project Management System, the e-Maintenance for Health Facilities, the Expanded Public Works Programme and the Lutsinga Infrastructure Monitor.

Lutsinga aims to stay ahead of the times “through smart technologies, innovation, partnering, benchmarking and ethical people”.

Mamabolo spoke passionately about the Lutsinga project, which he described as the bedrock and sounding board of service delivery performance.

“Every Monday without fail I sit here and chair what we call [the] Operations Management Committee Meeting (Opscom) at 2pm. I sit with all HODs, DDGs and senior project managers and go through dashboards,” said Mamabolo.

Among the progressive technological innovations in Lutsinga is software that enables participants of the Opscom to have direct contact with project managers onsite. Project managers use smartphones to pan through the construction site, explaining in great detail progress on the work done, while the Opscom participants watch on the big screens and when necessary, fire incisive questions.

Lutsinga has not only helped to provide a detailed progress report on projects but has also created a platform for all those involved in projects to be held accountable. Mamabolo said one of the major reasons he pioneered the establishment of Lutsinga Infrastructure House was to help curb such ills as corruption and inefficiency by service providers.

He said infrastructure development and delivery is so critical to economic growth and the development of society that national government has poured R1-trillion into infrastructure delivery nationwide. But presiding over infrastructure development, especially in a province faced with annual rapid population growth such as Gauteng — which at the last census in 2011 had a population of close to 12-million — is not without its challenges.

“The biggest problem we have is that how do we make sure that every single rand, every cent dedicated to infrastructure delivers infrastructure and touches the lives of the people? That is the big question I’ve been trying to resolve. Every cent matters. This is public money and we have to make sure that it does exactly what it has to do,” he said.

Mamabolo cited among others massive inefficiency and corruption by service providers and some project managers, whose inept and crooked actions lead to “pouring government money into the drainage system; literally taking government money and running it into the drain instead of delivering infrastructure.”

He lamented the disturbing fact that “a massive percentage of money goes to waste and very little remains that impacts and touches living conditions of the people”.

Mamabolo doesn’t mince his words when confronting the scourge that has threatened to cripple his department’s core mandate to deliver and maintain state infrastructure for the betterment of people’s lives.

“At the heart of it, it’s massive inefficiencies that make it possible for a number of syndicates to collude around taking money from government. People who run infrastructure, who deliver infrastructure run it in an environment I call ‘black boxes’. These black boxes are spaces that are only known by them and nobody else,” said Mamabolo. “Project managers and service providers: they work in dark corners. They work in sealed black boxes and there is no transparency. We have got to address the inefficiencies and delivery of infrastructure. We have to change the delivery value chain of infrastructure. [That is why] I said we need to bring [in new] technology.”

Hence Lutsinga was born and now forms a central part of operations at GDID.

“If you are driving any serious service delivery or any programme that is supposed to give you results and you don’t have dashboards, you will never see what you are doing,” argued Mamabolo.

Through the dashboards at Lutsinga Infrastructure House, Mamabolo and his team can monitor the progress of each project, see the number of projects lagging behind and those nearing completion or totally complete.

Unlike in the past where the wheels of government bureaucracy dragged ever slower in a bid to bring slackers to account, through the dashboards accountability has become a rapid and much more interactive process.

Mamabolo explained that the importance of infrastructure in changing the performance of the economy is a case already made, but the inefficient and ineffective management of the budget is the big problem hampering development.

“Running infrastructure at a cost that is dodgy, rising costs, quality of output very poor, contractors doing messy work, the time it takes to complete projects and impact people is very poor. We are not doing well on those,” he said.

But Mamabolo is taking the fight against such problems head on.

“We need to make sure every rand touches lives. If we don’t do that we will run down this country by allowing people to run government money into the drain.”