The Thusong Programme
After storming the Department of Home Affairs in Somerset West earlier, our second meeting of the day saw us chatting with Western Cape provincial government officials about the Thusong Programme. The Thusong Programme is a collection of community-level interventions organized by local municipalities (in partnership with provincial and federal government departments) which seek to ensure equitable access to government services. What stood out from our conversation with these officials was the extent to which the delivery of service is user-centric. For example, Thusong Centres serviced by government departments place an equal emphasis on informing local populations on how the programs benefit them as they do on actually providing individuals with assistance. Moreover, in many cases, Thusong mobile units travel to extremely remote areas to provide essential services. Both of these examples reflect an acknowledgement on the part of municipalities and government departments that reaching the hard to reach requires the state to be active in its pursuit of leaving no-one behind. The lesson: while opt-out policies are often the most behaviourally effective (consider organ donations, for example), the delivery of government services to hard to reach populations is optimized when the government itself ‘opts-in’. Not only does the government have to be relentless in its pursuit of universal reach but it also has to ensure that each interaction a citizen has with social service agencies is seamless. We have heard numerous anecdotes about bureaucrats treating those seeking government aid in an apathetic and condescending number. Such behaviour fails to engender the public’s trust in government. The lesson: to quote Maya Angelou, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Our final meeting of the day brought us together with a child right’s advocate whose extensive writings on birth registration were excellent preparatory material for our field research. We covered a wide range of topics - from shifts in the legal requirements for birth registration to the role of civil society organizations to public reactions towards the inefficient delivery of social services. This was one of the most productive meetings we’ve had thus far, and our discussion on child support grants was particularly enlightening and inspiring. According to this advocate, there was a massive push on the part of civil society to implement child support grants, and subsequently ensure the extension of the age of eligibility to 18 years. It is this push that has catalyzed the increase in birth registrations across South Africa. This is an important takeaway: he goal of many locals was to obtain the child support grant, and birth registration was simply seen as a means to an end; an enabling document of sorts. The lesson: don’t assume that your research topic is the cause; in many cases, it is the effect produced by other factors at play. A second highlight of this meeting focused on both the public and the government’s respective perceptions of the delivery of social services. Due to the high demand for the child support grant, there are many cases of fraud. As such, officials treat every applicant as fraudulent and this, in turn, fails to engender trust in the system amongst the public. In richer areas, the government is more likely to question application for grants whereas in poorer areas, government offices recognize the need to cast the net wider. Though the documentation required to successfully obtain a grant pose a high enough barrier that fraudulent claims should be limited, the government’s suspicion of applicants is cause for concern - it means that many eligible applicants are treated with undue suspicion and, as a result, are hesitant to engage with the system. The lesson: the cost of excluding people from social services is greater than the cost of fraud in the system.