Year of achieving the impossible leaves Sassa, and SA, stronger
Tomorrow will be one year since President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a R500bn stimulus package in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The package included several measures targeting the poor and vulnerable, including a temporary increase in various categories of social grants, and subsidies to those who had lost their jobs because of the national lockdown announced in March.
The South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) was therefore among the first responders in implementing phase 1 of the relief measures, through the top-up amounts added to existing social grants and the social relief grant for people in distress.
At the time of the announcement, the president indicated that R20bn had been set aside for the relief of hunger and distress experienced by unemployed citizens, which was to be implemented using a technology-based solution. The initiative was envisaged to be through food vouchers.
In addition, the top-up amounts added to social grants for Sassa’s existing clients demanded quick enhancements to our legacy system to pay these by May 2020, in line with the president’s commitment to the nation. Sassa uses a mainframe system to process and pay social grants, which requires four to six weeks’ lead time to make any changes — and we had only two weeks.
As a result of the limited time to test the enhancements made, several over- and underpayments were made in May 2020. We were, fortunately, able to reverse these within a day, saving Sassa from a potential loss of over R1bn.
The challenge during the May payments involved those for whom no payment had been generated. Many left their homes in the early hours of the morning to collect their grant but could only get it in the afternoon. They did, however, receive their money on the same day.
This has been the hardest South African project I have ever been involved in — and I have been involved in many developmental and reconstruction projects.
We believed our solution would not only help in the implementation of the new grant, but would also change the way we deliver our current business, which includes seven social grant types, reaching 11.3-million beneficiaries through 18-million grants.
Sassa has in the past been accused of cutting corners on procurement processes. We therefore had to ensure that whatever processes and technology we implemented went through the proper procurement gates.
We rolled out the on-boarding pilot from endApril 2020 and in May. This was an entirely new application, being implemented electronically with citizens being able to apply through text messages, WhatsApp, e-mails and websites.
The implementation came during level 5 of the lockdown, which added to the complications. Despite much criticism that the electronic process would not work, we received over 6-million applications in the first month.
The next challenge was to put processes in place to electronically process the applications. This required verifying the information provided by the applicant against data held by other government departments and agencies.
The most important process was vetting of qualifying clients to prevent double-dipping. We did this through home affairs, the Unemployment Insurance Fund, the South African Revenue Service and many other databases from departments that were dealing with their own Covid-19 pressures.
One of the major lessons learnt from the implementation of the support package was the impact of the lack of information.
There was no comprehensive database reflecting the employment status of all citizens in this country. Each department collects information for its own purposes only; there is not a comprehensive, integrated database on each citizen — apart from the population register.
There should be a single database, which can be accessed by the various government departments to ensure that there is a co-ordinated response to meet citizens’ needs and ensure that no-one exists below a certain level of support.
A further lesson learnt — and one we are still grappling with — is how best to deliver the money to the approved clients.
The initial intention was to pay the approved money directly into citizens’ bank accounts. But we discovered that many citizens “share” bank accounts — one family member has an account and everyone’s transactions flow through it.
The second option was to pay mobile money to cellphones, but the same challenge was experienced: people have cellphones, but they are not necessarily registered in their name.
An alternative had to be found quickly. We decided to use the Post Office, with which we already had a good relationship.
The downside is the cost and the inconvenience to the clients, who have to report in person to collect the funds. This has exacerbated queues at a time when social distancing is paramount.
The implementation of the relief grant has resulted in the government having a current database of unemployed people. This information can be used to stimulate other discussions, from how we use this data to develop employment opportunities, to how we strengthen processes to ensure support goes to the most vulnerable, to how we harness alternative payment platforms while not compromising on the controls that allow us to confirm that the right person received the funds.
We have received international recognition for the measures implemented to assist citizens during the pandemic. The International Social Security Association acknowledged the strides made by Sassa in implementing what is effectively a new grant through a completely new electronic system reaching a previously unserviced population within a period of less than a month.
In SA, however, attention has been concentrated on the less than 10% of approved applicants who have not yet been paid.
As Sassa, we might not have had a perfect year, but we have learnt much and come out stronger, which will greatly benefit the government and the people of SA.
This has been the hardest South African project I have ever been involved in — and I have been involved in many