At the 8th annual Trialogue CSI conference held in Johannesburg on 5 and 6 May 2015, two NGOs ¬and two social workers presented on how they banded together to beat a bureaucratic barrier to child protection in the Ugu district of KwaZulu-Natal.  

When it comes to policy, South Africa’s legal provisions make for some of the most progressive social service delivery solutions in the world. “The problem is that there’s a wall between policy and practice,” says Sonja Giese of Innovation Edge – part of a R90 million donor partnership called Ilifa Labantwana, which supports Early Childhood Development (ECD) in South Africa. This so-called wall leaves the target beneficiaries of these policies, like marginalised children, playing a figurative game of piggy in the middle when they should be playing in registered ECD centres that meet the norms and standards.

“The Department of Social Development (DSD) is where Home Affairs was 10 years ago – in need of a turnaround strategy,” says Brian Liggett of the Network Action Group, a non-profit organisation that’s bolstering Community Based Organisations. “We know we need systems that work because systems inefficiency in the development space compounds marginalisation.”

The Chilean philosopher Humberto Maturana said, “You can never direct a living system, you can only disturb it.” So Brian and Sonja set out to solve the conundrum of how to disturb the DSD’s ECD centre registration system in the right direction.

There are 40 000 ECD centres in South Africa with associated legal and safety regulation requirements, but in order to be regulated you have to be registered. At present 1 500 ECD centres are registered per annum. That figure needs to be 15 000 to adequately address need.

In the Ugu district, where Brian and Sonja piloted their system enhancement, there are 6 573 children in registered ECD centres, yet 88 000 children need to be in registered centres. The average time-period for registration pre-intervention was 2-3 years, but post intervention it’s now 2-3 months.

Unblocking the ECD centre registration flow

A national audit indicated that 230 ECD sites existed in the area, but NAG was certain there was close to 400. Step one was to find those sites and pin them on the map. A tracker was needed and obtained in a woman named Zola.

“Zola was like a San tracker with a nose for ECD centres. Sometimes she’d walk up and down one road for two hours before finding an almost invisible site. This is obviously dangerous for children and highlights the relevance of registering ECD centres to children protection.”

The second step was to set up working groups called Jamborees comprising social workers, environmental health officers and ECD centre owners. Regular Jamboree meetings were held to impart information and kick-start processes. The necessary forms and norms were handed out and explained at Jamborees.

The third step was to interrogate the registration process and a number of bottlenecks were uncovered, such as ECD centres having to register as NPOs before applying for ECD registration causing lengthy delays, and environmental health inspectors and social workers visiting and reporting on sites at different times. This has since been streamlined so these processes can take place concurrently.

The fourth, final and most crucial step was to analyse workflow. Brian and Sonja looked to technology for solutions, “But we couldn’t just bring in technology without a platform in place for maintenance and sustainability.”

The solution presented itself in the form of factory workflow boards, discovered while researching practices in the private sector. “An online system is nice, but you will never replace this board,” said the factory owner who advised Brian and Sonja. Social workers Nonkhonzo Mathenjwa and Nompilo Mbatha of the Umzumbe service office agree. They call the boards their ‘therapy’ boards because at any given time they can see where the registration process is being stalled and it shifts the blame from them.

The boards comprise columns representing each step in the registration process. Applicants’ details are written on cards and moved along the board as they progress. “The boards are simple and cheap and can be applied to any system, anywhere. Ilifa Labantawana is rolling this system out to 28 offices, before moving to assist the North West and hopefully other provinces,” says Sonja.

Are there any limitation and challenges to the system? A lot hinges on pinning the whereabouts of a district’s unregistered ECD sites. A knowledgeable tracker like Zola is not always available and even with a tracker transport, roads, and lack of mobile communication systems pose a problem. Success also hinges on collaboration between government, NGOs and the private sector, which is often challenged by frequent staff changes within government.

“Remember that this is a system, nested within a system, within a system,” says Sonja. It’s critical to look at all the levels and to implement boards at each cluster or district to improve flow for overall success.”

Written by Rose Cohen.