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This article is taken from the December 2004 Phatlalatsa newsletter


Service standards

Service standards imageFor the past 12 months Matthew has been engaged by the Office of the Public Service to conduct a national assessment of the state of service standards currently being used by national and provincial departments. In this assessment Matthew explored whether departments had service standards, what the quality of these standards were, and whether departments used these standards to inform initiatives to improve service delivery. Here he provides an overview of what is meant by service standards and why it is important for government departments to have service standards.

Why service standards?

A transformed South African public service will be judged above all by one criterion: its effectiveness in delivering services which meet the basic needs of all South African citizens. Improving service delivery is therefore the ultimate goal of the public service transformation programme as “public services are not a privilege in a civilised and democratic society: they are a legitimate expectation ” (Batho Pele White Paper).

South Africans want better quality services from all levels of government. For instance they want respectful and courteous service; shorter queues; and no misplaced documents. However, at the same time South Africans want government ‘to do more with less' and for government to become more efficient with their taxes. These are not new demands, but citizens of this country are becoming more vocal in their displeasure with poor service delivery, so much so that President Mbeki in his State of the Nation Address at the opening of our Third Democratic Parliament, May 2004, committed the government to:

Achieve further and visible advances with regard to the improvement of the quality of life of our people, affecting many critical areas of social existence, including health, safety and security, moral regeneration, social cohesion, opening the doors of culture and education to all, and …ensure that the Public Service discharges its responsibilities to our people as a critical player in the process of growth, reconstruction and development of our country.

The President's vision for the next five years is based on a foundation of a transformed Public Service delivering “people centered” services which is “characterized by equity, quality, timeousness and a strong code of ethics” (Mission of the SA Public Service,). For the past 10 years the democratic government led first by President Mandela and now President Mbeki have been creating a government-wide focus on results which has gradually seen the shift away from simply measuring outputs to a government that now focuses on outcomes. A critical component of measuring outcomes are service standards (service standards). For it is s/ standards that signify to citizens the desirable outcome a department is striving for in terms of service delivery. In essence a service standard 1 is a criterion adopted by a department defining how it should behave towards its citizens.

1 It is important to distinguish between a service standard (i.e. a client focussed standard) and operational performance standards. The latter is an internal management measure that is specific to the quality assurance criterion operating within a sector, e.g. ISO defined standards for bridge and road building or norms and standards used to accredit and quality assure a hospital.

It is also worth noting that Government departments are obliged to develop s/ standards, as stipulated in both the Public Service Regulations and the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA). Departments who have no s/ standards have failed to meet this obligation and have therefore not complied with these directives.

Public Service Regulations (C1 & C2, No 20117, July 1999) specify that an executing authority shall establish and sustain an SDIP for her/his department, which should incorporate s/ standards. Moreover, as noted above, Departments are expected to publish their s/ standards in their annual report as part of their accountability to the citizens of this country. They are also to make reference in their annual report what steps the department is taking to meet these s/ standards. Thus departments are expected to establish and monitor s/ standards and use these as part of their initiative to improve the delivery of services to citizens of this country.

The PFMA (Act No. 1 of 1999) stipulates that strategic plans cannot be developed in isolation and that they must be integrally linked to a department's SDIP. Moreover, the PFMA department emphasises the importance of regular monitoring and reporting against measurable objectives, which are linked to outputs and service delivery indicators (Section 27(4) of the PFMA). In accordance with Section 65 of the PFMA departments table annual reports, which should account for the progress a department has made in meeting its service delivery indicators and thereby inform the public as to the performance the department has achieved in meeting the service delivery standards it has set.

Moreover, A recent judgment (unanimous decision) in the constitutional court has linked the equality clause in the constitution, Section 126(3) to the need for government departments to have a set of minimum standards. In Mashavha v President of the Republic of South Africa and others (CCT67/03), Justice van der Westhuizen found that there was a strong link between delivery of services, in this case social assistance by way of a disability grant, and human dignity, a value upheld by our constitution. The judgment went further and found that social assistance should be:

Regulated or co-ordinated by uniform norms and standards that apply generally throughout the Republic, for effective performance. Effective regulation and effective performance do not only include procedural and administrative efficiency and accuracy, but also fairness and equality for example as far as the distribution and application of resources and assistance are concerned. A system which disregards historical injustices and offends the constitutional values of equality and dignity could result in instability, which would be the antithesis of effective regulation and performance. (See: para 57 page 33)

Although the judgment dated 6 September 2004 deals with issues under the Interim Constitution (IC) and the old Social Assistance Act (SAA) it has far reaching implications for the requirement of developing uniform s/ standards in South Africa.

What are service standards?

The role of service standards – a shortened form of the phrase ‘standards of service' – is to typically answer questions such as: how often will the service be provided? how long should it take to receive the service? and what does one do if one is not satisfied with the service? Thus service standards inform citizens about what kind of service they can expect from a department, and this is usually done in the form of a statement that describes what level of service will be provided to citizens. In essence, a service standard is a criterion adopted by a department in order to define how it should behave with respect to its client base (client base may be internal or external).

Service standards also signify the goals that a particular department is striving for in terms of improving its service delivery. By establishing standards for aspects of delivery such as cost, quality and frequency helps departments improve a broad range of the services they offer.

Every day examples of service standards include:

Department of X: Forensic investigations plans will be produced within 5 working days of fraud having been detected

Department Z: Each Action Request logged with the IT helpdesk will be followed by an updated call within 1 day

Department of Y: We will answer the phone within 5 rings

Departments develop service standards in order to do away with ambiguity and thereby ensure that citizens have realistic expectations about the nature of the services being delivered by a department. Service standards also promote a culture of effectiveness and efficiency as they are typically used by managers in a department to measure the performance of that department. Importantly within the South African context, service standards promote accountability and transparency as standards are a public commitment by a department that they will deliver services that meet the needs of the public.

Service standards are not the same as a service target. A service target, is only one component of a service standard. A target can be seen as a goal a department is ultimately working towards or can be referred to as:

Service Standard components

A service standard is more than simply a delivery target such as reducing waiting times or speeding up response times. Typically, rigorous service standards incorporate five different aspects. These are a description of the service; a service pledge or commitment; a delivery target; the cost of the service; and complaint and redress mechanisms. Expanding on these aspects, a service standard should therefore incorporate the following:

Description: The description provides the details on the service that the department intends to provide, and where applicable the nature of the benefits the citizen can expect to receive. Usually, the service standard includes a short, easy to understand, statement that describes exactly what services are provided at a particular delivery site.


• Process an application for a Foster Grant

• Issue a passport

Service Commitment: The service commitment refers to how citizens will be treated and describes the quality of the service delivery, which the department promises to meet. This commitment would typically emphasize delivery principles such as transparency, accountability, fairness and courtesy.

Service Commitment:

• Our staff will be knowledgeable, responsive, cooperative and available

• We will strive to make information available in all official languages

Delivery Targets: Delivery targets refer to the key aspects of the specific service delivery being referred to in the s/ standards. Generally delivery targets would deal with issues such as access and timeliness. Targets have a two-fold purpose: they help to establish realistic expectations among citizens, based on what the department can actually delivery, and the establish performance expectations for the department.

Delivery Target:

• We will respond to all correspondence within 10 days

• We will process your application within 30 days

Cost: It is important that citizens know about the cost of a service, even when there are no user fees. Knowing the cost of a service, in particular when it is either free or requires only a low fee, encourages citizens to use the service, form realistic expectations about the services being offered, and allows them to participate knowledgeably in debates about the value of government service delivery.


• We will proactively provide our clients with accurate, up-to-date and reliable information concerning the cost of services provided by this department

• No user fee will be charged to clients who utilise this service

Complaint and Redress Mechanisms: It is important that mechanisms are in place to deal with the concerns of citizens when they feel that a department has not met the s/ standards it has promised. In addition, such mechanisms provide a means by which a department can assess the quality of its delivery. A Public Service “that is responsive and client-focussed must provide an easy, clear and effective way for clients to complain and seek redress” 2.

Complaint and Redress Mechanisms:

• We will respond to your complaint within 10 working days of receipt. However, if your complaint requires extensive follow-up, we will contact you within the 10-day period to explain why and when you may expect a full response.

• If you are unhappy with the way you have been dealt with at this police station, you should complain first to the Station Head (Senior Supt…). If you are still not satisfied you can refer the complaint to… If you are dissatisfied with their response you can ask ….

Implementing Service Standards

The DPSA's Batho Pele Handbook (2003), provides a useful framework for departments. It notes that there are five key pre-requisites managers within a department must ensure are in place in order to set standards, namely:

  • Managers must believe that service standards will play a useful role in improving service delivery
  • Departments must have the capacity to develop robust standards;
  • Departments must have the resources to develop and implement service standards, and be able to measure progress against the standards;
  • Departments must be able to promote their service standards and thereby educate citizens and other potential users about their rights with regards to service delivery; and
  • Departments must realise that service standards must be developed that are specific to the needs of a particular customer.

The Handbook also provides a very helpful guide to departments on the approach that they should use in developing service standards. In brief, the six steps suggested by the DPSA are:

  • Know your business – i.e. identify users, stakeholders, and be clear about the vision and mission of the department and what services you can afford to offer.
  • Consult – talk to citizens to see what is working and what is not working and thus needs to be improved.
  • Set standards – make sure that they are sensitive to the needs of your users and address issues such as time, quality, quantity and cost.
  • Empower staff – make sure that employees have the capacity to deliver services to the standards that have been set.
  • Communicate – citizens must be made aware of the standards that the department has committed itself to.

Monitoring Service Standards

Service standards should not simply be seen as ‘nice to have' or simply meeting regulatory requirements, they must be used to assess the performance of the department. When service standards have been established, verification mechanisms need to be identified for each service standard. This will enable a department to monitor on a regular basis the progress it is making towards achieving the standards. At the outset the department should outline how it will monitor and report on progress being made against the s/ standards. Moreover, the department should indicate what will be monitored, what methods it will use in the gathering of data, the frequency by which the results will be reported and to whom the results will be reported. In this way service standards become an essential component of a department's performance management system and ultimately will contribute to ensuring that the President's vision for a transformed public service that meets the delivery needs of its citizens is achieved.

2 Quality and affordable service for Canadians: Establishing S/ standards in the Federal Government. Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat: Government of Canada . 1 December 1994 . p. 3.


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