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November 13, 2006
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 The H.R. Doctor Is In

Repeat after Me: ‘Batho Pele’

This is one of several HR Doctor articles stemming from an amazing trip to the Republic of South Africa to speak at the annual conference of the Institute of Municipal Personnel Practitioners of Southern Africa (IMPSA).

There is a great excitement in the air about this country. From the moment we landed at Cape Town airport and entered a large, bright, clean arrival terminal with signs proclaiming "Welcome to the Republic of South Africa," we could sense a great pride and a great realism.

South Africa has begun its second decade of democracy and freedom from the segregation and discrimination of the apartheid era.

The core government policy in this second decade of independence from apartheid is a very simple but very compelling concept - "Batho Pele." It means "people first" in the Sesotho language. This is the single most important concept in public sector service transformation and improvement.

The role of the government service, indeed, the role of every employee of government is to think, work and act with a commitment to serve the people, not themselves.

The Batho Pele motto is driven by the tremendous need for great human resources.

It is true that great HR is the catalyst in any work or service environment. Whether it is police, fire, public works, health, recreation, the managers will not succeed and the services will not be well delivered unless personnel decisions are made ethically and efficiently.

That was the real theme of the conference, which united HR leaders in municipalities throughout South African government at this four-day gathering. That was the theme which transcended people from different regions, different tribal backgrounds, different languages and different customs.

Batho Pele centers on eight major principles or guidelines:

  • consultation and collaboration
  • setting and communicating service standards
  • courtesy
  • access to services and to government employees
  • information access and sharing
  • openness and "transparency" about how decisions are made
  • dealing effectively with complaints, and
  • giving "best value."

Provinces are free to add to the list. In the province where much of our visit took place, KwaZulu-Natal, two additional principles have been added to Batho Pele:

  • innovation and rewarding excellence, and
  • customer impact.

Batho Pele was reflected in a quote from the 2006 State of the Nation address by South African President Thabo Mbeki: "We cannot allow that government departments become an obstacle to the achievement of the goal of a better life for all because of inefficient, insufficient attention to the central issues of effective and speedy delivery services. Government cannot become an obstacle" - What a great thought! Batho Pele cannot work and becomes merely a slogan in an environment where government employees, in South Africa, or in the USA, think of themselves instead of their clients.

It was hard to hear in any of the themes presented at the conference or, more importantly, the private conversations between people at the conference, the use of the words "I" or "mine." Rather, the dominant phrases were "ours," "our nation" and "we." There was an excitement here that reminded the HR Doctor - a student of history - of what it must have been like to be in America at the time of expansion of the country over the horizon into new territory.

A vision of the country spanning the part of the continent from one ocean to the other, growing, developing and strengthening is the same vision present in South Africa today. However, it is mixed with a clear dose of reality for the many and huge obstacles standing in the way of this vision. These barricades include a public sector workforce where 90 percent of the employees have few or no skills. Many are illiterate. Many speak one or two languages but they are living in a world where 11 languages are recognized as "official."

Imagine communication and management challenges in a world of 11 official languages and a workforce with only 2 percent management and 8 percent skilled employees. The training and development need for effective and personal communication is extraordinary.

It’s not a matter of writing a memo or sending an e-mail. For a manager, it may be a matter of physically going to the scene of an HR need, perhaps accompanied by a translator, and conveying a message from one human being to another looking one another directly in the face. The sense of realism mixed well with the sense of vision and passion echoed throughout this visit.

For all of America’s greatness, we are also in need of a "vision transplant." It is nowhere near enough to have a vision that is tactical or short-term, such as avoiding embarrassment until the next election or making it through to retirement vesting. Rather, there is a need for Batho Pele, a dominant rallying cry that can unite a government agency, millions of people, or be a focal point of continuous innovation and improvement.

Do we have something to learn from the ambitious, positive future being dreamt about and acted on in South Africa? Think about it! Then repeat after me: "Batho Pele!"

All the best,

Phil Rosenberg

The HR Doctor •


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