Military Veterans database & call centre progress report; 2016 BRRR implementation

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Defence and Military Veterans

25 October 2017
Chairperson: Mr M Motimele (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Military Veterans (DMV) briefed the Committee on progress with the modernisation and implementation of the Department’s integrated database management system, and the migration of its call centre.

The DMV said it was concerned at the slow progress being made in modernising the database. There were challenges in processing applications from veterans due to issues with the manual system, and the fact that veterans could not easily check if they were registered on the database, or how many grants they received. The different software used by different departments also posed a problem for integrating and modernising the database. The State Information and Technology Agency (SITA) was identified as the primary service provider that worked alongside the Department of Military Veterans, in accordance with the Service Legal Agreement (SLA) signed by both parties. The lack of progress in modernising and integrating the system meant that the credibility and security of a reliable military veteran database system had been compromised.

The migration of call centres was briefly discussed. After a 2017 ministerial directive, the migration of the call centre, to be brought in-house to the DMV, had been looked at with SITA. The DMV stressed that staff were continuously overworked and under immense pressure, and therefore underperforming. The current call centre software would be maintained, as it was too expensive and also unnecessary to develop new software. A random and unannounced call to a call centre had provided a quick response, and the call centre agent had been properly informed, which was positive feedback.

Members were generally disappointed at the fact that the database had been an issue at the May 2017 presentation, and even long before that. The DMV was asked to ensure that the database should not still be a problem at its next meeting with the Committee. Members were not satisfied with the slow progress related to both the processing of documents and the modernisation and integration of the system. They asked why the manual system could not be run efficiently, and continue to run. It was felt that the DMV had failed veterans due to incompetence, and the importance of appointing qualified staff was stressed. Were veterans currently receiving benefits, despite the database system’s backlogs? Had adequate hardware and software been provided to modernise and integrate the system? Another concern was whether veterans had access to DMV offices or call centres. It was agreed that SITA should attend the next meeting of the DMV with the Committee. 

Meeting report

Department of Military Veterans: Database progress report

Mr Max Ozinsky, Acting Director General (ADG): Department of Military Veterans (DMV), said the Department was engaging with provincial governments to enhance cooperation in the delivery of benefits through provincial governments. Some of his DMV colleagues were currently in the Eastern Cape (EC). He had accompanied them on the previous day (24 October), where an overarching agreement was signed by the Department and members of the Eastern Cape provincial government. A prospective follow up procedure would be signed by various departments. Senior DMV officials were due to meet with them during the EC parliamentary cabinet session. He had hoped that the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) would have been able to attend the briefing, as it would have been important for SITA to speak on behalf of themselves.

As previously presented and discussed with the Committee in May 2017, the main concerns of the DMV were issues surrounding the modernisation and the integration of the database management system. The role of the DMV was to ensure that the database was secure and that veterans were able to have access to the database. The DMV also had to ensure that veterans were able to check if they were on the database and were able to register via the internet. The database was aimed towards being the centre of a benefit management system, emphasising that the database was a computerised system.

The main concerns were to maintain the credibility and security of the database. The database had been maintained in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. From early 2017, a temporary solution had been to transfer the database to a Microsoft Access spreadsheet. Reliability, certainty and trustworthiness were needed around the information in the database. Credibility of information on the database related to the verification of one’s status on the database. Verification of information was needed to ensure that all those registered on the database did qualify as military veterans in terms of the Military Veterans Act. The Committee was assured that the DMV was continuing with the process.

Mr Ozinsky emphasised that the issues on the maintenance and modernisation of the database system itself were different issues to the credibility of information/data on the system. The DMV had been continuing to work on the process of credibility of data, parallel to the improvement of the database system itself. He promised the Committee that in the next few months, serious steps would be taken to re-verify information on the database. However, the main focus of the presentation was related to the hardware and software.

Currently, if a veteran applied for a benefit on a paper form, the form was accompanied by supporting documentation. For example, if one applied for Social Relief of Distress (SRD), then one would have to have hardcopies of proof of one’s bank account, address and identity document (ID). Once collected and filed, officials had to process the documents and process the application. Those responsible for processing the application had to check if the applicant received other benefits, where the official would have to look in other offices, causing various delays. He said he received direct complaints from applicants who had submitted all their documents, but on complaining to officials had been told to resubmit their documents. The DMV had identified the manual system as the root cause of the delays.

The massive increase in benefits was another problem. The number of approved applicants for education benefits in 2016 was 30% more than in 2015, but there was not 30% more staff to process these applications. The proposed integrated system aimed to reduce the burden on staff. Online applications would be encouraged so that there was not paper. When paper was received by the DMV, it should be scanned and become a computer file and attached to other electronic documents. The aim was to not lose documents, and to allow for both database and benefits applications. There was not an integrated benefit management system, so if an applicant qualified for one benefit, that applicant had to check if one could receive other benefits on another system. Currently, there were multiple databases with various formats. Multiple databases also led to the issue of different information and formats that were not the same. Another problem with the hardcopy system was that applicants had to travel to submit documents. Applicants preferred to travel to Pretoria as a result of not trusting that offices outside of Pretoria would submit documents to the Pretoria office. Slow service delivery and audit findings were other issues. Security, reliability of information and whether the DMV was able to maintain and manage the information properly, was mentioned.

Project Phases

Together with SITA, the development of the system was divided into project phases. Phase One was on the automation of registration, on whether applications on the database would be the first deliverable applications.

Phase two was to integrate four benefits and the Personnel Administration System (PERSAL) into the system. PERSAL was in the human resources management division of the Department of Defence (DOD), containing personal records of South African National Defence Force Members (SANDF). If PERSAL and the DMV’s systems were interconnected then it would allow for a quicker processing of outgoing SANDF members on the database.

Phase three dealt with integrating remaining benefits. Previous presentations had shown that the DMV were hoping to finalise the system by the end of December 2017. Some internal delays in refining the time line of the implementation of the system were because of issues of internal mobility within the DMV. Initial project planning set deadlines, but the complexities of implementing the system had caused delays. Technical problems included the DMV having to define actual processes of what steps were involved for veterans to make an application. The computerised system was not a replication of the manual system, but had its own complications. A lot of time was spent on making sure the definition of the processes could be made more efficient. The DMV had developed user requirements that outlined in detail what had to be computerised and what SITA would provide.

The identification of external systems would be identified accordingly, based on outside systems of other departments which the DMV needed access to implement both policies properly within the Act. For example, the DMV had to integrate with the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) to check that applicants were citizens of South Africa. To implement the “needs test,” integration with the South African Revenue Service (SARS) was needed. The DMV also had to check with the Department of Social Development (DSD) so that it did not duplicate grants. It would have to deal with registration and benefit management, which was a lot of work, as it would have to retrieve relevant documents from other departments, such as service delivery documents and Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs). 

Mr Ozinsky said that certain DMV staff members met regularly with SITA. In May 2017, an analysis had been completed to define technical aspects to consider for the integration of different systems in the database. A value proposition for key requirements was completed in May 2017. The DMV had the responsibility to show that the system would create value and be efficient. User requirements for the document had been developed, adopted and signed off between the DMV and SITA. The requirements would ensure that the DMV had a credible, reliable and secure database. The project governance structure that focused on delivery had been identified, but needed to be strengthened and finalised.

While steps had been taken, SITA continued to develop the system. SITA had developed similar systems for other departments and a large part of the system was there in other forms for other departments, and was already available on SITA’s website. SITA had developed software for the system, but needed to customise the system for the DMV and develop other parts of the system. While the end of the financial deadline was in March 2018, the DMV was hoping that some of the elements of the software would be in place before then.

Call Centre: Progress Report

Mr Ozinsky said that the call centre was used externally. It was run by SITA staff members, with some integration with the DMV. In early 2016, a ministerial directive had initiated the need for the call centre to be brought in-house to the DMV, which would require the DMV to have the necessary software and human resources to run the call centre. While steps had been taken to integrate the role of the DMV with running the call centre, further necessary steps had to be taken.

While completing the process of running the call centre in-house, an agreement with SITA had been extended for SITA to continue running the call centre for another year. SITA had provided four proposals which each suggested different ways that the DMV could manage the call centre. After a cost-benefit analysis, the DMV had adopted the proposal that suggested that the call centre should move to the DMV and still maintain the technology SITA had used. The reason DMV would use the same call centre system as SITA was because it was tried and tested technology, and SITA had the ability to maintain and service the current software, it was cheaper and the software was used by other departments. It would be unnecessary to develop new software and new skills. The DMV was currently finalising implementation costs on the adopted proposal.

Mr Ozinsky said he had called the call centre to test out the service and had been surprised because the call was answered quickly, and the call centre agent had been properly informed.

Discussion

The Chairperson asked if the call centre was now operational.

Mr Ozinsky replied that the call centre was operational.

Ms B Dambuza (ANC) was disappointed in the report, and did not understand why the manual applications were such a problem if they had been used all along. The manual applications were not new, but the Information Technology (IT) system was new. She asked if any veterans were benefiting. There was a risk of veterans dying without receiving their benefits. Was a checking system in place so that potential fraudulent activities could be eliminated?

Mr J Skosana (ANC) said the integrated system developed in 1994 did not take as long as the new system was currently taking. A cut-off date was needed for dealing with the system. In May, the system had been a topic, but the new system was still incomplete. He asked when the veterans would benefit. The problem statements showed that no progress had been made. In five years, progress needed to be reported before elections were held.

Ms N Mnisi (ANC) said that the DMV was lagging on progress. She asked for clarity on the total number of operating call centres and on the different roles played by SITA. What was the final date when the database would be cleaned, updated and running?

Mr S Esau (DA) emphasised that the issue of benefits granted to veterans and the new DMV had been an issue raised by the previous Committee. There were many database systems available in the commercial industry, which were used by businesses and the private sector. Unqualified and incompetent staff had been appointed to the DMV. DMV staff had not delivered on the mandate and had done a disservice to South African military veterans. Auditing skills had not been completed and the mess had not been resolved by staff. SITA worked with all departments to put customised systems in place that gave the best results. Up till now, there was no awareness of the verification percentage of the evidence provided, although the last study had indicated 37%. Gaps in the software allowed for fraud. A report was needed on all the fraud that had been committed in the system, where applicants did not qualify to be military veterans, and the consequences thereof.

Mr Esau thanked Mr Ozinsky for trying to resolve the mess created and for introducing systems to try and obtain reliable results. Even if the system were completed by the end of the financial year, nothing could be implemented unless Service Level Agreements (SLAs) were put in place. The proposal of four systems being introduced and integrated was based on strategies and policies that had not been approved. He asked if the information given by call centres to veterans was credible and ratified information -- if there were no policies, regulations or frameworks, the wrong information may be provided.

Mr Esau emphasised that the DMV had under-spent the money that had been budgeted for the integrated database management system and the policy monetary evaluation programme, so he was surprised that Mr Ozinsky had requested more funds. This raised the question of what had happened to the money. Money had been shifted and overused in ‘education.’ He stressed issues of programmes and sub-programmes that had to be revisited and the need to sustain ‘education.’ The integration and synchronisation in the DMV was understandable, and if the system was going to work many things had to be executed at the same time, making an integrated system. There were issues with the SA Revenue Service (SARS), the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The South African Police Service (SAPS) and criminal records posed other problems, as there was a need for the DMV to become independent to access these records. The existence of 11 databases spoke to all the benefits, as there were 11 benefits which had been developed and formatted differently. The information technology (IT) department in the DMV was responsible for developing and formatting software. Excel spreadsheets provided the best formatting options in the world with the interfacing capabilities they held, capable of working with the SAPS system and massive other systems.

There was incompetence in understanding how to use the Microsoft software optimally, but it was not difficult and could easily be taught how to integrate information so that no one had to leave their offices, yet staff could have access to each other’s files. He did not think there was someone who provided IT guidance, but if there was then that person’s capabilities needed to be questioned. SITA should have been present, as they were also responsible and needed to explain their difficulties.

There were always problems with manual systems. It seemed to be a trend that files went missing at DMV offices. He personally received many complaints and encouraged complainants to go to the DMV provincial offices or local councillors. If documents were scanned, someone could lose their record 1 000 times, but the DMV should be able to send it back to the relevant person 1001 times. Staff should scan hardcopies immediately. He asked how many interns and contract workers worked at the DMV, and then said there were “70-plus from the DOD,” and asked what they were doing and why hardcopies had not been scanned into the system to become Portable Document Format (PDF) files that could then be edited. It was simple to scan documents at the first point of inception. He asked how operating procedures were done and processed. Everybody found an excuse as to why documents went missing.

Mr S Marais (DA) asked when the Service Level Agreement (SLA_1203_001) with SITA was signed. Long before he joined the Committee, the database was always the major concern. He asked that if DMV presents to the Committee in 2018, if the database cannot be the major excuse for non-compliance. The same excuse cannot be made each year, otherwise the system was incompetent. On a daily basis veterans complain, because they have applied many times and still were not put into the database. The excuse of the number of staff members should not be used. If staff was evaluated one would see that they were enormously underperforming.

Mr S Tlhaole (EFF) asked when Mr Ozinsky would become the DMV’s Director General (DG), as the role of the Acting DG had been ongoing for a long time, and this showed that “we are messing up.” He requested that this be addressed. He said that the establishment of the call centre should be appreciated, and acknowledged that the DMV faced several challenges. The first time he joined the Committee, he had noticed the issue of decentralisation of services and DMV offices. Not everyone had easy access to the offices, especially in rural areas where some did not have the means to get to cities. He referred to the rural area in Kuruman in the Northern Cape, and how residents had difficulty getting to Kimberley, thereby making the call centre helpful. The call centre did need more marketing so that veterans knew which number to call. There had been a struggle to establish offices, making it difficult for military veterans to gain access. He suggested that offices could be opened through the municipalities. SLAs should not only be entered into with SITA, but other SLAs were needed to assist the establishment of more offices in the country.      

Mr Skosana asked the Chairperson how the call centres would be managed. The call centres that he knew were not properly managed and the phones just rang without any response. He urged that the Committee needed to be made aware of how they would be managed. Sometimes call centres could discourage people from calling.

The Chairperson said that the call centres were very effective. Regarding the need for the appointment of a DG, a meeting had been held on this issue. In response to the question of access to offices, he said that it was unfortunate that all provinces did not have call centres yet. The mandate given to the Committee should be checked, and that in the next programme it should visit the DMV offices to see how the system operated. He asked Mr Ozinsky if there was a “technical person” in the delegation. What was wrong in terms of the infrastructure that was not necessarily a problem with the DMV, but existed within SITA? In the field of information management systems, SITA was responsible for providing the technology.

Mr Philip Lemekoane, Deputy Director: DMV Information Communications Technology (ICT) Governance, Compliance and Applications Development, responded to the Chairperson’s question on infrastructure by saying that currently the DMV did not have that type of infrastructure. The most important role of the DMV was to ensure that there were clear communications guidelines with SITA and that hiccups were addressed.

The Chairperson said that the current problem was the information system. Committee Members were right in saying that the information the Committee had received was a repeat of information received in previous meetings. At the last meeting where SITA was present, the aim of digitalising information was to eliminate “islands of information.” He asked Mr Lemekoane what his title was called.

Mr Lemekoane responded that he was a technical person.

Mr Esau added that Mr Lemekoane was an IT specialist.

The Chairperson asked Mr Lemekoane to help the DMV ensure that SITA fulfilled its role and integrated the DMV at all levels. If a veteran asked for a benefit, then the veteran should not have to ask the DG. SITA needed to have a meeting with the Committee and should explain the issues with the technology. Stressing Mr Lemekoane’s role as an IT specialist, he said the role of an IT specialist was to check “grey areas.” He asked Mr Ozinsky if military veterans were currently receiving benefits.

Mr Ozinsky assured the Committee that veterans continued to receive benefits, and suggested the Committee should look at annual reports as evidence of thousands of veterans who received benefits. In 2016, 7 146 veterans had received education support. There had been a 30% increase in approved applications with the manual system, which had been delivered “with the current system.” There had been massive achievements, including many graduating veterans due to what they had received from the DMV. A veteran had been announced as the “best performing” fruit farmer in South Africa as a result of support received from the DMV and Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR).

A problem was that the DMV did not project achievements, which was an issue he was trying to address with DMV’s communications department. If the system was improved, the DMV could be more efficient in improving the applications and managing the benefits. Delays were a serious problem, as they perpetuated the issue of the high work load placed on DMV staff. Reminding the Committee that the structure of the DMV was not right for the current issues the DMV faced in 2017 and 2018, he said that the structure may have been right for 2011. Therefore, there were various other problems the DMV was faced with, that they were addressing.

While SITA had to advise the DMV on the appropriate technology, the DMV also needed to undertake its own processes, as what SITA advised could not always be taken at face value. It had to check whether SITA’s propositions were in the best interest of the DMV. SITA made its own income so DMV had to do a cost-benefit analysis, as SITA may overcharge.

The Chairperson responded that SITA must deliver the technology. Technology in the information management system meant the diversion of technology. He asked what the DMV’s argument was after stressing the importance of the need for infrastructure which included training, “putting in wires” and thereafter providing software.

Mr Ozinsky replied that the DMV had the legal responsibility to do due diligence on any contract entered into, and to make sure that value for money was received. Through interrogating the issue of SITA overcharging, there had been cases where one could see that value for money would not be received.

The Chairperson interjected by asking if the DMV did not agree with SITA, whether another service provider may be used.

Mr Ozinksy replied that using another service provider was an option, but the DMV had not reached that stage as SITA was still being engaged with.

Mr Sibongiseni Ndlovu, Chief Financial Officer (CFO): DMV said that in instances of cost inefficiency, the DMV would need support from the Committee. It was important that the DMV did a cost-benefit analysis before accepting a proposal. He provided an example of the current cost structure, which had been R3 million, but after revising the proposal the costs had come down to R1.8 million annually.

Referring to other cost agreements that he had found, Mr Ozinsky said that the DMV had engaged with these agreements and found significant ways to reduce costs.

The Chairperson asked if disagreements with SITA were based only on costs.

Mr Ozinsky responded that the technology used by DMV was not the main concern of SITA, and that agreements with SITA were based on services. For example, the system must allow for automated application processes via the internet, and what software SITA used was not the concern of the DMV. However, whatever system SITA used must meet the terms of the agreement. The system still had to be checked by the Department, but the main concern of the DMV was value for money.

Mr Esau said the DMV needed the necessary internal capacity to make internal assessments. An externally appointed private investigation could write up the specifications for such a system, which could then be compared to what another tender proposal proposes. The DMV had been taking the right approach in being prudent and critical of the systems being used and costs involved. SITA was well-known for overcharging, and other government departments had raised this issue. If there were changes to the systems, then the DMV was integral and needed to be advised. Changes to the system meant that there may be a change to the business flow of operations and the DMV should be informed accordingly. If technology needed to be bought at the expense of the DMV, then the DMV had the right to decide if the proposed technology was in their best interests.

The Chairperson said that the bottom line was that SITA must account for technological problems and that SITA should have been present at this meeting.

Mr Ozinsky said that it was up to the Committee to decide on the presence of SITA.

Mr Esau said he had an issue with fraud, and the gaps with the system. Each of the 11 offices had their own spreadsheets. He asked Mr Lemekoane if the there was a Microsoft Office programme to transfer information and to allow access to other staff members’ folders. Was there a programme to secure information?

Mr Lemekoane responded that Microsoft Access did not have sufficient security requirements. The current system being developed had all the auditing and security requirements. The new system would allow for one to track the number of benefits a veteran received through entering the identity document (ID) numbers on to the system.

The Chairperson requested that the DMV and the Committee look at the Budgetary Review and Recommendations Report (BRRR).  

Mr Ozinsky said that an email on the BRRR had been received on Monday, 23 October 2017. He requested some more time for the DMV to look at the budgetary review, as the presentation had already been completed by the time the request had been made to the DMV.

Adoption of minutes

The minutes of a previous meeting were adopted.

The meeting was adjourned.

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