Friday, 6 April 2012

We're incompetent

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am the world’s most patient, supremely tolerant and completely easy-going person. OK, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration. Anyway, my tolerance and patience is extensive. Until I encounter incompetence. Repeated organizational incompetence.

I can cope with occasional incompetence, mainly because we’re all incompetent sometimes. We all have areas where we’re naturally talented and others where we’re naturally “challenged”. The sooner we all, individually and also as a nation, accept that there are certain areas where we are incompetent, the better. Only by recognizing these areas can we do something about them.

As a nation, for instance, we’re very good at organizing conferences to talk about important issues. We run a magnificent conference, seminar or workshop where organizations can “engage with stakeholders”. Just look at the pictures in the newspapers following these events and look at the attendees “listening attentively” during a PowerPoint presentation and you’ll see how good these events are.

Yes, I am being sarcastic.

The completely depressing thing for me is just how incompetent we are in certain areas. Like billing.

I know for a fact that I’m not the only person who gets bills from Botswana Power Corporation that seem to be no more than a collection of random numbers. I know this because large numbers of people have contacted us asking if we help them understand what’s going on.

One reader said:
“Last month, I paid P170 for my electricity but when I went to get this month's bill, that P170 was in arrears and the new bill amounted to P800. I was told there is nothing that could be done and that's my bill and I just have to pay it. I’m not the only one in my area who was told that.”
Another said:
“For the last three month I have been making regular payments and none of them are reflected in the bills I receive. Last time I went to check my statement the teller said he can see them but when he prints it doesn't show the payments.”
Yet another said:
“Our bill was about P1,800, just for a month, but its only me and my mom living in just a small 3 bedroomed house.”
I think there are two issues here. Firstly it looks like almost everyone has had their bill estimated by BPC at some point. I know ours was. Of course I understand that there will be times when BPC meter-readers can’t get to the meter because the occupants aren’t at home (they’re probably at work trying to earn enough money to pay their exorbitant power bill) but that shouldn’t happen every month.

But even estimates shouldn’t cause chaos. Anyone with a mathematical brain and a spreadsheet can work out a way to make reasonable estimates. My suggestion (skip to the next paragraph if you don’t like maths) is that the estimate should equal the amount consumed in the same month last year plus the average proportional change in last three months of this year compared to the same three months last year.

The bigger issue is the billing system. Let’s have an example. A real one. Mine.

My latest bill claims I owe P239 from last month, made no payments and have a “current charge” of over P8,000. So my “total due”, you might expect, should be just over P8,000? No, the bill says that THEY owe ME P1,172. Before you ask, yes we ARE disputing that we used over P8,000 in a month. What they’ll say of course is that this is as estimate as well. And yes, we did make a payment last month.

The critical issue is that not one of these numbers seems to make any sense. Every one of them is disconnected from reality. Worse still, there’s not even any relationship between them.

One of the few areas where I have some competence is in the implementation of big IT business systems. It’s something I’ve done for a living for a couple of decades with organizations as varied as governments, oil companies, banks and, yes, even organizations like BPC. Implementing a major computer system like a billing system is not like installing Microsoft Office on your laptop. You don’t just stick a CD in the drive, press Install and start working. It takes months of planning, design, data modeling, data capture, process integration and above all, testing.

You test these systems over and over again, over a period of months to ensure that they work correctly. This may seem a remarkable idea to BPC but you do this testing BEFORE you inflict it on your customers. Based on my experience and conversations this week with more than one highly qualified IT Auditor, the BPC billing system shows the symptoms you would expect from a badly implemented and untested IT implementation. It’s not the fault of the system itself, it’s the fault of the people who configured it, instructed it how to do the calculations and told it which numbers to print on the bills. More importantly it’s the fault of the people who were meant to test it before they unleashed it on you and me. It’s the fault of the top brass who are meant to take responsibility for their organization’s failures.

I’ve heard it said that much of these problems are due to BPC inheriting bad data and systems from the past. That’s no excuse. Either BPC were incompetent in the past or they’re incompetent now. Worse still it might be both.

Let’s not forget what BPC have clearly themselves forgotten. Despite their extraordinary arrogance they owe us a duty of care. They owe us both a reliable power supply and bills that make some sense. In both of these regards they are failing us catastrophically. It’s time for someone in power to remind them of this. Will a Minister, or someone more senior, step forward?

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