eTransparency Case Study No.4
SIGIPES & Aquarium: More Transparent Handling of Personnel Files in Cameroon
Case Study Author
Olivier Kenhago Tazo (email@example.com)
In 2002, the Ministry of Public Service and Administrative Reform (MINFOPRA) in Cameroon set up a project to improve the transparency of personnel management systems through use of ICTs.
MINFOPRA is responsible for personnel matters involving all government employees in Cameroon. With manual systems and a previous attempt at rationalisation (Project Antilope) failing to address inefficiencies and corruption, the Ministry introduced the Integrated Computerised State Personnel and Payroll Management System (SIGIPES). SIGIPES handles personnel and payroll data, and it addresses procedural shortcomings in two ways.
First, through automation of some procedures that were previously undertaken by MINFOPRA staff. For example, regarding retirement, the system automatically identifies staff who are due for retirement; prompts the despatch of a letter asking for completion of documents two months prior to retirement date; validates the retirement process; and automatically updates payroll and personnel data to take account of the retirement, including transfer from paying salary to paying pension.
Second, the system provides workflow and management information that allow two key groups to monitor the performance of personnel procedures. Senior managers in MINFOPRA can monitor performance through direct PC-based access to the SIGIPES system. In addition, all government employees can find out details relating to personnel procedures directly involving them through the 'Aquarium' project. Aquarium is a physical room with three PCs, each one operated by a MINFOPRA clerk. Public servants can come to the Aquarium room and check the status of their personnel files and procedures.
For example, there is a set procedure for formalising the entry of an employee into the public service cadre (called 'integration'). The employee can use Aquarium to see what stage his/her file is at in the integration process. They are informed of whether there are any missing documents that are delaying the process, which they need to provide. And they can also learn immediately of the outcome of the process - whether they have been accepted for entry or not. The same checking process can be undertaken for procedures such as entry into competitive examinations, acceptance for training programmes, and eligibility for retirement and pensions. Senior MINFOPRA staff can similarly monitor either individual case workflow and decisions, and can also gather more aggregated performance information.
There are set standards for all of personnel procedures, laid down in the Administrative Procedures Handbook (APH). This lays down what documents are required for a given procedure, the procedural stages, and expected deadlines. Where senior managers detect a shortfall in performance of their staff, they can take it up as a management action. For example, the integration procedure should take not more than one week - managers can take action if they find a file has remained with one officer for more than a week. For public servants, redress can be achieved through MINFOPRA's Bureau of Complaints, to which they can go if they find that personnel procedures have not been handled in an honest and timely manner. For example, they could report a situation where they are rejected for a training programme despite knowing through Aquarium that they have met all entry conditions.
Role of ICT
SIGIPES is a database-centred system running on a powerful server with network connections. It holds nearly 40,000 personnel files/records. The Aquarium hardware is very simple - just three PCs with a UPS connected via a network to SIGIPES. A simple software interface, christened Aquarium, was created by a local firm to enable queries of the SIGIPES database.
The main purpose behind SIGIPES was to enable better control of government personnel and payroll procedures; including an attempt to attack a key source of corruption within government: the presence of "ghost workers". The main driving forces for this came from outside MINFOPRA. SIGIPES was firstly a reaction to complaints from other ministries about a lack of transparency and lack of responsiveness in the way that MINFOPRA was handling personnel files. As part of the reaction, SIGIPES was designed to enable some devolution of payroll/personnel responsibilities to one or two of the larger line ministries. Aquarium was a continuation of this same process by which MINFOPRA sought to demonstrate to external critics that it had some commitment to increased transparency and better service. Underlying this may be a fear that a bad image and bad service will increase the likelihood that personnel responsibilities are significantly devolved away from MINFOPRA, thus reducing its resourcing and power. Perhaps even more important was the fact that SIGIPES was part of the donor conditionalities for World Bank/IMF loan agreements. Without at least an appearance of progress on the project, the country would have been denied tranches of external finance.
The public servants on whom MINFOPRA holds personnel data are key stakeholders in this system, as are all MINFOPRA staff: the officers who administer the personnel procedures, the senior managers who manage those staff, and the clerks who operate both SIGIPES and its Aquarium interface. The system was designed by a team made up from the local public and private sectors plus a UNDP-funded consultant.
Transparency and the Poor
There is no specific provision within this system for assisting the poor. At one of the three Aquarium PCs, service is prioritised for disabled public servants.
Impact: Costs and Benefits
Total cost for the SIGIPES & Aquarium systems (hardware, software, consulting fees, UPS and construction of Aquarium room) was just over US$500,000.
There is little quantitative impact data available. However, there has been at least an initial reduction in personnel inaccuracies, ghost workers, duplications, etc. For example, when the personnel files for MINFOPRA's own staff were prepared for loading onto the system, around two-thirds of those files were found to not require loading: they related to staff who had died, transferred, resigned or never existed; or they were duplicate files (providing single staff members with two or three salaries). This benefit should be attributed more to the census process that was supported by SIGIPES, rather than to SIGIPES alone, but it did result in a significant reduction in the Ministry's payroll bill.
Despite the presence of the MINFOPRA clerks, public servants in Cameroon now have better access to information about the content and handling of their personnel files than before, thanks to Aquarium. Aquarium has thus proven popular - averaging well over 100 visits from public servants per day. Likewise, thanks to their access to SIGIPES, senior managers have better access to workflow and performance information on personnel processes. This is helping to make the personnel management process more transparent and more efficient. There is clearer guidance on what documentation needs to be provided for all personnel processes (e.g. in determining a promotion case); personnel staff have fewer discretionary actions to take, thanks to partial automation; there is less direct interaction between public servants and MINFOPRA staff, thus reducing opportunities for corruption; and those staff have a greater sense that their actions are open to scrutiny by both employees and managers, thus encouraging them to follow procedures. Hence, for example, there are fewer delays than previously in the completion of personnel processes, and a number of grievances about improper file-handling have been taken to the Bureau of Complaints on the basis of data obtained from Aquarium.
Procedures for using Aquarium had to be altered. Initially, public servants were allowed direct access to the PCs. However, few had the skills or knowledge to make use of the Aquarium interface. Those who did were able to access other people's files, payroll information, and other confidential data that was not properly protected. The room was often chaotic because no-one was charged with organising the service. Because of these problems, a small cadre of MINFOPRA staff were then trained and placed as intermediaries into the process.
With only three PCs to serve the needs of almost all government employees (MINFOPRA staff themselves use their own PCs to access SIGIPES direct), there are still significant bottlenecks in the system. Problems have arisen because electronic data is often absent or not up-to-date: there remain important mismatches between physical and electronic file data. This is partly due to bottlenecks in the availability of staff within MINFOPRA, but also relates to a strong resistance of some MINFOPRA officers to loss of control over personnel procedures. In addition to very slow progress in the attempt to digitise the contents of personnel files, resistance has also led to divergence from the performance benchmarks laid down by the APH. The officers sometimes attribute their behaviour to breakdown of the SIGIPES system. Although not the true cause of their behaviour, system breakdown is another ongoing issue, deriving from power cuts (which, combined with UPS malfunctions, mean the system has a down-time of roughly 30%) and poor quality of system hardware and software.
Evaluation: Failure or Success?
There has been no formal evaluation of the SIGIPES/Aquarium project to date, but an informal independent evaluation was conducted for this case. The project has clearly achieved some benefits, but it cannot be said to have eliminated corruption or inefficiencies within the handling of personnel files. It does also suffer some shortcomings and so should be identified as a partial success/partial failure.
Enablers/Critical Success Factors
- Learning the lessons from over-ambitious failure . Project Antilope was an e-transparency project developed at the end of the 1980s in an attempt to reduce fraud, particularly the presence of ghost workers. It attempted to create a true personnel index of actual government workers combined with automated salary payments, and to use this to transform the whole of personnel and payroll management. It failed for a number of reasons, but particularly it was over-ambitious: it tried to change too much of the personnel/payroll system at once; it lacked the support of donors or senior politicians; and it was too far ahead of its time in its ambitions for use of ICTs. SIGIPES/Aquarium learned these lessons, and set itself more modest and incremental goals.
- ICTs as means, not end . In e-transparency projects, the 'transparency' not the 'e' is the goal. SIGIPES/Aquarium has placed ICTs some way down the project agenda - seeing them merely as a means to perform particular functions, not as a way of advancing the ICT agenda in government.
- Political support . Because of the link to IMF/World Bank loan conditionalities, the project (at least its implementation) had top-level support within the Cameroon polity, and from the external donors.
- Staff resistance . This is a common feature of e-transparency projects. Those whose activities are to be made more transparent through automation and workflow monitoring resist the process because they fear loss of income, power and control. Such resistance is the major reason behind the system shortcomings detailed above. There has also been related resistance from MINFOPRA managers to the devolution of personnel responsibilities.
- Infrastructure and technical skills . As noted, the system suffers from breakdowns. These, in turn, can be put down to constraints on ICT-related competencies in the Cameroon public sector. Debugging of the software system has not been as good as it should be. Maintenance of equipment is not as good as it should be. Design of power backup systems is not effective. All these relate to a lack of technical staff, most especially a lack of good technical staff.
- User skills . Despite training programmes being provided, MINFOPRA staff and external users were not well prepared to make use of the new system.
- KISS: keep it small and simple . eTransparency systems work best when they are based on relatively simple technical systems that seek to make only incremental changes to current ways of working.
- Use failure as a basis for knowledge-building . If an attempted e-transparency initiative fails, don't just walk away from it - instead, see what lessons can be learned from it for future projects. If possible, build those projects on any solid foundations the failure may have created.
- Understand the user . The extent to which this project has both succeeded and failed can be quite strongly related to the understanding, or lack of it, of the staff involved: their needs, their culture, their motivations. eTransparency projects must especially understand what it would take to make staff change their behaviour: what threats, what punishments, what rewards, what opportunities.
Case Editor : Richard Heeks.
Author Data Sources/Role : Interviews, Documents, Observation and Presentations; No Direct Role.
Centrality of Transparency : Mixed. Type : Reporting. Audience : Mixed. Content : Workflow. Sector : General Services.
Outcome : Partial Success/Partial Failure.
Region : Central Africa. Start Date : 2002. Submission Date : December 2003.