Why digitilization of Harare passport office may not bring better service

Oct 17, 2012

For decades now, the process of obtaining or renewing a passport has been a soul-destroying struggle and example of so much of what is wrong with the way Zimbabwe's public services interact with their public. Long queues just to obtain the passport application forms were the earliest sign of the deeply dysfunctional process, and also of the attitude of the institution about its 'customers.' Now the application forms can be filled in online, in theory potentially making the whole process much more efficient and much less traumatic. Here is why that hoped for result may not be achieved in the short term.

The Registrar's Office is to be congratulated for making the passport application forms available online. This is a welcome and long-overdue development. It has the potential to make the work of the staff less stressful and more enjoyable, and also to make the experience of the public with the institution less negative than it has been for many years.

But welcome as this innovation is, lack of access to application forms is not the main reason that the passport office's service has been so atrociously poor for so long. The main problem has been a complete absence of a service culture. This is a fundamental institutional problem that cannot be corrected by technology. Successful application of technology depends on the organizational context/culture in which it is used. That organizational culture is extremely negative and contemptuous, even hostile to the public they exist and get employed/ paid to serve.

Here are a few examples of the awful business/institutional practices of the passport office which were completely un-necessary and could have easily been avoided had a different, more public service-friendly organizational ethos existed:

In 2005, it took three pre-dawn drives to a Harare 'satellite branch' of the passport office to obtain an application form. Arriving there at 4 or 5 in the morning, one found many drowsy, dispirited 'earlier birds' already waiting in line-just to get the form. The staff lazily sauntered in sometime between 8 and 9 AM. No greetings, no information on what was going to happen, what the procedure was. Then the beginning of the slow movement of the queue. The forms and times of service were limited, so it was not at all unusual for either to run out before those at the back of the queue were served.

No information (e.g. posters on the wall, hand-written if necessary, outlining procedures.) No basic orderliness (e.g. giving out numbers limited to the application forms available for that day or explaining which queue is for what) that would have easily made the work go much faster and more pleasantly for all concerned, staff and public alike.

Rudeness. This is self-explanatory. Ask a question and you are considered insolent; to be ignored and chided like a troublesome child.

These are just a few examples of the kind of deep problems with the very culture of the Registrar's Office that access to technology will not necessarily change. Long before the computers and the internet became as ubiquitous as they are now, there were many simple, low or even no-cost ways the office could have made the passport-processing chain much more efficient and much less unpleasant than it is now.

As with so many other of Zimbabwe's institutions, the basic problem is one of a poor or even non-existent attitude of efficiently, helpfully, cheerfully serving the public.

Without that institutional attitude/cultural change in thinking about the very role of the organization and its relationship with its 'customers,' no amount of new equipment or technology will make the Harare passport office come anywhere close to achieving its service potential.

The Harare Passport Office has done well to make application forms now available online, but that really does nothing to address the real reasons why its service is so abusively poor, inefficient and unpleasant. Not until those more fundamental organizational problems are addressed can Zimbabweans expect better, respectful service from the passport office.

The Zimbabwe Review


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