By HAROLD MAC-SAIDU, FRANCIS BANGURA, AND ABASS SHAW
IN THIS CASE STUDY, IDT LABS STAFF HAROLD, FRANCIS AND ABASS DISCUSS THE PIVOTAL ROLE THAT WE PLAYED THROUGH TECHNOLOGY IN SIERRA LEONE’S FIGHT AGAINST EBOLA.
In order to curd the Ebola Epidemic at its peak, robust social mobilization activities were organized, State of Public Health Emergency was instituted, there was increased flow of financial and material resources constituting the construction of more Treatment and Holding Centers, the procurement of more ambulances, PPEs and more importantly the recruitment of thousands of Nurses, porters, cleaners, Lab Technicians, Nursing Aids, Burial Teams etc.
Despite of these measures, there was an apparent cloud in the management of Ebola Response Workers, presenting a challenging scenario. There were strikes actions almost everywhere as a result of lack of just in time salary payments, inefficient payroll administration, poor employee records management, and ghost workers: accumulation of these led to a significant ERWs resentment and misplacement of funds.
The scenario faced in managing ERWs was summed up by Sudipto Mukerjee, UNDP’s Country Director who posited that “One of the most difficult things about tackling the Ebola crisis is in the area of human resources. You can construct a treatment center in a couple of months. You can construct a community care center in two to three weeks. But managing people can be a major challenge.” In stating the central role of ERWs in the fight against Ebola Mr. Mukerjee said. “We cannot afford to lose a single minute where people have put their tools down and refuse to work,”
This case study presents a plot on how IDT Labs was able transform the challenging scenario faced in managing workers engaged in one of the “world’s most dangerous jobs”. It highlights the problems NERC wrestled with in managing ERWs and how IDT Labs probe, diagnose and provided a timely prescription.
BEFORE WE CAME IN
The management of ERWs was in its simplest terms a challenging one. The management of ERWs and payroll was defined by weak access, delays, corruption, and general dissatisfaction. To access an employee’s data, staffs of EOC and later NERC have to go through multiple layers of paper forms stored in shelves that were prone to fire accident or deliberate alteration. The state of these documents did not any way allow collaboration in access among NERC and its partners. The most advanced piece of software they used was Excel. Whilst cheap and common, Excel in such a national framework, presented NERC serious challenges evident in the lack of professional quality records, data management issues, the inability to efficiently identify data errors, the lack of detailed sorting and querying abilities, restricted finite number of ERWs records, and sharing violations among authorized users wishing to view or change data at the same time.
Convoys armed with soldiers after any two weeks rotated around the country to do desk payment. Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars was physically conveyed to treatment, holding, care and affected community centers right round the twelve districts of Sierra Leone with ERWs waiting in long queues at times in the rain and hot burning sun. Payment most times was delayed either because of bad roads in navigating deplorable roads or the activities of corrupt officials who embezzled these funds. This circumstance led to frustration and anger among some ERWs affecting the fight against the virus. This anger was vented in so many areas prominently Kenema where ERWs drop an Ebola corpse in front of the Kenema Government Hospital.
Whilst the challenges in channeling payment were conspicuous, government and partners were losing millions of dollars. This was confirmed by the CEO, of NERC, Rtd. Major Alfred Paolo Conteh, (within weeks in office) unearthed over six thousand ghost workers receiving salary. This went on an extent in which the President Excellency Ernest Bai Koroma in his statement mentioned that “Ebola money is blood money and that people should not siphon it”
HOW WE CAME IN?
In the midst of these challenges affecting the fight against the disease, the National Ebola Response Center and the UNDP led the effort for an automated ERWs Directory and Payment System. In response to this, we were contracted to provide consultancy services for development of an Automated Employee Directory and Payment System.
THE SYSTEM WE DEVELOPED
With a thorough evaluation and understanding of NERCs ERWs management and payment processes, we were able to develop and implement the NERC Ebola Response Workers Directory and Payment Database System designed to ensure efficient management and payment processing of Ebola workers.
This system we developed provided ERWs Directory used to manage details of ERWs, their personal information, contracts, and payroll linked with payment methods such as banks and mobile cash transfers.
The system we developed automated every related ERWs record, contracts, previously manually managed and stored in shelves.
The system we developed provided adequate duplicate and issues management capabilities, identification of data errors features, advanced sorting and querying abilities and features for sharing and collaboration in data management.
The system virtualized Payments currently being use to channel the payments of over 22,000 Ebola Response workers around the country via payments mediums like the banks and mobile account.
We were also grappled with the conversion of over 20 thousand ERWs data stored in manual forms into the database. This exercise was a neck breaking one; we wrestled with not only the transfer of data from thousands of forms but also ensuring that such data were accurate amidst the horrible nature of the forms: some of the original ERWs forms had no pin codes, mobile numbers, account numbers, a mismatch of one/two digits and the not forgotten poor handwritten in ERWs forms.
We were able to transfer over twenty thousand ERWs data into the system setting the base for its operation.
Amidst the presence of incomplete ERWs details on forms, ghost workers (putting strain on the resources of government and partners), duplicates data and the need to further ensure eligibility, we steered the ship to the verification of ERWs.
We undertook a national biometric verification of Ebola Response Workers around the twelve districts of Sierra Leone visiting almost all treatment centers, holding centers, care and affected communities.
With need to further ensure efficiency, including missed ERWs, further update data, facilitating contracts and the execution of the new revised Hazard Policy; we also executed a ERWs Mop Re-verification Exercise in all twelve districts of Sierra Leone.
After this exercise, a very good number of duplicates were weed out, double dippers identified, incorrect and incomplete data were updated.
The Mop Up re-verification exercise led to the re-verification of approximately 4,000 ERWs, re-categorization of ERWs based on revised Hazard Policy and corrected records for all 4,000 ERWs missed out in the re-verification in January 2015
MANAGEMENT OF NERC PAYROLL SYSTEM
The day to day management of the system was done by officials from NERC, UNDP and technical staffs from IDT Labs. The responsibilities of the technical team was to handle the following tasks:
- Make sure the system is up and running and accessible to only few selected personnel
- Do necessary upgrades to fit the dynamic needs of its clients
- Do frequent checks to eliminate duplicate payment accounts
- Working with heads of facilities in making sure the list of current ERW is up to date and is reflected in the system.
- Prepare payment list in the form of ‘cycle numbers’ for all ERW’s in the system and sent to the fiduciary agency for approval of payment.
- Using the system for calculating backlogs i.e. monies owed to ERWs who were working but didn’t get paid because of several reasons.
- Managing help desk related issues such as case management and resolutions
SOME PROBLEMS ENCOUNTERED AND HOW THEY WERE SOLVED
As problems keep on arriving every day at the help desk, some were repeating issues whilst others were absolutely new issues, we work relentlessly in making sure that those problems are being solved accurately, efficiently and on time. Some of the challenging issues are listed below
Team member’s skills: Managing the system at the NERC requires a lot of technical skills which will help to fast track the pace of the work. One key issue was most of the Help desk officers that were recruited at that time had a little or no technical skills and that created a big impact on us from IDT labs because our mission only covered technical management of the system and providing consultancy advices when necessary, but we had to go beyond that by providing extra services like doing maintenance on computers and peripherals, configuring networks, installing operating systems and setting up new Computers etc. All these extra services added the work load on us, hence we conducted several trainings for the help desk officers on general computer usage and management of the system when chanced to do so, these trainings were done to bring the officers up to speed and balance off the work load on us.
Work Overload: Another issues we faced at the NERC was the issue of work overload. As mentioned earlier, because the staff we were working with didn’t have good technical skills even after conducting several trainings, we had extra work load on us in order to keep the truck moving. We had to work 6 days a week and a minimum of 12 hours per day in order to meet our deadlines and submit results on time.
Underpayment Claims: In addition to that, we were faced with an issue of underpayment and some ERWs not receiving payments at all in some districts. Part of the team including the project manager and a NERC admin official had to travel to several districts using the system as a guide to actually troubleshoot the issue of under payment and no payment to some of these ERWs that were making such claims. With the system at our disposal we were able to figure out all ERWs that were paid and how much they were paid, for those who were not paid we were also able to determine the reason for non-payment and their issue was dealt with accordingly.
Daily Reporting: Initially our daily reporting structure was like this, all help desk officer around the country did their individual reporting in excel and send it at the end of the day to the technical team for final collation. This method was slow and time consuming because there wasn’t a fixed reporting format for the help desk officer to use when sending their daily report. To make the work more effective, we created a case management template and centralized it on a cloud-connect basis accessible to all the help desk officers, this was done using the google online sheet. Using the online case management gave us control of all cases reported by ERW’s, as it was now easy to track which cases were resolved and which were pending, those pending were the first to be dealt with the following week to avoid ERW’s coming repeatedly for the same issue.
Wrong Payments: furthermore, we encountered another setback lately, the ERW’s reported a lot of wrong payments made, this was due to poor implementation of the revised hazard policy, this policy stated that all payments of ERW’s to be solely bank based. During re-verification the ERW’s, to fill up spaces, gave extra bank accounts that didn’t belong to them, and some gave accounts that were invalid, but all these was not noticed because most of the payment before the revised policy was MNO based, implementing this new policy without much preparation caused a lot of wrong payments. To avoid the issue from repeating in the next cycle we requested all ERW’s to provide valid BBAN numbers that belonged to them, these information was then updated in the system as against the next payment cycle.