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01 MAY 2018
Water crisis: From blame to accountability

by Tim London: Senior Lecturer at the GSB, focusing on issues of leadership.

For three years, Cape Town has suffered a crippling drought that has left the city facing the prospect of dry taps. Local and national leadership have come under fire for their handling of the water shortage, including the mayor facing a motion of no confidence and being stripped of her water-related responsibilities. Early in 2018, a national disaster was declared.

But, while it is tempting and even satisfying to find someone to blame for the crisis, there are lessons to be learnt from the situation that could benefit service delivery more broadly. Chief among these is that building a fully operational system of accountability is more powerful in the long run than blame-driven leadership.

Towards accountability

Accountability systems research tells us that in times of crisis, it is tempting to fall into blame processes, though this is not necessarily the most helpful approach. Our instinct is to ask ourselves who is to blame and, often, who is most to blame. Certainly there are sometimes things and people to blame for our problems, but it is more helpful to work within an accountability system, where we apply our minds to fully understanding the situation and the available solutions instead: asking how we got to the crisis point and what we can do differently; what challenges we are facing; retracing our steps; and seeing what engagements might help solve them.

The danger is that blaming or scapegoating can be mistaken for actual accountability systems. A process of blame is usually oversimplified (focusing on one or a small number of issues or people) and tends to identify symptoms of the problems, rather than actually addressing root causes. The result of a blame system is the illusion of progress and activity while merely papering over the cracks. This is inherently reactive, focuses on protecting/blaming individuals, and leaves root causes to continue to cause problems in the future. An accountability system, on the other hand, identifies problems early by building up processes that clarify points of individual and joint responsibility for issues. This allows the early identification of issues and a more dynamic capacity to apply the corrective actions needed when necessary. Yes, people are held to account. But not in a self-serving manner, and not when it is too late.

Driving solutions early

There are several ways in which an accountability system could help improve service delivery and enhance leadership – but some challenges in implementing it would still remain.

Strong accountability systems are proactive. They are constantly monitoring progress and can identify problems as they arise, not waiting for the crisis outcome that will spark a cycle of blame. There is ample evidence that scientists warned City officials early on that there was a need to plan for water shortages, and that there was even concern from officials themselves, yet action was not taken.

There are two primary challenges here. Firstly, politicians run on five-year terms, in part to preserve democracy and prevent over-long reigns. But this means there is a certain risk of short-termism when it comes to planning – especially when the crisis is not yet upon you.

The second and related challenge is funding. In order to deliver justifiable results, politicians and officials tend to favour spending when there’s an emergency; in other words, it’s easier to convince people an expenditure is worth it when it’s dealing with an obvious problem than when it’s being used to prevent the problem from happening in the first place. Further, emergencies tend to unlock funds that are not otherwise available. Combined, these factors mean we unwittingly incentivise the creation of emergencies. In order to reduce the number of emergencies, leaders (and citizens!) must focus on understanding root causes of issues which would allow for more proactive spending.

Cooperation is critical

During his inaugural State of the Nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa called on Capetonians to rally together to overcome the drought. He could have directed the same advice to local and national leadership, too. Crises such as the drought have the potential to unify, but they also have the potential to drive survivalist, individualist thinking.

The drought has ushered in crippling infighting among Cape Town’s political leadership, with a devastating split in the locally ruling DA as well as the local city council. Mayor Patricia de Lille, meanwhile, has faced multiple disciplinary processes.

There has also been public tension between provincial premier Helen Zille and national minister of Water and Sanitation Nomvula Mokonyane, with Zille slapping Mokonyane with a R3.5m bill for the price of water infrastructure.

Factional leadership epitomises the self-interested blame system. Though it is understandable in a situation where everyone has something at stake, it is clearly unhelpful to improving the situation. While entirely abandoning self-interest is unlikely, a more hopeful and positive route is to focus on the shared purpose common across all stakeholders. Focusing action and discussions on this shared purpose can minimize the focus on individuals and crystallise problem-solving efforts.

At the same time, one can pursue a shared goal while still aiming to retain one’s position, salary, or funding at the endpoint. Asking people to become completely selfless is unrealistic, but by putting shared purpose first, it can at least keep the majority of the focus on the needs shared between all stakeholders. In this way, one builds a shared culture of accountability in which one directs attention towards the problem, rather than deflecting attention away from its core elements through the blame game.

The power of listening

A key skill required for cooperation and accountability is engaging with multiple, informed viewpoints. Key critiques about the water crisis have come from scientists and academics, who have offered their input into the debate at various junctures. As mentioned, some have noted they warned of the water crisis years ahead of time. Their contribution is crucial – but it appears to have been largely unheeded. To be clear, a lack of engagement usually points to failings on more than one side.

In the case of communication failings between academics and officials, there are two key issues that must be remedied. Firstly, timelines must be shortened between communications: the typical time lag between an academic submitting a piece of research and a journal publishing it can be as long as one to two years, by which time the information is less relevant to politicians. Secondly, academic jargon is rarely accessible to anyone who is not an active researcher in the specific topic being written about. For academics and policymakers to communicate effectively and for relevant, timely decisions to be made, communication must be more direct and timely – even if it’s not via a peer-reviewed journal.

The key difference between accountability systems and blame-driven leadership is that the latter is reactive, focused solely on outcomes, and reduces complex issues to apportion blame to a small number of individuals; an accountability system, on the other hand, is constructive, focuses on formative feedback and processes, and focuses stakeholders on shared needs. We have seen how simply blaming people works. Perhaps the perils of our water crisis will encourage our leaders to build stronger accountability systems going forward.
Useful resources:

University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business
UCT GSB is internationally renowned as one of a few business schools in Africa with the prestigious triple-crown accreditation with endorsements from EQUIS, AACSB and AMBA. As a top school with more than five decades of experience in Africa and other emerging markets, UCT GSB has a responsibility to engage with its socio-political and economic context. Its teaching, learning and research are directed towards addressing the complex and pressing economic and social challenges of our world today. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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