Too many obstacles to service delivery at local level

by Thomas Koelble: Professor Business Administration at the UCT Graduate School of Business. With a PhD in political science he specialises in globalisation; European politics; business, governance and society; electoral laws and politics.
Since the 1994 democratic elections, South Africa has been plagued by service delivery protests that have caused havoc in both urban and rural societies, often resulting in police involvement, serious injuries to civilians and great damage to communities.

The latest protests took place in February in Mpumalanga, in the township of Wesselton, outside Ermelo, where 33 people face charges of public violence after breaking down traffic lights, traffic signs and burning tyres.

This ongoing violence, which rarely results in any solutions, begs the question that has been skirting an answer for years. Where exactly do service delivery problems stem from?

A study by the UCT Graduate School of Business has now shed some light on the matter.

Eighteen municipalities across the Western and Eastern Cape were researched to ascertain where the problem of service delivery originates – the 18 cases illustrate vividly the problems facing local government in South Africa.

Titled ‘Institutional Obstacles to Service Delivery in South Africa’, the study examined both rural and urban municipalities by grouping them into different quintiles and analysing each according to its social capital, looking at historical issues, conflicts and problems in the area, city or region. It also looked at its financial capital, the politics of funding and the financial and administrative competencies, as well as the municipalities’ demographic circumstances.

What is clear from the research is that it is here, at local level, where the problems are occurring

The politics of funding

In terms of funding, poorer municipalities are highly dependant on government grants and loans. They are not able to draw on a substantial tax base; they suffer from the inability of their residents to pay for services and are frequently less able to maintain the existing infrastructure through their own efforts.

Poorer municipalities are often not able to draw upon grants by central government to the same extent that more affluent municipalities might be since they either do not qualify for the schemes offered by central government or they fail to follow the procedures set out to obtain funding. They also fail to qualify for infrastructural grants simply on the grounds that they do not have much of an infrastructure in the first place and there is little incentive for either provincial or national government to place scarce resources in economically unpromising areas and regions. Even with a fully functional Equity Share formula in place, the inequalities across the country are such that it is unlikely that rural areas will ever be economically self-sufficient.

The structural inequities of the past are being reproduced under the current democratic regime and are likely to remain a feature of the country for some time to come. However, the conclusion that ‘throwing money’ at the problem would alleviate the service-delivery problem is not the conclusion to draw from the current situation. On the contrary, throwing money at the problem would, under current circumstances, only inflame the situation and lead to greater pilferage and non-accountability as the institutions of oversight need to be strengthened before more funding is committed and a robust system of cross-subsidisation is brought into existence.

Democracy and institutions

The major finding is that the role and function of local government is not fully understood by most of those in administrative and political positions at the local level; that the institutions of national government do not pay sufficient attention to the policy failures at the local level; and that these failures are then exacerbated by one or a combination of these three factors: administrative incompetence, corruption and non-communication or, worse, unaccountability by local government officials to their constituencies.

The main point is that the enormity of the task placed upon the shoulders of local government is beyond the current capacity of local government officials and institutions, at least in the poorer municipalities. These institutions are peopled by administrators not trained for the tasks before them; they are very often staffed by inexperienced and badly trained appointees; and, in many cases, municipalities simply lack the technical expertise to discharge the functions they are supposedly in charge of. Before more money is thrown at the local government problem, the research would suggest, the institutional weaknesses of national policy, particularly urban policy, and local governance have to be addressed.

Local municipalities, the lowest and newest of the new governing institutions, have ended up with the responsibility of implementing a myriad of ‘developmental policies’ without a coherent framework or co-ordination from the national and provincial levels of government and, increasingly, at the expense of their democratic role and purpose.

As a result of these failures at the top of the bureaucratic and political chain, the symptoms of the malaise soon become apparent at the local level spilling out into all sorts of urban protests against the lack of delivery, the perception that local government is not serving its constituencies, and the fact that public servants and elected officials are in a position of relative autonomy that provides them the opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of their constituents.

Financial and administrative competence

The research results also illustrate that municipal government suffers from a severe lack of managerial and other skills. In many cases, municipal officials and councillors have limited experience in the field of municipal service provision. As a result of the efforts to cleanse the civil service of those appointed during the apartheid regime, many experienced civil servants were lost to the municipalities and replaced by lesser-qualified, often unqualified candidates. Moreover, many of the financial officers are not able to draw up accurate and reliable budgets, even when the figures they are asked to work with are fixed and straightforward.

The data does suggest that the levels of management experience within the rural municipalities are indeed rather limited. There are many municipal managers and mayors whose educational backgrounds do not go much beyond the secondary-school level, if that. Given that the research discovered several municipal budgets where budget allocations were simply erroneous and not congruent with the most rudimentary accounting procedures, the question as to the skill levels of the municipal financial managers has to be seriously investigated.

Moreover, large numbers of former civil servants are now asked back into local government as consultants at much higher rates than they would have been able to command if they were still in the employ of the locality.

Many municipalities pay their officials disproportionate amounts relative to their income, ostensibly in order to provide an incentive for them to remain within the public sector.

Most of the municipalities the research covered then experienced a combination of problems – because the budgets for pay were exceeded and little or nothing was budgeted for capital maintenance, existing services became increasingly compromised. As these problems increase and citizens begin to voice their discontent, another series of issues begins to arise – the bureaucratic run-a-round. Departments begin to shift blame to one another, but away from themselves – officials in one department blame incompetence in another, municipal councillors blame municipal managers, municipal managers blame senior or junior staff. Once the blame carousel begins, a loss of morale, as well as citizen disaffection, begins to set in. Coupled with red tape and bureaucratic intransigence, service levels to citizens drop even further.

Another explosive situation is that the high proportion of salary to municipal income means that many municipalities do not make necessary appointments so as to not overspend their budgets. This means that some municipalities operate with over 40% of the positions in the municipal service departments being unfilled.

What these sets of data indicate is that there is a serious lack of administrative, technical and financial skills in the less affluent municipalities we studied in detail. The poorer and more rural the municipality, the more entrenched the levels of incapacity. The problem is particularly serious when municipalities are unable to staff important technical positions. Engineers and other professionals are simply not available to introduce and maintain core functions in sanitation, electrification, water supply or refuse collection.

Moreover, financial officers in charge of overall or departmental budgets are also scarce and the effects of bad financial oversight and planning not only undermine service delivery, but open up all sorts of opportunities to siphon off resources for individual gain rather than furthering the public good. This leads to the increasing occurrence of corruption, nepotism and self-enrichment.

Where to from here?

What the findings illustrate is that the mechanisms of government oversight, accountability and the enforcement of rules are at best rudimentary and, at worst, non-existent across the spectrum of municipal government. While the legal structure is certainly in place, the implementation of the rules and regulations to ensure financial oversight, accountability, and responsiveness to the citizens is rudimentary, with the exception of just a few municipalities.

Throwing money at the problem will only achieve one thing – increase the pool of available resources to those in positions of power and thereby the temptation to misuse these funds. The national government now faces the task of implementing its own rules, of ensuring that regulations through the various acts are adhered to, that civil servants are trained to perform the tasks they are asked to perform and actually do what they are supposed to do. While the funds may not be adequate to cover all items, they are certainly adequate for the task of building infrastructure.

The questions that the findings raise are the following – would it not be more appropriate to leave infrastructural and developmental aspects of national policy with national providers, whether through the institutions of the national state or parastatal institutions like ESKOM, which have shown that a national rollout of facilities is possible?

Might it not be more appropriate to free the local level of government from responsibilities most of the municipalities find impossible to meet in any case and, instead, encourage their democratic role in the new dispensation? Some of the municipalities studied have shown the capacity to be both harbingers of services, as well as democratic institutions, but the majority of municipalities in the poorer areas have failed so far on both counts.

This study was co-authored by Edward LiPuma of the University of Miami. The full paper appeared in the journal Social Dynamics.

Useful resources:
University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, Executive Education
Executive Education at the UCT Graduate School of Business is dedicated to growing the leadership backbone in organisations and individuals and inspiring a new generation of leaders to engage with the challenges of the African continent in a hyper-connected and globalised world.
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