Streamlining local governance assistance

Image: Anton Scholtz. File photo

At a joint sitting of parliament in February, Salga president Thembi Nkadimeng said the key challenges at municipalities were governance and oversight, including strengthening community involvement and ownership of development in their municipalities; confronting basic services infrastructural challenges and making long-term sustainable choices; intergovernmental debt and rising consumer indebtedness, as well as the declining revenue base of municipalities; and linked to that, the viability and long-term financial sustainability of municipalities, including consideration of the impact of continuous municipal demarcation reforms.

Launching the government’s flagship government municipal support programme in 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “The new District Development Model [DDM] will enable us to have line of sight of exactly where the challenges and blockages are ... to resolve them and to ensure there is proper implementation ... through synchronised planning across all spheres of government, while working alongside social partners; localised procurement of goods and services; local employment for local projects.” 

This plan validates local government as an epicentre for service delivery and development.

It puts the existing 44 district and eight metros at the centre stage of service delivery and development initiatives.  

A Cogta media release explains that the DDM is a “new, integrated planning model for co-operative governance” which seeks to be a “district-based, service-delivery approach aimed at fast-tracking service delivery and [ensuring] that municipalities are adequately supported and resourced to carry out their mandate”.

On the one hand, the representative of municipalities articulates the problem as one of sustainability while the government is attempting to ensure that the laws, policies and requirements of integrated service delivery are going to be aligned implemented via the DDM.

The key weakness, in my view, is that the DDM does not recognise the primacy of the IDP as well as established intergovernmental platforms where national and provincial departments together with SOEs engage with municipalities to ensure priorities and budgets align.

The intergovernmental relations (IGR) platform happens twice a year at least, and the National Treasury hosts the City Budget Forum where priorities are debated and commitments made.

The problem is not that there are no intergovernmental forums —  it is that nothing happens after they’ve met, discussed, agreed and made excuses for not meeting previous commitments.

On the other hand, my experience in the intergovernmental system has also been that it could be used for positive outcomes in municipalities.

The problem is not the system, it is the people responsible for operating the system and the measures used to determine their performance.

Absent from the interventions are discussions on the impact and relevance of the five municipal key performance areas.  

They form the basis of measuring the performance of the municipality as an institution, the mayor as the political representative and the municipal manager responsible for synchronised operations.

Rather than explaining why problems in the intergovernmental system exist, government proposes to use and enhance “these frameworks and the existing implementation machinery by facilitating for joint planning, implementation as well as monitoring and evaluation, between and among all spheres of governance”.

In other words, the ineffective system is to be bolstered with a parallel, albeit temporary, system.

There is nothing new in the plan, in fact local government observers would recall Project Consolidate, Siyenza Manje and Back to Basics.

There have been Pims (planning and implementation management support) centres, local government turnaround strategies and many more.

The problems exist not because of systems not working, but because systems are compromised by those who benefit from the ensuing chaos.

The ecosystems which result in dysfunctional municipalities are the ones which need to be altered because they undermine municipal performance and accountability.

Municipalities can claim to be best performers because of mediocre targets they have set for themselves.

No wonder officials get performance bonuses even while everything around them is collapsing.

As the experience in every metropolitan municipality and many other municipalities in SA has shown, political instability breeds administrative instability.  

To assume that municipal capacity is a technical matter which the mere tweaking of systems will address is misplaced.

In this mindset, capacity is the availability of skills to deal with the technical aspects of municipal governance — finance, engineering, urban planning, cleansing and so forth.

Capacity is a consequence of good governance.

Having technical capacity is of no consequence if that capacity is not appropriately directed.

Most municipalities have limited capacity because meetings are not held, resources are not allocated, supply chain management is compromised and budgets are generally unrealistic.

Technical implementation requires enabling political decisions which are provided through public spiritedness.

This is the basis on which to build municipal capacity.

In supporting the ecosystems of local governance, national government could easily make the following alterations which enable municipalities:

  • Change the municipal key performance areas and indicators so they reflect the outcomes of the National Development Plan and the National Spatial Development Plan, and make this consistent through the intergovernmental system;
  • Ease up on Municipal Finance Management Act (MFMA) reporting frequencies without compromising accountability and probability, because time, money and resources are spent on these reports;
  • Accelerate the Equitable Share reform process so municipalities are appropriately funded;
  • Streamline discretionary grants so they can be more impactful.
  • Remove the financial, personal and reputational risks accounting officers face in the execution of their duties.

While the DDM will cost R200m over three years, none of the interventions above require new studies.

All the work has been done and it simply needs to be implemented by national government.