The appointment of the new local government minister is a cause for optimism. However, Zweli Mkhize needs to recognise that the problems faced by municipalities in SA — which result in poor service delivery and led to 173 municipal service delivery protests in 2017 — are systemic.
He needs to understand the entire municipal public resource management and service delivery cycle to understand why these problems arise — and to develop a strategy to fix them.
Take water service delivery. Starting at the top of the cycle and drawing on the auditor-general’s most recent audit findings for South African municipalities, we find that 34% of municipalities didn’t assess the condition of their water infrastructure during their needs assessment processes in 2016. This had a knock-on effect on their strategic planning processes, with 45% of municipalities failing to produce water infrastructure maintenance plans.
This, in turn, influenced their budgeting processes, with 24% of municipalities not budgeting any resources for the maintenance of their water infrastructure.
No surprise, then, that well over a third of municipalities experienced massive water losses — 41% of municipalities lost half of their annual water stocks due to the poor state of their distribution infrastructure in 2016.
Municipalities experienced massive water losses — 41% of municipalities lost half of their annual water stocks in 2016
This disastrous outcome in these drought-stricken times needs to be seen in the context of the lack of effective performance management processes in municipalities.
The auditor-general points out that a quarter of South African municipalities didn’t have a formal management post responsible for monitoring and evaluation. Consequently, from the outset these municipalities would not have been able to track their water service delivery performances effectively.
This says nothing about the quality of monitoring and evaluation or of performance reporting by municipalities where they were undertaken, and where municipal performance reports were produced; the auditor-general questioned the reliability of 45% of these.
To explain why the quality of municipal performance reporting is so poor, we must retrace our steps to the planning process and to the absence of coherent performance indicators for key services. Monitoring and evaluation managers, even if appointed, would have little success in monitoring performance in the absence of coherent indicators for their activities and outputs.
If municipalities are unclear of what their service delivery plans and outputs are, they will be similarly unclear about the exact tasks that municipal officials should be performing.
The auditor-general found weak human resource controls over the management of staff in 47% of municipalities, which inevitably means weak capacity for reporting. And, in turn, the absence of accurate and reliable reports during the implementation of municipal services — including on revenue collection, expenditure, performance and corrective action — makes effective oversight by municipal councils near impossible.
Oversight committees are crucial to ensuring accountable service delivery, and the auditor-general found that municipal public accounts committee oversight was not effective in 76% of municipalities.
This is partially explained by the lack of reliable performance documents and partially by the lack of training for committee members on how to understand and intervene in the service delivery cycle.
For instance, currently, 70% of the oversight committees in the Eastern Cape are new. They require training and basic oversight skills, as well as support in the form of committee co-ordinators and applied researchers if they are to exercise their oversight responsibilities effectively.
As the municipal taps run dry and the roads crumble in many of our towns, Mkhize will not only have to reinvigorate the Back to Basics programme initiated by Pravin Gordhan in 2014, but begin to develop sustainable system-based solutions to the sources of SA’s municipal service delivery woes.
The responsibility for fixing this cycle cannot simply be heaped on the shoulders of municipal officials. Several national and provincial entities, including the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, the Treasury and South African Local Government Association have a role to play in diagnosing and strengthening these systemic weaknesses.
Without a much deeper systemic understanding of the municipal public resource management and service delivery cycle we cannot realistically expect to improve municipal service delivery.
• Allan is director of the governance and development unit in Rhodes University’s sociology department.