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Building the institutional capacity of municipalities

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Picture: African News Agency (ANA) – Olivenhoutbosch community protest outside the Tshwane House in Pretoria, Gauteng in demand of better service delivery.

By Michael Sutcliffe and Sue Bannister

Listening to all the commissions under way at the moment, it is clear that enormous amounts of resources have been wasted through corruption, inefficiency and poor planning. But commissions will not themselves solve the need to ensure that, as a society, we must have the capable human resources and processes of collaboration to build a capable developmental state. Municipalities need professional engineers and planners to oversee development in a municipal area, including the work done by consulting engineers and planners.

The Municipal Systems Act outlined a range of options to strengthen and build a collaborative and capable local governmental system. Yet, we haven’t seen the positive impact of the billions of rand that have been spent each year to develop these capabilities. Recently, the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, argued that building capacity and sharing good experiences across, for example, municipalities is an important part of an all-of-society approach to improve the capacity of local government to perform a lot better. Her comments remind us of why we built the Municipal Institute of Learning (Mile) in eThekwini in the 2000s.

Mile arose out of us continually receiving requests from less capacitated municipalities to assist them with engineering, planning, financing and other issues, and after providing this assistance we realised we needed to institutionalise these learning processes through Mile. Mile created a collaborative platform where knowledge and innovation programmes and initiatives from various departments across the eThekwini Municipality were co-ordinated and supported, and which contributed to building a model of peer-to-peer learning and sharing with a broad reach across sub-Saharan Africa.

The focus was on the building of professional practitioner capabilities for local government on the continent, and, while it is housed within eThekwini, its focus is much broader in areas such as learning interventions (master classes, mid-career, peer exchanges), City to City interventions (municipal technical support and joint projects with other cities) and research interventions. These interventions then led to a focus on knowledge management through documentation and sharing of experiences.

We believed this reinforced Section 4 of the Intergovernmental Relations Framework Act, 2005, which provides sound legislative reasoning for knowledge sharing. It should be said, too, that Mile is one of many such positive contributions across South African municipalities to share knowledge and build capacity. These are often supported, too, by international organisations like Unitar, GIZ and the like. However, unfortunately, there are many examples of municipal projects which have failed due to the lack of skills and competency, as well as other areas of governance failure.

Having implemented numerous projects at a municipal level, we believe that addressing many of the implementation failures in local government must have, as its basis, strong, stable and decisive political and administrative leadership, which doesn’t tolerate corruption, and which is not afraid of make difficult decisions to ensure delivery happens. Capacity and skills can only be effectively used in the context of good governance. Competent and skilled professionals must be given responsibility for the delivery of municipal services within a context where the municipal (political, administrative and stakeholder) leadership contributes to creating a supportive environment.

Some of our municipalities have many qualified professionals whose advice is overridden or not implemented by people without such competencies. Certainly, levels of professional competency vary significantly across the country. In the case of the municipal sphere, we find that built environment professionals are distributed very unevenly across municipality types. More than 70% of all professionals, for example, are in eight metropolitan municipalities. On average, though, metropolitan municipalities have a much higher ratio of 13.2 employees per professional/technical person compared with local and district municipalities, where the average number of employees per professional/technical person is 20.9.

The president’s call for there to be much greater co-ordination at a district level of all available governmental technical/professional expertise is timely as it should go some way to ensuring that existing capacity is properly deployed and that the infrastructure silos are broken down.

But such capacity, from national and provincial governments in particular, must treat municipalities as equal partners with competence, often at levels far greater than that provided through other spheres of government. In addition to support being needed across municipalities through peer learning and other mechanisms, there is an urgent need for better co-ordination by national and provincial governments in how they lend support to municipalities in terms of Section 154 of the Constitution. These two spheres need to ensure that all organs of state work collaboratively and do not act in silos in building the required competencies at an individual, institutional and environmental level. But we still have a long way to go to truly transform the municipal institutional base.

Although vacancies in municipal managers and CFO positions have declined (for municipal managers from 30% in 2011 to 22% in 2021 and CFOs from 28% in 2011 to 21% in 2021), we should not have any vacancies in such critical positions. At the same time, we still have too few women in professional leadership positions in our municipalities. We must also build a cohort of younger professionals to drive development and must reverse the trend of a declining proportion of younger officials (those under 35 years of age) in our professional and technical areas of administration (a decline from 34% in 2016 to 18% this year). And we must ensure that every municipality at least has, for example, professionally certified engineers, planners and accountants in the senior management positions of technical services, planning and finance to ensure a capable institutional base is enhanced.

Changes must also address challenges in the supply chain management, which are very slow and cumbersome and subject to dispute, interpretation and corruption. Municipalities must also act swiftly to address community and business forum disruptions to construction projects, including contractor challenges when legislated processes have been followed. Building a capable state at a local level must become an all of society matter. Real partnerships must be built where the existing and significant capacity in municipalities is built upon wherever there are gaps. All spheres of government must work to ensure existing budgets are spent timeously.

Challenges inhibiting the delivery of budgeted services and challenges, whether as a result of poor leadership, lack of requisite competencies, challenges in supply chain management processes and/or due to community-based stoppages must be addressed urgently.

Sutcliffe and Bannister are directors at City Insight (Pty) Ltd