The problem is many municipalities lack skilled managers able to comply with the law without detracting from service delivery. Having the right legal framework in place is a vital first step in creating a state that delivers effective services to its citizens, and can be held to account for its failures. But, as the experience of the past 20 years demonstrates, good laws do not lead inevitably to good service delivery.
The bottom line is even world-class laws, such as we have, rely on skilled professionals in the executive branch to do the actual work. These professionals need to be at the local government level, where service delivery as mandated by the Constitution primarily takes place. This makes sense: municipalities are directly involved with people receiving the services and understand a constituency’s service-delivery needs.
Municipalities are by nature complex because of the web of laws governing them. The Municipal Finance Management Act determines how their finances must be managed and how they should procure goods and services. The Municipal Systems Act regulates how municipalities provide services, including whether by the municipality itself or through third parties. Municipalities also have to comply with state directives relating to supply chains and procurement.
The problem is so many municipalities lack skilled managers able to comply with the law without detracting from service delivery.
This is particularly acute in smaller municipalities that find it hard to attract top talent. Even though municipal salaries are uniform nationally, many professionals prefer to work in big metropoles and a high number of them are migrating to the private sector.
Here’s where we see the law’s limits. In response to low skills levels, municipal regulations on minimum competency levels were promulgated in 2007 to prescribe minimum competency levels of senior officials of municipalities. The target date for compliance was originally 2012 but it keeps on being extended owing to widespread noncompliance.
The regulations also fail to cover skills needed by political office bearers, such as mayors and councillors, though they’re mandated by the Municipal Finance Management Act to oversee municipal officials’ work.
Further efforts to improve service delivery through legislation are evident in the need for municipalities to establish performance management systems, to be monitored by provincial and national governments. The lack of clean audits in most municipalities and service delivery protests across South Africa are indicators of how little effect such monitoring and assistance efforts have had.
Corruption is often blamed for contributing to poor service delivery. Supply chain legislation, regulations and municipal policies have proved equally ineffective in stamping it out. The link between corruption and service delivery can be hard to demonstrate. Whether contracts were obtained corruptly or not, it is municipalities’ inability to manage service standards properly that is the direct cause of poor service delivery. This is not a solution the law can provide; corruption should be dealt with as part of the service delivery debate.
We do have the right legal framework in place to support good service delivery. We now need to look beyond the law. National and provincial governments either have to ensure officials are skilled enough to implement the laws or develop these skills in officials, and then measure those skills against service delivery indicators.
We cannot afford for this to remain the tick-the-box exercise it is now.