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Ethical, accountable leadership needed to fix dysfunctional municipalities
Author: Harlan Cloete
Published: 21/07/2021

​Will our government's District Development Model be enough to fix dysfunctional municipalities? This is the question Dr Harlan Cloete from the School of Public Leadership tried to answer in an opinion piece for Cape Times (21 July 2021).

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

​Harlan Cloete*

In South Africa, barely a day goes by without reported treasonous revelations of fraud and corruption, wastage, infrastructure deterioration and municipalities that have lost the confidence of the very communities they are called to serve, expressed through sometimes violent “service delivery" unrest spearheaded by the poor. The latest report by the Auditor-General (AG) confirms that some municipalities have quite frankly become dysfunctional as unbridled looting and incompetence abound.  

Not surprisingly, the reporting by municipalities on their performance was even worse than their financial reporting. Less than a quarter of our municipalities could provide quality performance reports to audit, while just under half of them continue to publish performance information that was unreliable or had little relevance to what they had promised to do in their strategic planning documents (i.e. the Integrated Development Plan and the Work Skills and Equity Plans).

The District Development Model (DDM) is government's latest response to arrest the bedevilling governance collapse of municipalities. The DDM is built on a set of guiding principles. And principles don't change. As the saying goes, “What goes up, must come down". The guiding principles (read behaviours)  of the DDM advocate a joint “One Plan" effected through a series of collaborative and deep integrated planning sessions reflecting on research, evidence, solution and innovation-oriented dialogues based on each district/metro's own dynamics, challenges and opportunities.

It's not about ticking boxes and being driven by compliance, but rather re-imagining a preferred future and identifying the strategies and interventions that will enable change and impact. One of the challenges the DDM seeks to overcome is the absence of an automated system to manage DDM operations, reporting, monitoring and governance as there is no centralised repository of data to enable government to realise the vision of coordinated planning & budgeting.

The institutional vehicle for the DDM is the district hub. The hub, in turn, is governed through three workstreams: the Integrated Planning & Implementation stream tasked to undertake and/or coordinate research related to service delivery and development; the Capacity Building stream oversees the implementation of capacity building; and the Monitoring stream will develop baseline monitoring information and data to ensure that service delivery takes place.

But hang on, have we not seen this before?  It's a big ask to trust those responsible for the failure of local government to rebuild it. Those, who through tick-box compliance, governed us into this mess.

Over the course of the last two decades, there have been so many initiatives, plans and strategies and even direct interventions by the national and provincial government, with very little impact, as confirmed by the office of the AG. So what hope is there that the DDM will be the panacea for local governance ills?

I believe and concur with the AG that the only way to turn this around and ensure good governance, is if ethical and accountable local government leadership drives the desired behavioural change. What this requires is a leadership that understands the why (purpose), the how (competencies) and the what (innovative service delivery in an ever-changing context) of public office. And this is a non-partisan endeavour. When elected leaders put their purpose together and focus only on impact and results, the community ultimately benefit.

And this is achieved through disciplined and committed constitutionalists such as Kennith Fourie and Nomvuyo Mposelwa, chief financial officer (CFO) and mayor of the rural Senqu municipality in the Eastern Cape respectively. The pair led the municipality to another clean audit by getting the basics right. Fourie rose from an intern to CFO and ascribes the success to adherence to daily disciplines (implementing procedures, systems, planning, etc.). Mayor Mposelwa, on the other hand, is firmly focused on making sure the job gets done by not interfering with tenders or finances.

In addition to ethical leaders like Mposelwa, we will need human resource development (HRD) practitioners to be skilled in advising and helping municipal leaders navigate the complex organisational change management programmes such as the DDM, given that 70% of change management initiatives fail or partially succeed. These practitioners must assume new roles as credible change strategic partners of managers who are tasked with aligning people, strategy, and performance as pointed out by acclaimed British scholar Robert Hamlin in the book Evidence-based organizational change and development (2019).

Although I choose to remain optimistic, I am afraid that the DDM may very well be our last chance to get our local government house in order. Communities are quite frankly fed-up with municipal mediocrity. And there must be consequences for poor performance. I know it's a big ask, but communities must claim back their agency and vote in their numbers in the next local government elections. They should also actively participate between elections to articulate the deferred dream of 1994.

Getting things back on track will require a whole-of-society approach that includes, among others, tertiary institutions that must partner with municipalities to strengthen local government through the application of evidence-based policymaking and the science of implementation (delivery).

*Dr Harlan Cloete is an extraordinary lecturer at the School of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University. His main research interest is exploring evidence-based HRD governance systems in the public sector with a keen interest in local government.