It is sometimes said that local government is the sphere of government where policy meets people. The extent of governance efficiency is felt most directly at local government level. It is here where the core of service delivery functions needs to be effected and implemented to ensure a better life for citizens. In its own very hard hitting and honest assessment of the state of local government in 2009, the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA) concluded that local government is in distress and that a comprehensive turnaround is needed. Their report referred to the challenges of huge service delivery backlogs, leadership and governance failures, corruption and fraud, poor financial management, insufficient capacity due to a lack of scarce skills, high vacancy rates, poor performance management and inadequate training.
Among the challenges pointed out is that cadre deployment without adequate assessment of skills during this process has further exacerbated the problem. SALGA commented on the systemic under investment in people, the lack of technical, management and leadership skills and the need to also improve the skills of the political leadership of municipalities, the lack of defined minimum competencies for critical positions, and the impact of undue political interference in management decisions. SALGA also noted that more creative responses are needed, such as partnering with the private sector and looking at shared services options.
The above challenges contribute significantly to the current service delivery backlogs in South Africa. These are estimated at 19.3% in water backlogs, 32.6% in access to sanitation, 27.3% in access to electricity and 40.1% in access to refuse removal. Although the reasons for service delivery protests are often complex, these backlogs certainly contributed to the perceptions of poor service delivery and the consequent civil unrest as evidenced by more than 200 service delivery protests during the last 24 months. A key contributing factor to service delivery challenges is the deteriorating state of infrastructure in many municipalities. This can at least partly be attributed to the exodus of engineering and technical professionals from municipalities. According to research conducted by Allyson Lawless, as early as in 2005 more than one third of local municipalities already did not have a single civil engineer, technologist or technician, and vacancies in local government for engineering practitioners exceeded 1000. Since then, the situation has deteriorated even further. She also noted the overall scarcity of engineering professionals in South Africa, a country with only half as many engineers as doctors. In contrast, Australia, America, Western Europe, China and India have a similar number of engineers to doctors.
In the report Local Government Turnaround and Clean Audit, Deloitte recommends the following non-negotiable principles as a guide to municipal turnaround or organisational transformation:
In quest for governance efficiency, CoGTA has recognised the need for a turnaround strategy through public-private partnerships. The Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), in partnership with CoGTA set-up Vulindlela Academy to support the Turnaround Strategy for Local Government through finance management and other scarce skills programmes. The academy is a training institution established to provide capacity building training programmes primarily to the local government institutions in South Africa, as well as the SADC Development Finance Institutions. Vulindlela is an accredited training service provider and works in close cooperation with CoGTA, the Treasury, SALGA, LGSETA and other relevant stakeholders.
Vulindlela offers specialised and focused training and capacity building programmes in infrastructural development and poverty relief, and seeks to address the capacity deficiencies prevalent at local government level. It focuses in particular on strengthening capacity through training in finance, planning and management, recognising the dire need for these skills at local level. The institution’s courses include short courses as well as full national qualifications.
It is through initiatives like these that government efficiency at local level can be developed to meet the needs of the citizens even in the furthest corners of the nation. It is through these efforts that the aims of the envisioned democratic society and growing economy will be realised through a responsive, accountable, effective and efficient system of local government. If local government fails, South Africa fails.