Local government is difficult. Mayors and municipal managers face more legislative compliance issues than their private sector counterparts. They don’t always have the resources they need to do their jobs (whether money or human resources).
They are increasingly finding that they need to provide services that aren’t officially part of their job description – the so-called unfunded mandates.
The top-down nature of government structures compounds this last point: national and provincial government priorities are determined by ministers and MECs and municipalities are expected to fall in line and implement these priorities.
There are other structural problems that are made worse by poorly-implemented decisions taken over the last few years. These include the devolution of revenue-generating powers to municipalities from national government without sufficiently enabling municipalities to perform these functions, and the rapid transformation of the municipal civil service.
It must be stressed that the implementation of these decisions is being criticised, not the decisions themselves.
Municipal officers recognise the need for training and skills development and are eager to engage with potential service providers. They also often have a good idea of what they want from service providers. However, there are a number of common themes that can delay or stall the process.
Interestingly, most of these aren’t unique to municipal government or even to the public sector, but they are important to highlight: Training is perceived, and commissioned, by municipalities as a stand-alone service.
In practice, municipalities purchase training and skills development services separately. This is due to a number of factors, including the structuring and disbursement of SETA money.
The need for training is based on ‘push’ factors, rather than ‘pull’ factors – in other words municipalities are guided by their needs to comply with certain legislation and processes, such as Auditor-General reports.
Municipal officials prioritise training which they feel will result in enhanced audits, a smoother budget process, and which will reduce their exposure to criticism or adverse findings. Training which is not seen as essential, although it might be just as important for compliance purposes, is not conducted.
For example, municipalities are uniformly poor at complying with their requirements for community participation (Chapter 4 of the Municipal Systems Act), because it is difficult for community members to hold the municipality accountable, and therefore they are not seen as an important constituency.
Municipalities’ training requirements are partly driven by the budget cycle. For example, the National Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA), in partnership with SALGA, led an induction programme for new municipal councillors coinciding with the new financial year (from July 1).
Any potential service providers would have found it difficult to offer training for councillors during this period. Similarly, any training related to municipal budgeting (and improving the council’s approach to budgeting) must be carefully timed in order to maximize the benefit to the municipality.
There are processes that should take place before certain training occurs, such as a skills audit which doesn’t happen. Ideally, an audit should be conducted on a municipality’s past budget documents, demographic information, policies and by-laws and staff complement before suggesting any training.
Most municipalities are unwilling to pay for such an extensive review. Admittedly, the priorities of the service provider (attempting to justify as large and broad a contract as possible) are not the same as the client (who is looking for the most value for money).
However, many municipalities suffer from a high staff turnover rate and a skill mismatch as a result. This is often a strong justification for an audit of some kind.
The current focus of municipalities is the need to improve financial oversight, obtain clean audits, and put in place functioning performance management systems. Many of the problems related to adverse audit findings are a result of poor or non-existent administrative systems in the municipalities, and these problems can only partly be fixed through training.
The problems with effective performance management seem to stem from a poor understanding of the legislation and the budget process.
In one municipality where a manager complained that one of his staff (a middle manager) suggested that a key performance indicator (KPI) should be the number of meetings he convened in the calendar year!
In cases like this, managers may need to be trained in the first principles of municipal government (i.e. basic service delivery) and linking the municipality’s objectives to individual performance targets and outcomes.
The challenges summarized above should not be seen as damning of municipal government. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, municipalities have been facing huge challenges for over a decade.
Things are however improving in most of the municipalities; more and more municipal council officials who are young, qualified professionals. The raw materials are there in the form of intellectual potential and the will to serve the community. The specialist knowledge and skills needed to perform optimally is what needs to be developed and nurtured.
Written by: Paul Berkowitz – South African Local Government Specialist.