Time for a minimum standards model for SA local government?

Feb 04, 11 Time for a minimum standards model for SA local government?

In 2009, 77.3% of registered voters in South Africa cast their votes in national and provincial elections. In the 2006 local government elections, this figure was 48.4%. Less than half the country. Despite high voter-turnout for national polls, the IEC’s basic target for this year’s municipal elections is 40%. What appears to be a thriving democracy on a national scale degenerates into something that isn’t when it comes to municipal elections. Something is wrong with South Africa’s local government system.

This is particularly problematic because SA’s local government system is heavily dependent on engagement and participation. The Integrated Development Planning system means that plans, priorities and budgets can only be set through local-level consultative processes, with ratification by local and district councils. The system is structured so that accountability is, necessarily, an on-going process where voters/citizens/residents must attend meetings, contribute to planning, read documents and track performance. If South Africans aren’t even showing up once every 5 years vote, is it perhaps time to consider a simpler system that will ask less from what appears to be an apathetic (or perhaps disillusioned) local citizenry?

The obvious alternative would be to have a minimum service package that can be monitored nationally, while still allowing municipalities to go beyond the minimum if they have the money, mandate and inclination.

A minimum standards system would define (probably with a national average) what every municipality is required to provide (funds allowing) to each household based on predetermined standards and cost-limits. The package of services might include requiring all municipalities to complete maintenance and rehabilitation on a set percentage of their kms of road every year, that a certain minimum amount of money must be spent on maintenance of water-purification works and/or that houses and flush toilets must be delivered to ‘x’ new households each year.

This approach has some clear advantages. Minimum service delivery standards mean that municipalities are pushed to provide the same standards, at the same level of service, to every household. Each household within a municipality knows exactly what to expect. Also, all municipalities across the country are attempting to provide the same services. Budgets and the amounts municipalities should be spending can be (relatively) easily calculated based on fixed formulae. This may help with the financial mismanagement that saw, for the 2008/2009 financial year, only 6 out of 247 audited municipalities achieving a clean audit. The skills required for this type of municipal service-delivery are easier to define and monitor than in the current system where municipal staff are often expected to be experts in everything from community development and public consultation to water purification and event management.

Of course, there are disadvantages. Without a local planning process, some local issues may not get the attention that people feel they should. A minimum standards model disincentivises municipalities that are already going beyond average national service levels. The system does not prevent blatant corruption and misappropriation of funds. The attention of municipalities may be completely redirected away from public consultation and celebrating Heritage Month to focus only on the delivery of these services.

This isn’t the ideal system. In a perfect world, consultative, integrated development planning would be better. But South Africa clearly isn’t a perfect world. Consultation and local control are important but lack of engagement in local government processes, low voter turnout and service-delivery protests suggest that simple provision of basic services might be more important to the people right now.