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1 November 2014 09:17 (South Africa)
South Africa

Analysis: The state of municipal capacity

  • Paul Berkowitz
  • South Africa
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On Wednesday the Municipal Demarcation Board (MDB) released its State of Municipal Capacity Report (SMCR) for the 2010/11 financial year. The report is a bigger, beefier piece of analysis than previous editions of the SMCR, and it could be a valuable addition to the debate on government functions and service delivery. By PAUL BERKOWITZ.

The MDB provides a number of Constitutionally mandated, important services. It’s probably most famous for the work it does in demarcating and delimiting the political boundaries of our municipalities and provinces. Its work is technical and flies under the radar for the most part. However, with a growing public interest in service delivery issues and inter-governmental relations, there is a greater focus on the work done by the MDB. 

One of the annual projects undertaken by the MDB since 2001 has been an assessment of municipal capacity. Essentially this has been an audit of the powers and functions that municipalities are actually equipped to perform, and not just those functions that are mandated by law. The analysis goes beyond the provision of basic services (water, electricity, refuse removal and sanitation) and has covered functions ranging from fire-fighting to street lighting to burial and library services.

The MDB last conducted an assessment in 2008 and for the last few years there were concerns that the assessment had been discontinued. This was a concern as, apart from the MDB’s assessments, there aren’t really any credible, annual audits of municipal capacity. In fact, apart from the MDB’s work, there aren’t really hard numbers on government capacity for any sphere of government. 

The good news is that the MDB appears to have spent the time updating its methodology and scope of research. The new report, the first SMCR, is a noticeable improvement in terms of the length of the interactive questionnaire with municipal officials and the depth of the analysis. 

The MDB has relied on both secondary data sources (the Auditor-General’s municipal audit reports, the municipal budget database that is administered by National Treasury, water service reports from the Department of Water Affairs) and its own primary data gathering. The latter was conducted through a questionnaire produced by the MDB. All but seven municipalities completed the questionnaire, providing near-universal coverage. 

The questionnaire deals with quantitative issues for the most part, but the MDB has also conducted an in-depth qualitative assessment of three services (fire services, roads and solid waste services) in nine districts (one for each province). There is definitely scope to build on the qualitative approach, provided that the MDB has the capacity to expand its research in the future.

The cherry on the cake is the launch of an interactive web-hosted database that can run customised searches and queries. The MDB hopes that interested parties beyond the municipalities themselves, including civil society and analysts, will make use of the research and perhaps even add to it.

The quantitative assessment of municipal capacity has confirmed some of the rumours repeated anecdotally – such as higher staff vacancy rates in rural municipalities – and it has exploded some other rumours. For example, there is evidence that top- and middle-management in municipalities has become more experienced and better educated in the recent past, putting the lie to wholesale doom-and-gloom scenarios.

Before delving deeper into the numbers, it’s worth recapping the differences between the different kinds of municipalities. The SMCR stratifies municipalities by geography (across provinces) and by legal status/ type (metro, district and local). 

The analysis by type of municipality could be quite a bit less dry and a fair bit more juicy than a cursory glance would reveal. There is a debate raging over whether the country could do with fewer municipalities and, if it can, which municipalities should get the chop. The SMCR is therefore a tool with the potential to influence policy development in quite profound ways and, indirectly, to possibly put some people in local government out of a job. 

The Municipal Structures Act allows for the creation of three different kinds of municipalities: metro, district and local. The essential difference between the types is that metro municipalities have full executive and legislative autonomy while district municipalities share executive and legislative powers with their respective local municipalities. In plain English, a metro creates and administers its own by-laws and performs all municipal functions itself, while a district and its local municipalities must negotiate amongst themselves and decide who will do which things. 

Furthermore, most districts and local municipalities are not created equally. In larger, more rural provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo the district municipalities are likely to have more autonomy and perform more functions. In provinces with fewer municipalities and greater urbanisation (Gauteng and Western Cape) the local municipalities play a greater role in service provision and generally have greater capacity.

The MDB recognises four different classes of local municipalities, ranging from the most urbanised and economically developed (the nineteen ‘secondary cities’ which include Mbombela, Polokwane and Stellenbosch) to the more rural and sparsely populated. The MDB also divides the district municipalities into two groups: those which are water service authorities and those which are not. The districts which are water service authorities have the responsibility and (hopefully) capacity to create broad strategy and manage infrastructure for water provision. 

In the most rural, sparsely populated areas of the country the local municipalities are the least capacitated and most municipal functions are provided by the districts. One of the focuses of the SMCR is on these districts: on whether the relationship between the local municipalities and the districts is working or not. 

In terms of staff capacity the SMCR found, unsurprisingly, that staff vacancies were higher in rural areas than urban ones. Municipalities in the Western Cape (83.2%) and Gauteng (80.1%) had the highest levels of filled posts while those in Limpopo (61.5%) had the lowest. 

The report also found that municipal organograms may be over-designed, with funded positions making up well over three-quarters of all staffing positions in municipalities. At the same time the most rural local municipalities and their districts are having the hardest time convincing people to work for them: 47.1% of all funded posts in such local municipalities are vacant, as are 35.6% of the posts in the related districts. 

On a provincial level the vacancies rates were highest in provinces with large rural populations, such as Limpopo (47.2%), KwaZulu-Natal (39.9%) and the Eastern Cape (36.9%). They were lowest in the Western Cape (14.4%).

Encouragingly, staff turnover rates are not too high, averaging 7% across all municipalities. Limpopo’s staff turnover rate is 11.2% which is significantly higher than its peers. 

In terms of experience and qualifications of top management, Western Cape municipalities were clearly ahead of the rest, while the Free State lagged badly. Municipal managers had an average of 10.4 years’ work experience. Managers in the Western Cape had 14.6 years under their belts while their Free State counterparts only had 5.2 years. 

The average municipal manager has had his or her job for 3.3 years. Managers in the Eastern Cape (4.3 years) and KwaZulu-Natal (4.2 years) had been at their jobs for longest while those in the North-West (1.5 years), Gauteng (1.7 years) and the Free State (1.8 years) had been there the shortest. 

The average municipal CFO has 11.2 years of experience. CFOs in the Free State only have 4.1 years of experience while those in the Western Cape have a whopping 20 years’ experience. In the other municipalities the amount of experience ranged from 9.5 years to 12.8 years, making the Free State and the Western Cape significant outliers.

The average CFO has been working at a municipality for 3.8 years. Again, the Western Cape (5.2 years) and the Free State (2.0 years) were the real outliers along with Limpopo (2.4 years). All the other provinces had an average length of service for their CFOs of between 3.3 years and 4.2 years. 

There are similar trends for the length of service of technical staff, with Western Cape municipalities employing the most experienced staff for the longest time and the Free State employing the least experienced staff for the shortest time. Comparable statistics for Gauteng municipalities were near the top end of the range, confirming that provinces with more metros and larger local municipalities are more able to attract and retain staff.

It is encouraging that a greater percentage of top management in municipalities have postgraduate qualifications. Well over 30% of municipal managers have a Masters or PhD qualification, as do 20% of corporate services managers and over 10% of CFOs. In 2008, 35% of all municipal managers had a qualification above a bachelor’s degree; by 2011 this had risen to 63% of all municipal managers. Similar increases can be seen for CFOs (from 16% to 37%).

Of concern is the relatively high vacancy rate amongst the so-called ‘Section 57 managers’, i.e. municipal managers and those managers reporting directly to municipal managers. The turnover rate of these managers, at 16%, is also more than double the overall turnover rate. These managers are an important mid-management link between the municipal managers, majors and CFOs higher up and the operational workers below. If this layer is in relative turmoil it could be the reason for breakdowns between the strategic and operations parts of the municipalities.

A very large area of concern is the gulf between the technical capacity of the metros and that of the most rural municipalities. There is an average of 127 engineers in each metro and 3.5 engineers in each secondary city. The more rural local municipalities and the district municipalities have only one engineer each on average, or even less than this. Even on a per capita basis there are four engineers for every 100,000 people in the metros, but only one engineer per 100,000 people across the other municipalities. Forty-four percent of the rural district municipalities do not have any engineers.

The trend for municipal planners is similar. There are 250 planners per metro, on average, 53 planners per secondary city and fewer than 50 planners in the other municipalities. In the district municipalities there are fewer than 30 planners on average.

There aren’t many revelations in the report but there are straightforward measures of the extent of the problems. The problems themselves have been alluded to before, and here they are thrown into sharp relief. Among the challenges faced by local government are: How can professional skills be attracted to and retained in municipalities, particularly in rural municipalities? How should the civil service be professionalised in order to make municipal government an attractive career option for talented people? 

The question of what to do with the district municipalities, both urban and rural, will become more hotly debated as municipal boundaries are finalised before the 2014 national/provincial elections. Some districts might be scrapped and some might be strengthened, but the SMCR has only underlined the need for action and policy decision on this matter.

The MDB has raised the bar for the annual analysis of local government. They have also opened the door to interested parties in the private sector and civil society. The option to further mine the data and to look more closely at the relationships between capacity and service delivery brings with it the possibility of improving local government performance for the most vulnerable. DM

Photo: A woman is surrounded by dogs as she prepares food in Mqanduli outside Mthata in South Africa's Eastern Cape province, September 8 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

  • Paul Berkowitz
  • South Africa


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