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Impediments to the culture of innovation in South African local municipalities


A few months ago. I was asked by an advisory firm to identify impediments to the culture of innovation in local municipalities. It will be interesting to read your views on these identified hindrances.

A.   Policy:

Case study one:

The national department of water affairs and forestry managed to deliver millions of taps a  few years ago. This was largely celebrated but upon inspection most of the taps were not functional or had running water which led to the department being dubbed The Ministry of Dry Taps. This pattern of service delivery also occurs in municipalities.

A hindrance to innovation in the public sector is the use of traditional Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) methods that typically assess inputs, activities and outputs. Whereas if a widely used M&E method was Results-Based by assessing outcomes and impact, a culture of excellence would have been internalized amongst public sector employees at the local government level.

Furthermore local government lacks proper Formative Evaluation that examines whether or not the assumed operational logic corresponds with actual operations and identified immediate consequences of implementation in relation to the initially envisaged outcomes.

A prevalent method currently is using only Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to assess whether employees do their work or not. For instance in local government some of the KPIs are as follows:

  1. Attending a certain minimum number of meetings
  2. Doing a certain number of site visits
  3. Assisting a certain number of service users per month, etc.

KPIs are a good tool but the problem is that they don’t measure impact. One way of measuring impact is alongside KPIs also include effectiveness. This way, with reference to point No.1 when assessing performance, points to consider would be if the person was productive in the meeting, was the individual instrumental in problem solving and implementation of any resolution. Such unit of measure would encourage a culture of innovation in the public sector but it’s not there at the moment.

B.   Remuneration:

The remuneration structure or lack of an effective one is also a contributing factor. People are paid based on set time intervals i.e. 8am-5pm, Monday to Friday. This allows them to take it easy because their salaries are not attached to making an impact. If remuneration was attached to impact assessments and actual hours worked, it would encourage innovation through constantly exploring ways of doing more with less time and resources than they would typically do.

C.     Developmental government paradigm:

The philosophy that’s generally applied is that of a developmental government-you don’t insist on appointing someone fully qualified for the project but look for people who meet the bare minimum requirements anticipating they’ll grow on the job. However this rarely works because there are no systems in place complex enough to assess and encourage people to do their work more efficiently within the on-the-job-experience. Using this analogy, local government employees that are appointed are mostly novices or advanced beginners.

The KPIs, M&E and remuneration structures as they stand in local government have unintended results of encouraging employees to be better novices or advanced beginners by making sure there’s no room for error. As such career development is very slow and horizontal rather than vertical and quick.

 Since novices are not trained to be creative and make decisions, control systems are put in place which they must follow to ensure that they don’t fail. Those who are more experienced and innovative are governed by the same controls thus limiting creativity around public sector services. Instead of being motivated to be creative these measures force people to be creative in the art of avoiding decision making as a strategy for survival.

D.    Local interests dominate:

 Innovation is accelerated by a smooth flow of information-the frequency at which that information is shared and modes of communicating it. Local government in essence focuses on immediate communities and nationwide knowledge sharing is not encouraged. People that are appointed are from around the area and they in turn employ individuals that are from the local community. Consequently councilors want to deliver to their wards regardless of whether the solution chosen is line with the overall interest on the municipality.

Such methods of cadre deployment give rise to a culture of risk-aversion as people are rewarded based on the level at which they conform to political dictates over the ability to display initiatives and decisiveness .To conquer these hurdles and drive innovation with minimal errors, knowledge sharing should occur at the higher rate and scale than it is currently. There has to be regional, provincial and national information sharing workshops of Municipalities where they deliberate on what has worked or hasn’t worked for them. Such is not happening at the moment because of political dynamics like which political party is going to take credit, etc?

Conclusion:

The impediments to innovation in local government identified in this paper are the core factors. Effective initiatives that would establish and maintain a culture of innovativeness will address these core problems simultaneously with other influencing variables such as political landscapes of the day.Policy and remuneration structures will have to be improved and a significant paradigm shift from a developmental government to semi-developed or developed one will ensure that people occupying public posts are at least competent-not novices or advanced beginners. Nationwide knowledge sharing will have to be encouraged. Essentially public sector services are delivered by people in the public sector and for these services to improve, efforts should be directed at improving systems and influencing the mindset of the work force. Such a process takes time but if done correctly it will ensure that systems are internalized by employees and a natural gravitation towards a culture of innovation in the public sector will emanate.

Written by

Thuba Sithole

Twitter: @2basithole

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