Learning Our Lessons

Many of the development challenges that the Vuthela Programme was designed to address are long standing and some have seemed intractable.

Most persistent problems lie at the cross sectoral level e.g. between Financial and Technical (non-revenue electricity and non-revenue water), Development Charges (Planning and Technical), Financial/Community (Indigent Register), Finance/Technical Supply Chain Management. Matrix management and cross sectoral teamwork is underdeveloped within the public service.

The issue of sharing/transferring “ownership” between technical assistance interventions and “beneficiary” organisations is complex and the outcomes have been uneven in the case of the Vuthela Programme.

Valuable lessons for future

But the lessons learnt from the successful projects and those that proved challenging provide valuable guidance for similar initiatives.

The most persistent problems became apparent at the cross-sectoral and cross-functional level.

Strategies to resolve non-revenue electricity and non-revenue water had to be located at the intersection of the Financial and Technical functions in the respective organisations. Development Charges policies require the collaboration of Planning, Finance and Technical divisions; and Finance and Community Outreach sections are jointly responsible for the successful implementation of a credible Indigent Register. The Automated Indigent Register requires close collaboration between the district and the local municipalities to optimise information across the district.

The dominant culture within municipalities remains one of internal functional focus (the oft repeated silo problem), whereas many of the problems needing resolution require a matrix approach with project teams across functional areas working together to identify problems, solutions and to implement them. These require a shift in organisational culture, which is a deeper and more long-term undertaking.

Although the Vuthela Programme aimed to address the most relevant and pressing challenges with the municipalities, there was often a challenge securing the participation, focus and engagement of relevant officials in project activities, despite these issues clearly being high priority issues for the municipality. Municipal staff have to meet a myriad compliance and accountability obligations, and these often stand in the way of undertaking more high priority strategic interventions.

Individual accountability needed

Although the Vuthela Programme projects fell under the accountability of beneficiary municipalities through structures such as the Project Steering Committee (PSC), Project Management Team (PMT) and the Programme Steering Committee (PSC), this never converted to individual accountability in terms of Annual Performance Agreements. This meant that irrespective of the initiative being an organisational priority, the fact that it was not reflected in specific individuals’ performance requirements, meant that the work did not receive the attention that those issues reflected in the agreement. This was an oversight on the part of the programme implementation.

A key lesson that emerged from the programme was that systemic interventions to improve the enabling business environment are likely to have a more material impact on economic growth, investment and employment than just limiting LED activities to grant financing SMMEs. But these interventions require a high level of commitment, strategic management and systems thinking from leadership for them to be successful.

The terrain of public sector reform is a highly complex one, with a high risk of failure, and requires a change management methodology instead of a generic project management approach.

It takes a long time to institutionalise and optimise interventions, which require persistence and continuous engagement between relevant municipal divisions. Even though this programme, albeit a complex one, has been running already for six years, some of the activities only recently started yielding results.

Ultimate results

While outputs have been achieved on the majority of projects, the programme still has to move the needle to create impact across all elements of the programme. Ultimately, this will result in:

  • Increased budget allocation to maintenance
  • Increased budgets and expenditure on infrastructure
  • Seamless development approvals and building plan approvals
  • Reduced Non-Revenue Water
  • Reduced Non-Revenue Electricity
  • Fully functioning Asset Management and Indigent Register systems

The Vuthela Programme’s development partner and donor, the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), affirms that a big learning was that the application of international funding should be on programmes of reform that support the district, with “tentacles” into key reform areas that are aligned to municipal strategies and policies.

An important element was how to drive interlinked aspects in a sequenced way and fully exploit the opportunities for these links to develop and its uptake from partnering institutions.

The Vuthela Programme remained critically relevant in the current economic and developmental context that South Africa finds itself in.

While many positive outcomes have emerged, critical lessons and learnings include the need for high level buy-in, support and ownership for systemic reforms to take root. The role of a support programme must be clear – it has to be integrated into municipal activities and not treated as a stand-alone add-on.

The partnership model between the public and private sectors needs to be reviewed – the public sector cannot be expected to drive local economic development on its own.

Flexibility, agility and open communication between partners are key to a successful outcome.

Peer-to-peer learning

The municipalities should consider continuation of mechanisms of peer-to-peer learning to continuously dialogue and learn from each other, and it was crucial that the proposed Resource Centre is established at Enterprise iLembe as a central focal point for economic development in the district, according to SECO.

The next big challenge will be to develop and implement an appropriate resources plan to sustain the reforms and continue with projects, and to build on past successes towards achieving the reforms required for sustainable economic growth.

The iLembe District Municipality recommended that future programmes should adopt the private sector or Project Coordinating Unit model, instead of using special purpose development agencies of the municipalities, which are constrained by municipal legislation.

A major learning was that the programme inception must involve all intended beneficiaries, especially other municipal functions, to ensure that there is alignment with the aim of the programme and all are informed on the outcomes and outputs of the programme.

KZN EDTEA concluded that the Vuthela Programme emphasised that LED was not an isolated function within a municipality. It requires an integrated approach to implement a holistic intervention to build capacity within the municipality and create an enabling environment for investment in the district.

Photo: Sibusiso Mahlangu, Vuthela PMT and General Manager P&D, iLembe District Municipality