For three years, Cape Town has suffered a crippling drought that has left the city facing the prospect of dry taps. Local and national leadership have come under fire for their handling of the water shortage, including the city’s mayor, who faced a motion of no confidence and was stripped of her water-related responsibilities. Early in 2018, a national disaster was declared.

But while it is tempting — and satisfying — to find someone to blame for the crisis, there are lessons to be learnt from the situation that could benefit service delivery more broadly.

Chief among these is that building a fully operational system of accountability is more powerful in the long run than blame-driven leadership.

Accountability systems research says that in times of crisis, it is tempting to fall into blame processes, though this is not necessarily the most help-ful approach.

People’s instinct is to ask who is to blame and, often, who is most to blame. Certainly there are sometimes things and people to blame for problems, but it is more helpful to work within an accountability system to apply minds to fully understanding the situation and the available solutions.

What needs to be asked is how the crisis point was reached and what can be done differently, and what challenges are being faced. The process should also entail retracing the steps and seeing what engagements might help to solve them.

The danger is that blaming or scapegoating can be mistaken for actual accountability systems. A process of blame is usually oversimplified (focusing on one or a small number of issues or people) and tends to identify symptoms of the problems rather than tackling root causes.

The result of a blame system is the illusion of progress and activity while merely papering over the cracks. This is inherently reactive, focuses on protecting/blaming individuals and leaves root causes to continue to cause problems in the future.

An accountability system identifies problems early by building up processes that clarify points of individual and joint responsibility for issues. This allows the early identification of issues and a more dynamic capacity to apply the corrective actions needed when necessary. People are held to account, but not in a self-serving manner, and not when it is too late.

The result of a blame system is the illusion of … activity while merely papering over the cracks

There are several ways in which an accountability system could help improve service delivery and enhance leadership – but some challenges in implementing it would still remain.

Strong accountability systems are proactive. They are constantly monitoring progress and identifying problems as they arise, not waiting for the crisis outcome that will spark a cycle of blame. There is ample evidence that scientists warned Cape Town city officials early on that there was a need to plan for water shortages and that there was concern from officials, yet action was not taken.

There are two primary challenges. Politicians run on five-year terms, in part to preserve democracy and prevent over-long stays in office. But this means there is a certain risk of short-termism when it comes to planning — especially when the crisis has not yet hit.

The second and related challenge is funding. To deliver justifiable results, politicians and officials tend to favour spending when there is an emergency; it’s easier to convince people an expenditure is worth it when it’s dealing with an obvious problem than when it’s being used to prevent the problem from happening in the first place.

Emergencies also tend to unlock funds that are not otherwise available. Combined, these factors mean people unwittingly incentivise the creation of emergencies. To reduce the number of emergencies, leaders (and citizens) must focus on understanding root causes of issues, which would allow for more proactive spending.

During his inaugural state of the nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa called on Capetonians to rally together to overcome the drought. He could have directed the same advice to local and national leadership. Crises such as the drought have the potential to unify, but also have the potential to drive survivalist, individualist thinking.

The drought has ushered in crippling infighting among Cape Town’s political leadership, with a devastating split in the locally governing DA, as well as the local city council. Mayor Patricia de Lille, meanwhile, has faced a few disciplinary processes.

There has also been public tension between Western Cape Premier Helen Zille and Department of Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, with Zille slapping Mokonyane with a R3.5m bill for the price of water infrastructure.

Factional leadership epitomises the self-interested blame system. Though it is understandable in a situation in which everyone has something at stake, it is clearly unhelpful to improving the situation.

While entirely abandoning self-interest is unlikely, a more hopeful and positive route is to focus on the shared purpose common across all stakeholders. Homing in on action and discussions on this shared purpose can minimise the focus on individuals and crystallise problem-solving efforts.

At the same time, a shared goal can be pursued while still aiming to retain a position, salary or funding at the endpoint. Asking people to become completely selfless is unrealistic, but putting shared purpose first can keep the majority of the focus on the needs that are common to all stakeholders.

In this way, a shared culture of accountability is built in which attention is directed towards the problem, rather than deflecting attention away from its core elements through the blame game.

A key skill required for cooperation and accountabi- lity is engaging with multiple, informed viewpoints.

Key critiques about the water crisis have come from scientists and academics. Some have noted they warned of the water crisis years ahead of time. Their contribution is crucial, but it appears to have been largely unheeded. A lack of engagement usually points to failings on more than one side. In the case of communication failings between academics and officials, there are two key issues that must be remedied.

Timelines must be shortened between communications: the time lag between an academic submitting a piece of research and a journal publishing it can be as long as one to two years, by which time the information is less relevant to politicians.

Second, academic jargon is rarely accessible to anyone who is not an active researcher in the specific topic being written about. For academics and policy makers to communicate effectively and for relevant, timely decisions to be made, communication must be more direct and timely.

The critical difference between accountability systems and blame-driven leadership is that the latter is reactive, focused solely on outcomes.

It reduces complex issues to apportion blame to a small number of individuals.

An accountability system, on the other hand, is constructive.

It focuses on formative feedback and processes, and steers stakeholders to home in on shared needs.

Perhaps the perils of the water crisis will encourage political leaders to build stronger accountability systems.

• London is a senior lecturer at the Alan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership at the UCT Graduate School of Business.