Municipalities need to be transparent to the people they serve
Many documents are supposed to be on metro websites, and on the National Treasury tender portal, yet often appear in neither
Beatrice is a 48-year-old single mother who wakes up most days at 4am to walk through the streets of an informal settlement in one of our metropolitan municipalities, collecting tin cans and bottles to sell — the only way she can make a living to support her family. In the area, as in most informal settlements in metro, basic government services, such as toilets, are limited, and when they are provided, servicing is often inadequate.
In 2018, Beatrice was one of hundreds of residents who participated in a social audit on sanitation services conducted by Planact, a civil society organisation with a mission to alleviate poverty by supporting communities to participate in the processes of their local governments.
Beatrice and the other residents found that it was difficult to get access to many of the basic documents — such as tenders — needed to engage meaningfully on the resources being used by the municipality to provide these services. Only after extensive behind-the-scenes work by Planact and the International Budget Partnership SA (IBP-SA), were these documents obtained.
There was likewise no structured opportunity for people like Beatrice to engage the metro. It took similar work to find out exactly who in the metro was responsible for the delivery of the service and create the opportunities to speak to them. Engaging the government on budgets and service delivery, and doing so with solid information, is particularly important to poor communities where government services are often the primary mechanism through which people gain access to basics such as water and sanitation.
Beatrice and the other participants of the social audit learnt how to use government procurement documents to monitor what sanitation services private companies were supposed to be delivering in their informal settlement. Since then they have used their findings to engage with the metro’s water and sanitation department. As a result, sanitation services have improved significantly and Beatrice and her neighbours have a newfound confidence to engage the government on the quality and quantity of services that they receive. This example shows the positive dividends that more open metro budget processes could bring.
More detailed information on budget implementation should be made publicly available, in particular, more disaggregated monthly budget statements and more detailed information on capital projects
Through its annual metro open budget survey (OBS), the IBP-SA, together with the Dullah Omar Institute at the University of the Western Cape, has assessed budget transparency, participation and oversight in five of the metropolitan municipalities over the past year. The survey assesses metro budget accountability in each of the four phases of the budget process from formulation, to approval, to implementation, through to audit. The metro OBS is modeled on the global open budget survey, initiated by the International Budget Partnership in 2006.
The global OBS evaluates national government budget processes in 115 countries across six continents using internationally accepted benchmarks. The metro OBS is, similarly, a rigorous, independent, fact-based assessment of budget accountability. Independent researchers assess this using a standard set of questionnaires, basing their findings on referenced evidence. The findings are reviewed by the relevant metro governments and an expert reviewer.
The 2019 metro OBS assessed five of the eight metropolitan municipalities in SA: City of Cape Town, City of Johannesburg, City of Ekurhuleni, eThekwini metro municipality and Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan municipality. The five metros did not perform well on budget transparency, oversight and participation, even if, during some phases of the budget process, things looked better than in others.
Ways to improve
Despite the challenges faced in the five metros, we found that there are some basic, low cost, and practical reforms that could significantly improve the situation. First, existing documents can be published online. These include tender specifications and a pre-budget statement (similar to the medium-term budget policy statement published at national level). Many such documents are supposed to be on metro websites, and on the National Treasury tender portal, yet often appear in neither.
Secondly, more detailed information on budget implementation should be made publicly available, in particular, more disaggregated monthly budget statements and more detailed information on capital projects.
Thirdly, opportunities for residents to interact with officials and elected representatives can be created by making it easier to attend and participate in sectoral council committees where budget implementation and service delivery are being discussed; or using other mechanisms by which the public can provide feedback on the implementation of contracts. This, of course, requires that information on the awarding of contracts and on procurement deviations and extensions of contracts be published in a timely manner.
The metro where Beatrice lives estimates that by 2030 the number of informal settlement residents will quadruple, making up half of the metro’s total population. This demand for services, the slow economy and competing budget interests will put even further pressure on metro budgets in years to come. To manage this situation metros will need the help of residents such as Beatrice to ensure they deliver the right services and that they get value for money.
IBP SA will conduct the metro OBS annually and support metros in their efforts to improve their budget accountability. But metros themselves will need to act deliberately and immediately. And most importantly there are clear ways that they can do this.
• Van Zyl is director at IBP SA.