Municipal reports need to be public-friendly
South Africa is in a critical phase of its democratic dispensation. It is still institutionalising and strengthening its democratic governance practices to provide public services efficiently to all citizens. But these processes are taking place at a time when local government is grappling with corruption, allegedly as a result of irregular expenditure and poor leadership in most municipalities.
The auditor general’s report released a few months ago painted a desperate situation in most municipalities.
Among the startling revelations in the report are that:
- The audit outcomes of the 257 municipalities in the country show that only 16 improved and 45 regressed;
- Only 33 municipalities (13% of the total) produced quality financial statements and performance reports and consequently received a clean audit;
- Only 22% of the municipalities could provide financial statements without material misstatements;
- For those municipalities that produced performance reports (62% of the total), the reports had flaws and were not reliable for their councils or public consumption;
- Irregular expenditure increased from R16.21-billion in the previous financial year to R28.37-billion in the current year under review. About R15-billion of the total irregular expenditure was incurred in the years before the audit but only reported in the 2016–2017 financial year. The balance of R13.37-billion relates to expenditure incurred in the 2016–2017 financial year and represents 4% of the local government expenditure budget;
- Provincially, the Western Cape had the highest proportion of municipalities with clean audits (73%), followed by Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natalwith 33% and 30% respectively. The Eastern Cape, Free State and Mpumalanga showed improvements while North West, Limpopo and the Northern Cape had disappointing audit reports; and
- Most of the irregular expenditure was in North West, the Northern Cape, Mpumalanga and Limpopo.
On a more positive note, the auditor general reported that most of the irregular expenditures were reported in this financial year, a sign of awakened consciousness towards better financial governance.
But accountability remains far from improved. Contract management and procurement remain the two main areas of concern in which municipalities are failing to comply with regulations.
These troubling revelations are a slap in the face of the nation. Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene reported to Parliament a few months ago that 112 municipalities did not have the financial resources to execute their service delivery plans and only a paltry 14 municipalities could produce financial recovery plans.
The question then is how monitoring and evaluation can strengthen municipal governance.
Although monitoring and evaluation at the municipal level has been institutionalised, conditions to support the use of evaluation results are limited.Evaluation results are highly contested because they unearth a range of malpractices and systemic failures that negatively affect municipalities and their leadership.
But those municipalities that use evaluation results to achieve better service provision and good governance are showing better financial and performance management results. Internal controls are tight and both political and administrative leadership are vigilant that budgets are appropriately spent,performance targets are achieved and shortfalls are addressed promptly.
Moreover, evaluation has the potential to increase transparency. Citizens want to know how government, at all levels, is spending their money. This means municipal evaluation officers must produce evaluation reports that citizens can easily understand.
In contested terrains such as municipalities, the fundamental challenge facing municipal evaluation officers is addressing what information can be made public and what cannot.
The officers could include citizens and other key stakeholders in municipal evaluation activities. But participatory evaluation processes need to be managed sensitively, so that the processes do not weaken the incentive for public officials to work with the public on any aspect of governance. The flip side,of course, is encouraging municipal officials to buy into such evaluation processes and to be brave enough to deliberate on unsatisfactory findings.
Balancing the need to be accountable with that of strengthening overall municipal governance must be managed cautiously.
These tensions are interrelated, because evaluation, generally, aims to encourage learning in institutions and also promote accountability, in this case,municipal political and administrative leadership.
These tensions are not unresolvable. They need to be understood in the context of enhancing all-round government accountability towards better municipal governance.
In conclusion, monitoring and evaluation should contribute towards better municipal governance. But conditions must be appropriate for this to be a reality. Public officials need to be supported to work with the public. They need to be encouraged to accept evaluation as a learning process and not a punitive or a compliance one. Municipal decision-makers must be eager to act on stakeholders’ ideas. Evaluation reports must be communicated in a concise manner so that anyone can make sense of and use them.
Viewed through these lenses, evaluation can be treated and appreciated much more than just being a simple reporting requirement.
Dr Paul Kariuki is the director of the Democracy Development Programme in Durban. These are his own views