Challenges facing local government: people-centred view By Goodnews Cadogan The vegetarian dinosaur became extinct even with appropriate vegetation in abundance in the Mesozoic Era, simply because it could not adequately sense and make sense of the environment it lived in (a famous Japanese legend states). Its huge body, and a nervous system, buried deep in fat, led to its demise, as it could not transmit messages to the brain in good time, and back to the body, to react to attacks by smaller animals. When looking at the institutional framework of local government, one is tempted to dwell on that picture, which is reflective of most government structures the world over. To be fair, the framework alone is not the panacea to effective government, but the people leading and interacting with the system as a whole are at the centre of the system. It is the people (both appointed officials and elected council members) and their ability to manage the organisational dynamics, the systems and processes at hand, as well as social development project management capability that will make the following objectives to be met at local government level: To provide democratic and accountable government for local communities; To ensure the provision of services to communities in a sustainable manner; To promote social and economic development; To promote a safe and healthy environment; To encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government. Looking closely at the objectives, they might be divided into two broad categories that focus on service and those concerned with law enforcement. Organisation paralysis and/or polarisation can result when the executive team working with the equivalent of a City Manager, is not in tandem with the Council, or its subcommittees that usually form part of the Executive Mayor’s team. This challenge usually results from poor role clarity, as well as incompatibility between the task at hand and the person appointed or elected to perform it. Close resolution starts with the basic tenets of team development, where both leaders ensure that roles are clarified upfront, and all are aware of the reality of working in a democratic setting (consultation, consensus and co-operative collaboration). It is only when the parenting role of the two leaders is seamless, in the spirit of collaborative government, will the local government system enjoy people-driven growth. Whether we have the right policies, systems and procedures to make local government work for the benefit of the community it serves, is a subjective matter, as these are only guidelines that can be manipulated for goals other than those listed above. It is the ability to use the democratic governance framework for the benefit of the communities that is more important than perfecting it. The challenge is to have capable and wise technocrats as well as wise and collaborative politicians who have the interest of the citizens at heart, and openness to the technical challenges of managing service delivery and social development projects. The management team has to be constantly innovative in approach, and make local government work, despite the collaborative network challenges presented to it. If that innovation does not speak to the service needs that should come through the elected representatives, then it is not citizen-focused, and therefore self-serving. The whole team has to be at ease with changing priorities, as well the rhythm of business, as in consultation and getting a mandate, planning, execution and monitoring and course-correction; all this for the benefit of spending public funds to serve and to protect or enforce the laws and by-laws of the land. All of these stages have limits and critical points that may result in stalling of projects (poor service) or fruitless expenditure if a balanced approach is not the norm. Project management principles cannot be ignored at the expense of consultation and vice versa. It is about a framework with willing partners that have citizen-focussed goals as the drivers of their everyday interactions, whether they are to prioritise areas of public funds investments, or to create new policies to deliver the same. It is highly unlikely that the current design of local government structures will be extinct, in the long run, if they are able to sense and make sense of the needs of the communities they serve. They will even rise to greater heights of effectiveness if they are able to react quickly to unfortunate attacks through poor service and lack of ability to enforce the laws they are entrusted with. The main driver should be co-operative government, for the people it is serving. A word of caution though is that the tipping point for local government turnaround, for those municipalities that are not effective, lies in the most difficult part of the large system of governance: PEOPLE, showing fusion of politics and business principles. Goodnews Cadogan is a Director of The Village Leadership Consulting. The Village specialises in the development of high impact leadership and high performance organisation practices. Contact the Village on email@example.com or visit www.villageofleaders.co.za .