National Municipal Benchmarking Initiative For Water Services
Water lies at the heart of everything that is important to human life such as food, sanitation, energy supply, the production of goods and transport. The effective management of water resources is, therefore, a priority of the global agenda, especially in the context of the challenges posed by climate change. While the challenge is global in scale, water resources are local and municipalities play a significant role in managing this precious resource to ensure that their constituents have an adequate service provision.
THE MUNICIPAL BENCHMARKING INITIATIVE
In response to a growing development-driven water demand and increasing water scarcity, water services benchmarking was re-established in South Africa through the launch of the national Municipal Benchmarking Initiative (MBI) for Water Services in South Africa. This initiative acknowledged the need for improved performance management by local government and aimed to support municipalities in improving the efficiency of service delivery in the area of water management.
According to William Moraka, the MBI aims to ‘improveffectiveness in water services delivery through comparative performance benchmarking and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.’ It is through the holistic approach that SALGA hopes to build communities of practice within and between municipalities, thereby forging relationships of mutual respect and trust between municipalities. This should lead to strengthening the development of performance tracking, reporting and comparative assessment systems. Offering a bottom-up focus, starting with stakeholders on the ground, the MBI hopes to be able to measure the performance of municipalities accurately, improve reporting systems and affirm the importance of service delivery in this area through benchmarking.
To achieve its aims, the MBI is structured on a modular, tier-based approach to benchmarking, which it was hoped would encourage and enable relevant stakeholders to participate at a level aligned with their current capabilities and future aspirations. The MBI is based on the mantra of ‘for municipalities, by municipalities, to the benefit of municipalities’. At the heart of the initiative lies a desire to create a support network which fosters a culture of information exchange between peers so that municipalities can come together to learn from one another’s experiences in water management and effectively formulate best practice models. To quantitatively measure performance and monitor the areas in which particular municipalities were succeeding or falling short, a web-based data capturing system called munibench was introduced.
Since its establishment in 2011, the MBI has made significant strides in improving water management at the local level. Firstly, the MBI exemplifies a pragmatic approach to benchmarking, which has effectively addressed the current situation while taking note of the varying capabilities of each municipality. It has successfully encouraged participation from all municipalities, be it at ‘basic’ level, where the municipality only uses existing data to show performance, or a more ‘advanced’ level. By allowing a degree of choice on levels of participation and performance indicators monitored, SALGA has ensured that the initiative is truly inclusive and can be adapted to meet the needs and capacities of each of the stakeholders.
Secondly, another strength of the MBI lies in its multi- faceted approach to knowledge sharing and education. Not only has the initiative encouraged municipalities to share information and experiences amongst themselves, but the Water Services Master Classes (WSMC) have served to bring together senior technical and managerial staff, environmental experts and professionals to discuss experiences, achievements and challenges. Through this exchange between stakeholders from across the spectrum, all those involved in municipal water services can become more informed, and subsequently the MBI can be made increasingly relevant- and context-sensitive. Furthermore, through the introduction of the water services league, municipalities are able to gauge their performance on an annual basis.
SALGA has also been successful in developing a web- based database and reporting system which further assists in information sharing and training. The munibench database is an important tool in allowing policy-makers to collect, collate and analyse data from municipalities and metros throughout the country. Using technology, SALGA has ensured that the MBI is transparent and all municipalities are able to access necessary information.
Finally, it is anticipated that the sharing of information, pooling of resources and data, and effective benchmarking will lead to substantial improvements in municipal water services management and this in turn will ensure that all communities have access to good quality water. This is expected to then have significant impacts upon health and sanitation for local people as it reduces risks of water-borne infectious diseases. Furthermore, this investment in effective water resource management will have positive economic impacts both locally and nationally, as it is expected to improve economic productivity, especially within rural communities and also create significant savings for the health sector overall.
CHALLENGES FOR THE FUTURE
While the MBI certainly signifies a step in the right direction, Moraka acknowledges a number of core challenges that stand in the way of further progress in water services delivery in South Africa. Firstly, he notes that benchmarking is not a municipal priority, nor is it part of the current municipal culture. He goes on to say that ‘changing this will take time and there needs to be greater interest, commitment and involvement from councillors, senior management and technical staff as well supportive involvement and alignment from key municipal and water services groups such as the National Treasury, the Department of Cooperative Governance and the Department of Water Affairs’. Moraka stated that moving forward there would be a need for strengthening and alignment of data collection mechanisms to minimise duplication and data burden. He further stressed the importance of more frequent municipal engagement through site visits as this will enhance knowledge sharing and improvement performance.
Ultimately, it is fair to say that the MBI is an innovative and inclusive approach to tackling service delivery which has established important tools for change. Municipalities, policy-makers and various stakeholders involved in water affairs will need to capitalise on the momentum created by the MBI to ensure that progress made in this crucial area of environmental affairs is sustainable.