Embracing innovation for better service delivery: An assessment tool helps municipalities


Dissatisfaction with service delivery has manifested in nation-wide protests over the last decade, in what some scholars have termed “the rebellion of the poor”. A new assessment tool shows that municipalities are willing to adopt innovative approaches to improving service delivery, but remain largely reliant on old systems that are failing to meet the needs of rural South Africans. By Karabo Nyezi and Dr Irma Booyens.

A small child peers into a cubicle containing a non-functioning toilet, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 2015.
Photo: Shaun Swingler

Municipalities face a multitude of challenges in delivering services, including low budgets, long housing backlogs, and little to no existing infrastructure in many rural areas. No single solution to these persistent problems will be enough. Rather, change needs to come at a systems level: municipalities need to embed openness to innovation into their organisational structures.

In partnership with the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the HSRC has created the Municipal Innovation Maturity Index (MIMI), a self-assessment and learning tool that municipalities can use to assess their capacity to identify and implement innovations.

Innovation readiness
While promising, innovations such as pour-flush toilets, solar electricity, algae water-treatment plants, bucket water filters, and hydro-power plants, cannot solve South Africa’s basic services woes if municipalities lack the capacity to implement them.

The first step towards innovation maturity is a willingness to consider new approaches to doing things. The pilot phase of MIMI suggested that most of the six municipalities involved in the DST’s Innovation Partnership for Rural Development Programme achieved this and were able to move beyond this stage by implementing some improvements.

The innovation partnership programme kickstarted technologies to address gaps in the provision of basic services, particularly water, sanitation and energy services, in under-resourced rural areas.

MIMI assesses whether municipalities engage with local communities to identify a need, look for and assess innovative solutions, draw in the right people, and implement suitable innovations efficiently. An innovation orientation is also about knowledge sharing: using forums to compare experiences about the rollout of new technologies.

The pilot phase indicated that MIMI is a powerful tool for understanding learning capabilities of individual employees and municipalities to support basic service-delivery innovation.

The purpose of MIMI is not to compare municipalities with one another; rather it is intended to empower them to become champions of innovation. There is an opportunity to reward municipalities that display this kind of forward-thinking outlook.

Pilot phases
The MIMI tool comprises 33 questions, divided into four modules, two of which assess innovation maturity at an individual level, and the other two focus on organisational structure and leadership.

On an individual level, it asks whether officials try to understand the needs of their immediate communities and collaborate to find new solutions. On the organisational level, the index determines whether the municipality supports that kind of innovative thinking, whether public-sector employees are encouraged and incentivised to problem solve, and whether there is funding to pursue innovative solutions.

Part of developing innovation maturity is being able to critically assess technologies, rather than act as passive recipients. The danger is that under-resourced municipalities will sometimes just take anything that is on offer, if it comes through a funded stream. However, through engaging with the DST’s innovation partnership and the pilot phases of MIMI, municipalities are beginning to display higher levels of innovation maturity.

For example, two municipalities in the Eastern Cape have implemented low-pour-flush toilets, which improve the safety and hygiene of pit latrine systems, while using less water than full-flush toilets. These municipalities have reportedly incorporated the rollout of the toilets into their own integrated development plans for the next five years.

Going national
The MIMI digitisation process is a two-year project, which kicked off in March 2019, and its implementation should spread to all the municipalities and other government departments in the long term.

The first phase involved only the units that have been responsible for the implementation of the DST’s partnership technologies. The second phase, however, will see the tool used across tiers of municipal governance, including top management.

Before the MIMI can be expanded, it needs to undergo refinement, through engagement with partners, including the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the Centre for Public Service Innovation, the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, and the South African Local Government Association.

Municipalities will be encouraged to share their experiences on learning forums, to develop a culture of continuous improvement. Together with statistical analysis of data from the pilot phase, feedback will be used to ensure that the index captures relevant factors of innovation maturity.

The MIMI team plans to include a component that assesses the impact of wider governance - including political instability, unrest and corruption - in the refined, digitised version of the tool.

The aim of MIMI is to unlock progressive approaches towards providing secure, robust, accessible service delivery to local communities. It is critical that MIMI is taken up by municipalities as a credible decision-making and management tool to further public-sector innovation.

While it was originally developed for use by South African municipalities, MIMI could be adopted by other African countries to solve their respective local service-delivery problems, and it could inspire the development of similar tools elsewhere in the world.

MIMI combines tools in a novel way for innovation measurement, which can be seen as an innovation in itself.

Authors:  Karabo Nyezi, a researcher, and Dr Irma Booyens, a senior research manager in the HSRC’s Economic Performance and Development research programme