Across the world, local governments are essential in improving the living conditions of all people in society. Through inclusive service delivery systems, they can provide their citizens with access to social, economic and infrastructure services, irrespective of their location, income, occupation, sex, tribe and age. Governance and public policy expert Nicholas Awortwi (PhD) shares his ideas for promoting inclusive service delivery systems.

Local public services, such as waste management, water access and social services, have a huge impact on citizens’ daily lives and well-being. However, in many countries, people with lower incomes often lack access to these important services. In these cases, local governments have the potential to ensure access and really make a difference through inclusive service delivery.

Research has shown that effective decentralisation and local governance approaches are a necessary driving force to effectively implement 11 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). During the implementation of the millennium development goals (MDGs), countries with a high degree of decentralisation reached better outcomes of the MDGs than more centralised countries. Of the SDGs, 103 out of the 169 targets require the active participation of local governments to achieve them. But how can we support the decentralisation of services to achieve these SDGs?

Innovative resource mobilisation

Promoting inclusive service delivery is not an easy venture. It requires not only substantial decentralisation of the central government’s powers, but also strong financial and human resources capacities of local governments. If we look at the current practice in many countries, we see that municipalities often are overly dependent on the central government to finance local service delivery. In many cases, they have not made substantial efforts to mobilise local resources and other tax revenues that have been mandated to them through decentralisation. The inability of local governments to pay non-state service providers for contracted public services leads to poor quality delivery and the exclusion of the poor population.

In the context of resource constraints and areas where many small enterprises exist, enabling a system of inclusive service delivery implies that governments need to unbundle their service provision into arrangements with small enterprises, so they can deliver services in small jurisdictions. For example, in the provision of sanitation and solid waste collection, local governments can divide their municipalities into small service areas and invite small enterprises to bid for service delivery, instead of allocating all of the municipal waste collection services to one large company that may not have the capacity to effectively deliver. The same can be done for other services such as water supply, maintenance of street lights and road maintenance.

This expansion of the role of the government to ‘purchaser’ of public services, away from merely delivering them, enables the government to pursue multiple partnerships. In the case of conflict environments and areas where the government is limited in scope and reach, non-state actors, especially community-based organisations, also become important institutions to expand services to the underprivileged.

Building partnerships                                       

As local governments begin to partner with multiple service providers, there is a need to strengthen relationships, knowledge, and legal constructions. Firstly, there is a need for tailor-made support programmes for these different providers, based on their distinctive roles. Secondly, when local governments contract service delivery from small enterprises, it is necessary for local governments to work towards reducing risks associated with such relationships – especially arbitrary termination of contracts. Similarly, services delivered by community-based organisations require local governments to provide legal backing to the service areas in which these organisations operate, empower them to collect fees, and protect them from intrusions by commercial private enterprises. Community management approaches can become more sustainable when organisations have direct contractual relationships with local governments to provide services.

Training for lasting impact

To provide crucial inclusive services, training of local government staff is essential as well. This includes planning the services, defining responsibilities, procurement and contract preparation, tendering procedures, negotiation and contract management, co-financing, and regulation. There is also the need for the central government to facilitate leadership training at local government levels.

Rather than simply signing contracts with non-state actors and assuming that public service delivery will be inclusive, local government officers and leaders should also be trained on ways of turning inclusive service delivery into political issues and further learn how to efficiently and effectively manage municipal services. That also means that public officers should learn to recognise the varied attributes of local residents: as ‘citizens’ who are entitled to a certain degree of services, as voters who make political choices, as clients because they pay for local services, and as beneficiaries because they are recipients of public services – even if they cannot pay directly for service provision. The competencies to differentiate categories of service users and respond to them appropriately require new managerial skills.

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Are you interested in learning more about how different levels of government can cooperate effectively and involve citizens and the private sector to promote pro-poor local service delivery? Make sure to sign up for our Inclusive Service Delivery & the SDGs course, which takes place from 7 – 18 March 2022. Please note that the deadline for applications is 28 January 2022 and the deadline for scholarship applications is 28 September 2021.

Nicholas Awortwi (PhD) is the Director of the African Governance Institute in the Hague and the Institute of Local Government Studies in Accra. Nicholas is a researcher and an expert in governance and public policy. He has over 15 years of experience in decentralisation and local governance, public sector reform and effective service delivery, public-private partnerships, and social protection.