The Hibiscus Coast: Service delivery’s good story to tell

By IAfrica
In South Africa
Aug 27th, 2014
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Maxwell Mbili was appointed Municipal Manager of the Hibiscus Coast municipality in March 2013, and in that short time has already performed a few miracles. Perhaps the biggest one has been gaining the whole-hearted support of all the politicians in his council. In Mbili, they recognise a man who wants to get things done.

“My first task when I took charge,” he says in an interview, “was to streamline our organisation. This meant firing people. We needed to clean out the dead wood and wake up the sleeping wood!”

This is most likely the hardest thing for anyone to do, in the face of union resistance and stiff labour legislation. But Mbili makes it sound easy.

“We brought in discipline, which immediately made life difficult for those who didn’t want to perform. We dealt speedily with any allegations of corruption. People needed to know that there were consequences. Some people fought us – they wanted to hang on to their jobs – but we did everything by the book and we won all our cases.

“Secondly, I maximised productivity by introducing performance targets. I put pressure on managers and supervisors to speed up service delivery. And I started to work towards accountability, which means we are aiming for a clean audit in 2015.”

Mbili feels strongly about instilling a culture of discipline, too. “We introduced a code of conduct for all our employees. We designed checklists and charts so that consistent standards would be maintained. We introduced time frames. We told people to work smarter and get work finished either on time or before time. To create centres of excellence, we told our managers to think organisationally, but excel departmentally. This created competition between the departments to see who could do the best job, in the shortest time.”

Change is always difficult in an organisation, and tightening up an existing slack chain of command doubly difficult, so Mbili made sure that he communicated with all employees face to face, to explain the changes, engage their loyalty to service delivery and assure them that what was happening was, actually, a good thing.

“When I first started,” continues Mbili, “we analysed the status quo, and declared war on eight enemies of service delivery. These were: potholes, failure to spend the capital budget, intermittent refuse removal, poor street-verge maintenance, broken street lights, failure to enforce by-laws, delay in approving plans, and failure to manage the supply chain.”

These are all the boring nuts and bolts of town management, but if they fail, the town cannot function.

In his inimitable fashion, Mbili set about vanquishing these ‘enemies’.

He took an innovative approach to potholes and asked the Road Accident Fund to invest some money in repairing roads as a preventative measure against accidents. This extended the council’s R20 million per annum budget for roads. The municipality’s approach to maintaining their 700 kms of tarred road, and tarring the 1,500 kms of gravel road, is to do it bit by bit. Every week, a few more kilometres of new or upgraded road are unveiled, with before and after pictures in the local newspaper. This has been the lever that has firmly united opposition parties behind Mbili’s plans.

“We thank you for what you are doing,” said DA ward councilor Carol Potter to the MM at the opening of an upgraded road in Oslo Beach. “We are starting to see the difference… keep up the good work!”

Spending the capital budget required a delicate juggling act, as the municipality has a duty to support the existing economic infrastructure as well as upgrading rural areas. As Mbili wryly notes: “We have to make sure we get that balance exactly right. It can be difficult sometimes, because it is impossible to please all the people all of the time.”

Refuse removal was given a 24-hour deadline, resulting in remarkably clean towns and villages: it is one of those little rubs, like most elements of service delivery, that you don’t notice until they aren’t there. There is no litter in the streets, and no blown rubbish against fences and walls.

Verge maintenance was seen as the ideal opportunity for job creation. Local people were given a schedule of zones to maintain, under council supervision. The battle against broken street lights is a long-term one, and Mbili does not want to wait for the public to report broken street lights.

“What I want is an online monitoring system, so that we know when a streetlight is broken the moment it goes out. With regard to our by-laws, this is a complicated issue, as many of our officials do not really know or understand our by-laws. Especially with regard to traffic personnel. This will require a lot of civic education.”

Approval of plans is often a major block to development. The municipality aims for a record-breaking six-week turnaround in getting plans approved. Supply chain management was beefed up through letting people on the procurement committees know when a job was urgent.

“That is how you eat the elephant,” explains Mbili. “One bite at a time. We have a limited budget, so we do a little bit, little bit. We make sure our work is a high standard so that it does not need maintenance or upgrades. And we have to balance our needs between development in the town and the development in the rural areas. It’s difficult to decide sometimes, but we know we will get there eventually.”

So much for the small stuff: Mbili also has big long-term plans. Apart from tourism, the other main economic activity is agriculture, and he believes that this has the potential to unlock economic growth in the rural areas.

“We can’t get involved in agriculture, but we can make sure all our rural roads are tarred, to improve access for farmers and service providers to the agricultural industry. We also need a catalytic effort for our tourism industry, so I am planning to upgrade the airport and build a five-star hotel, conference facility and tourism precinct to attract major events from anywhere in the country.”

Listening to Mbili outline his plans makes it sound easy, reasonable and practical, but in his goals and strategies, he is likely one of an unusually competent few.

“We have kept politics out of this completely,” he concludes. “I am an administrator, I am no threat to any politician. We don’t have corruption here because we have good internal controls and there are consequences when they are flouted. All our political parties (ANC, DA, IFP, COPE) work together. There is no political interference. I must commend the entire council; we are all working to our strengths.”

Evidence of Mbili’s success is the fact that everyone speaks highly of him from all sides. His office is a happy place, and his staff demonstrably enjoy their work. He returns calls and sets store by his accessibility. Work runs to schedule: when a meeting should start at noon, it starts at noon. This single fact alone probably makes the Hibiscus Coast municipality extraordinary.

After only one year, the Hibiscus Coast municipality is improving after years of neglect. It should be an object lesson in how things can be done.

It is a pity that the ANC in many other municipalities has chosen to go the route of nepotism, corruption, patronage and manipulation in order to consolidate their political power: simple, effective service delivery is a far more efficacious route to stay popular, and it is one where everybody wins. DM

Photo: A group of Hibiscus Coast Municipality officials and councilors cut the ribbon on a brand new stretch of tarred road outside Margate on the KZN South Coast. (Max Mbili is wearing a blue pullover and tie.)


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