It is a tragic reality that many South African municipalities are in disarray. Of the country’s 257 local and district administrative areas, 66 are considered dysfunctional. That means more than a quarter of all municipalities are in a state of turmoil.

A Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs report presented to parliament towards the end of last year also revealed that only 11,67% of municipalities are deemed “stable”.

While Deputy President Paul Mashatile attributes the situation to poor governance, weak institutional capacity, woeful capacity and political instability, corruption also plays a major role.

The Hawks told parliament last year that more than 120 corruption cases were being investigated across all municipalities. At the same briefing in June, SIU chief national investigations officer Leonard Lekgetho said R1,7-billion related to local government corruption was under civil litigation.

Given the huge amounts of money changing hands illegally, tackling corruption may seem insurmountable.

However, Muhammad Ali, MD of World Wide Industrial & Systems Engineers (WWISE) and ISO Specialist, believes there is a simple solution when it comes to municipal procurement and supply chains: automation.

“By working within the Public Finances Management Act and international standards agreed to by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), municipalities can create robust criteria selection, and the automated system can identify the best possible supplier,” he says.

“The system logs must be protected to ensure there is no foul play. Another advantage is that organisations awarded tenders will be appointed faster. At the same time, machine learning can also identify poor performing vendors who do not conform to standards in executing their duties.”

One of the big changes Ali advocates for is boards of directors and top management being held more accountable for what happens in municipalities.

“They need to sign letters of appointment that clearly define the consequences of failing audits with reoccurring findings and how this impacts their leadership role and municipality’s reputation.”

He says the time has come for the public sector to embrace the ISO standards which have proved so successful in assisting private sector companies.

“ISO standards promote effective understanding, training and on-the-job implementation. This way, a municipality can see value, understand consequences and ultimately feel satisfied with its performance.

“Insecure employees do not trust the process. That is where we ultimately fail, as no decisions are made. In South Africa, we are over-governed because of insecurities in our processes. But trust, automation and internal quality checks improve these processes.”

The systems to ensure the health and well-being of the public should also be standardised, Ali adds.

If there is a fatality, the Occupational Health and Safety Act can hold the highest person in the organisation responsible. “Once processes, policies and procedures are in place, the employees must understand what is expected of them and who to hold responsible.”

He says there are numerous ways in which municipal officials can measure the success of implementing internationally recognised standards.

These include risk reduction, improvements in audit findings and governance, and constructive feedback from the public on improvements that have been made in streamlining processes and finding effective solutions.

He points out that nations like Singapore have adopted ISO standards at the municipal level to great effect.

It has benefited from standards like ISO 18091, the first ISO standard directed at the public sector, which gives guidelines for the implementation of ISO 9001 for quality management systems. This includes a diagnostic methodology for local authorities to measure the scope and evolution of their processes and services.

“The problem in South Africa is there few understand the importance of using a risk register to optimise processes. This needs to change,” Ali says.