Local elections are upon us once more, so it is “service delivery” time again.

Some parties are campaigning on the promise that they will offer “service delivery”. The media – not surprisingly, since they are addicted to the phrase – tell us that “service delivery” is the central election issue because it is what local government is all about. So clichéd has this phrase become that it is rarely challenged. It has become political common sense.

But “service delivery” is not common sense. It is a deeply undemocratic way of looking at local democracy. Local government’s problem is not that “service delivery” is lacking – it is that there is far too much of it. If local government is to be democratic and serve the people, “service delivery” must be ditched.

Democracy is meant to be a system in which the people govern. Translated, the Greek words that gave birth to it mean “the people rule”. What that means and how to make it happen is hotly debated, but decision-making by the people remains the core feature of democracy and the one by which all democratic governments should be judged. Democratic government is there to serve citizens and do what they want. This obviously includes local government.

There is a world of difference between this democratic view and “service delivery”. In the democratic view, the people’s role is to govern, not to receive “delivery”. Where local government is about democracy, the people, through their public servants, make things happen. If it is about “service delivery”, things happen to the people. If citizens’ only role is to be delivered to, they need no say in what is delivered and how this happens. Local government’s role in a democracy is not to deliver to the people – it is to serve them.

But why this quibbling over words? It surely makes no difference to what the local government does and whether citizens are happy with it? In reality, the difference between the approaches is very concrete – it shapes what local government does and how it affects people. 

“Service delivery” is not only a lazy phrase that people throw about when they have nothing interesting to say (although it is that too). It is also the approach that has shaped what local governments have been doing in this country for decades. And it is a key reason for so many being unhappy with local government.       

Disempowering the people
If local government is about “service delivery”, it is not a vehicle that offers people local power and enables them to take control of the areas in which they live. It is a realm in which people wait passively for officials to perform technical tasks. If that is what local government does, the officials who are expected to perform these tasks are not meant to know how to listen to the people they govern – they simply need to know how to do what those who wield power have decided should be done. Since people with qualifications usually think that they know more about what they do than others, asking citizens what they think gets in the way of “delivery”. 

It is, of course, now almost routine for all demonstrations by people in townships to be labelled “service delivery protests”, which relieves the reporters of bothering to find out why people are unhappy. What this hides is that often people in the streets are not demanding service delivery – they are protesting against it. 

One example is a Johannesburg shack settlement where people went into the streets because the “service deliverers” had decided that their houses were in the wrong place and had to be moved in the interests of “service delivery”. This may be an extreme example, but because “service delivery” means power to the technicians, not the people, it often leaves citizens unhappy.

First published on Newframe