Service delivery

The provision of sufficient, affordable and quality basic services is considered a core function of urban governments. Delivery of services (water, sanitation, waste management and housing) correlates closely with the health and well-being of urban residents. However, in many developing countries, delivery is constrained by challenges of coordination, governance, finance and capacity, which are exacerbated by the pace and scale of urbanisation. Governments at all levels play important roles in service delivery, regulating, facilitating and collaborating with other stakeholders and institutions. National governments set the policy framework, transferring resources to local government for implementation. Primary responsibility for the provision of basic services usually rests with city or municipal government, even if delivery of services is outsourced to the private sector or NGOs. Urban governance for basic services covers the full range of arrangements through which governments and other stakeholders work together to install, deliver and manage services.

The role of municipal governments may involve some or all of the following: infrastructure provision and maintenance; environmental management; development control; land-use management; community liaison; land leases and sales; and policy development. These roles are often delegated to larger cities that have a greater capacity to deliver. Smaller towns are often reliant on central government to carry out these roles. Patterns of decentralisation and the structure of local government agencies are critical to the capability of a municipal authority to manage service provision; incoherent decentralisation often contributes to poor services. The urban poor are often disadvantaged in both market and public policy arenas and forced to access services that are expensive, insecure or illegal.

The provision of basic services is far from being a purely technical matter. The political and governance context is paramount, influencing how and where resources are allocated (Devas et al., 2004). Lack of resources is not the only explanation for inadequate provision of services. Others include the lack of an adequate national policy framework; the unresponsiveness of city government; multiplicity and rigidity of laws and regulations; the difficulty for the poor in making their voices heard; the lack of accountability of local decision makers; and the shortage of effective and accountable CBOs and NGOs to help articulate the needs of the poor and ensure services are delivered.

Collectively the reasons listed above may compel citizens to pursue informal routes in accessing basic services. As a result, parallel systems flourish and ‘informality’ has become the norm in many urban areas.

Whilst the issues outlined above refer primarily to the internal structures and operation of government institutions, other common issues include:

  • Multiple and overlapping structures and actors: The presence of many different service providers creates a challenge for policy coherence, oversight and monitoring.
  • Lack of information/data: This undermines planning and management of service delivery. Urban stakeholders need to improve data collection to facilitate decision-making in service delivery and enable justification of decisions. CSOs and NGOs can play a role here.
  • Low levels of community participation: Service providers and municipalities need to understand what communities want, what their priorities are and what they are willing to pay for. Further, urban authorities need to create more awareness of local governments role through education and communication exercises. These initiatives may include radio programmes, city newsletters, websites, social media and workshops for civil society actors.
  • Inadequate sources of revenue: Many urban areas rely heavily on transfers from central government, but these payments may be inconsistent.
  • Lack of adequate knowledge of local government issues: Many countries in the global south have initiated reforms to decentralise responsibility to urban areas and to democratise decision-making. Many of these initiatives are still at an incipient stage and require prolonged and consistent support from both central governments and international agencies.

Poor levels of service, interruptions and low coverage  are among the problems undermine quality of life and erode trust in local government (Jones et al., 2014a). Better governance of basic services does not necessarily mean that the government needs to provide all services, but it needs to ensure that the poor can access adequate services. This entails working with service providers (public or private), small-scale vendors, civil society organisations and low-income residents. Moreover, with a number of different government agencies and authorities playing a role in service delivery, coordination between agencies is key.

Where cities fail to provide for the needs of urban residents including the poor, women are often expected to fill the gaps (Tacoli, 2012). This adds to the already numerous demands on women’s time, and to the stresses they encounter daily, such as long-distance travel, travel to multiple locations, waiting in queues and competition for scarce resources (Chant, 2013; Brouder & Sweetman, 2015).

There is a growing consensus that service providers and those who work with them need to be more accountable to vulnerable groups, otherwise truly pro-poor measures are unlikely to be implemented or sustained (UN-Habitat, 2003). Decentralised, community based and participatory approaches and processes for the design, development and implementation of urban programmes and projects increase the potential for democracy, accountability and transparency and promote local involvement and enablement.