Learn how the World Bank Group is helping countries with COVID-19 (coronavirus). Find Out


Strengthening Accountability in Public Services in South Africa

April 14, 2011

  • South Africa has a strong foundation to deliver public services effectively but the quality of services and coverage could be improved.
  • A new World Bank report offers suggestions on how incentives and accountability can improve the quality and coverage of public services.
  • The report is accompanied by three briefs that distill its messages on policy framework for services and strengthening citizens’ voices in the education and water sectors.

PRETORIA, April 14, 2011 – In recent years, South Africa has invested in a strong public service delivery system by adopting new policies and building institutions. However, providing coverage and quality services for everyone remains a colossal challenge.

A new World Bank report “Accountability in Public Services in South Africa: Selected Issues,” provides key insights into the dynamics of service delivery in South Africa, and offers specific suggestions on how stronger incentives and accountability at the grassroots level can serve to improve the quality of public services for all South African citizens especially in the water and education sectors.  The report’s main findings:

  • South Africa has created a strong foundation for an effective public service delivery system based on achievements that include: democracy, constitutional mandates for basic services, a framework for decentralization, an intergovernmental fiscal system, the Batho Pele (“People First”) principles, sector-specific legal and policy frameworks, and a vibrant civil society.
  • Yet there is a widely perceived crisis of “service delivery” with observers agreeing that the quality of services is generally disappointing.
  • So what lies behind this unintended outcome? The report argues that the sharp focus on ambitious delivery targets, backed by ample financial resources to meet them, resulted in growing reliance on centrally-driven mechanisms focused on delivery of specific outputs rather than participatory approached focused on outcomes. These also collided with inadequate technical and managerial capacities, which, in some cases, eroded over time. Accountability to citizens and users atrophied in the process, underpinning the widespread gaps in effective service delivery.
  • Needed is consistent and effective implementation of the existing, well-designed constitutional decentralization and the fiscal and sector policy frameworks already in place. Progress will come not from adding more resources and more delivery capacity but from creating systems that give incentives to all parties— politicians, service providers, and citizens— to achieve better outcomes and continually learn from experience. 

The report is accompanied by three policy briefs that provide focused summaries of specific issues such as the policy framework for services and strengthening of citizen voices in the education and water sectors.

  • Excellent policies–unintended failures notes that since 1994, while the quantity of services has expanded a lot nevertheless massive discontent remains with their accessibility and quality.  Excellent policies have collided with multiple unintended failures in participation, accountability, and centrally driven delivery models. This, according to observers, has disempowered citizens and communities into passive demanders of service.  The brief calls for a change in mindset towards accountability to users and multifaceted an effective problem-solving involving all sectors and levels of government and civil society.
  • Strengthening citizen voice—measuring and disseminating results in the education sector acknowledges that South Africa has achieved universal education goals and has nearly bridged the gap in spending between poor and better-off schools.  But quality is poor.  Measures are urgently needed to give citizens a bigger role, more responsibility, and a louder voice in the decision-making process for schools, combined with better measurement and dissemination of results and improved incentives for talented teachers.
  • Strengthening citizen voice and power in the water sector commends South Africa’s enormous water services achievements of the first 15 years of democracy but warns that the gains may be compromised if measures are not found swiftly to change the current supply-driven approach to service provision.  An approach focused on accountability to citizens would enhance their voice, and responsibility in service provision, and reinforce the profoundly pro-poor intent of sector programs.

The World Bank is pleased to offer these research findings to its stakeholders as a contribution to informed policymaking.