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A weekend conversation: Where should local government be located?




With the weekend firmly in view, Brett Petzer and Rashiq Fataar kickstart conversations – and invite you to finish them in Comments. These dialogues are freeform to encourage debate and let in a little fresh air on some classic debates about the present and future of our cities. So, please take sides and join in. 
Rashiq Fataar: I had a thought this week: where should local government physically be located in a city?
The current approach is of course to cluster staff and departments in a central location or complex, e.g. the Civic Centre building on the Foreshore or the Provincial Government building on Wale Street.

But what iftheywerelocated in different areas, with the aim of improving service delivery and performance? What if,for example, the Arts and Culture Department were to use an abandoned building and create a creative hub in which the department worked from? Or a transport department located above the main transport interchange? Or perhaps a Human SettlementsorStormwater Department located where the immediate challenge is the biggest?

Brett Petzer: I can see the appeal of moving higher-order infrastructure out of the centre of town towards points of greater need, especially symbolically. I think that it would signal an precedented shift of priorities in local government if the provincial education department shifted to Khayelitsha, or if the department of health moved to Gugulethu. For a start, this would force decision-makers into direct daily contact with their most immediate priorities – and as a matter of routine, rather than something that occurs only within organised field research or on fact-finding trips.

However, the danger of empty symbolism is also great. Another problem is that decentralising government buildings would make it harder for the average citizen to travel between several of them, as one must when registering a business or applying for an educare centre licence, for example. Right now, although they’re far from the majority of Capetonians, they are all at least in the same place – and that place is where all the rail, taxi and bus lines converge.
 
RF: Good point, and maybe the need for empty symbolism needs a deepening and improvement in the relationship between politicians and communities and the sectors e.g. transport, health, housing etc. that they serve.
 

There is of course the issue of disruption, and practically re-locating so many offices and departments to different site, and the procurement, administrative and other challenges which come with it, of which cost will be a big factor. Local governments also have councillors and sub-councillors in different wards and communities across the metropolitan region, meant to keep and eye and ear on the ground, and work within that context.

In addition district offices, libraries, and other infrastructure exists across the city so perhaps the question is: how effectively is the existing infrastructure of local government being used to improve service delivery? Can a library be more than a library? A drive license testing centre have additional functions? There is a larger question of whether collaboration across departments (and tiers of government) would improve or not. Even within the same buildings or precincts this seems to be a challenge in which major inroads can be made.

BPIt seems to me that nothing will make government departments coordinate better amongst themselves, or between spheres of government, other than a fairly explicit effort to force them to do so. Otherwise, the incentives are simply too strong to avoid risk and do what’s been done before, dressed up in more fashionable phrasing.

An exciting innovation in this direction is the new problem-based procurement approach in Philadelphia and Barcelona (on which Citiscope has written a good summary). These cities are advertising tenders that say, ‘Fix our problem, any way you can’ – be it changes in legislation, infrastructural spending or simply a savvy awareness campaign.

When you frame a question about, say, commuter cycling in this way, the answer is free to encompass all spheres of government and all entities with a role to play – or as we like to call them, the “stakeholders”.  It would be an immense imaginative leap to see the City of Cape Town advertise for a scaleable, sustainable sanitation solution that had a cash prize attached, and then implement a shortlist of the five best schemes as a pilot project. As with public architecture, an open competition culture – and the openness of outlook that it implies – is badly needed in public spending. 

RF: And we know much work is needed in honest communication. Framing the challenge and brief might bring people out of their departments and focussed on a potential solution.

Join the conversation below by adding your thoughts and ideas in the comments section.




  • stuart paul denoon-stevens

    When I was studying planning at UCT, one of my first projects proposed the opposite idea, but with the same intentions, namely centralizing a number of government departments in a mega-complex in Phillipi, located on the vacant land / poorly utilized industrial land above the Joe Gcwabi train station, which would also include a transit hub for the BRT network. The idea behind this was to force people who needed to visit government departments to travel into Phillipi, and then to capture this market by providing spaces for small traders, producers, etc. on the ground floor of the complex. (Interestingly the 2032 transportation plan for CT seems to be going this route by proposing a transit hub in Phillipi.)

    Personally, given the current status quo, I think this idea captures the intent of decentralising offices, albeit using the opposite tactic suggested in the article to do this.

    It also must be noted that the idea that government is centralized in one location is only really true of the higher order government services and departments, such as the managers of the various departments in the City, and the majority of the provincial government departments.

    For the more regional functions (sewers, roads, planning, etc.) which affect a specific area of the City (for instance, the Tygerberg district), these have been spread out across the City as a series of regional government offices in an attempt supposedly bring together these area based services into one building, and provide easier access for local residents to these services, as argued for in this article. In theory, this makes sense. In practice, this is a bit of a nightmare, as Brett hinted at – I’ve had days where to visit 3 different government departments I have had to drive to Khayelitsha, Somerset West, Parow, a 100km+ round trip from my offices in Durbanville.

    Also, speaking as an ex-official, decentralisation hasn’t improved collaboration between departments within the City (which was part of the intention of doing this in the first place), but has instead turned different sections of the same departments into autonomous entities with limited communication between one another. What this means is that if you are, for instance, making a planning application, the process and logic applied to the application is different if you submit at Parow opposed to Kraaifontein, despite this being the same function and same department, governed by the same law and same policies. Arguably, if the same department was contained in the same building, it would be much easier to prevent this occurring.

    In short, I think the ideas explored in the article are on the right track – namely, location has a big influence on how well government functions. My answer would however not be decentralization, but rather the creation of a second civic hub in the townships of Cape Town, as outlined in the beginning of this comment.

    • I quite like you idea of a second civic hub in say Philippi, with the converging of public transport – it would also be quite interesting to see your proposed project which you did at UCT?

      • Future Cape Town

        Hi Stuart.

        How would we learn more about your proposed project? We would also like to share more of your idea at our website.

  • Melissa

    While I agree with the idea of relocating local government to a location more central to the majority of Cape Town’s population, I would be wary of dissembling the different departments into different locations given the existing tendencies for silo’ed governance- I think the benefits of departments working in one hub allows for greater possibilities of cross-department cooperation which is crucial.

  • Olamide

    Stuart Paul’s idea of a civic hubs in specific areas could be a way to answer some of the issues explored in the article. However as Melissa mentioned working in silos is a large issue governments face. This silo mentality is prominent in Lagos. Even though most departments are located in one area they never speak to each other and from my experience information is not free, therefore to gather information from one department will cost another department. I think before we, in Lagos, can start to discuss about the benefits of specifically located government offices, relationships between departments need to be built on a foundation that is not about competition or monetary transactions.

  • Craig Lee Adams

    Well, I was thinking about schools providing produce to local restaurants and other businesses. They could do this using Agricultural Classrooms that’s would be an option over sport and it could actually be part of the curriculum, reforming the way we think about education. Having representatives from the ministry of agriculture guiding the process of a school becoming a produce funded school, might create more awareness around basic needs and like food and water.
    Also, the dept of basic education should probably be in primary schools anyway, hands on experience with the learners might help the officials understand the struggle that the educators have because right now, it all feels very disjointed.

  • Craig Lee Adams

    Well, I was thinking about schools providing produce to local restaurants and other businesses. They could do this using Agricultural Classrooms that’s would be an option over sport and it could actually be part of the curriculum, reforming the way we think about education. Having representatives from the ministry of agriculture guiding the process of a school becoming a produce funded school, might create more awareness around basic needs and like food and water.
    Also, the dept of basic education should probably be in primary schools anyway, hands on experience with the learners might help the officials understand the struggle that the educators have because right now, it all feels very disjointed.