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Automate or Perish -Why local governments will need a Municipal Operating System

Published Nov 28, 2021


If there was ever a time for local governments to automate and deploy technologies to enable service delivery it is now. South Africa has just completed one part of enabling service delivery in the form of appointing leaders. The key part which involves operations will be the hardest to execute.

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In the same way that Covid-19 accelerated adoption of technology, service delivery challenges should accelerate the development of technologies within municipalities. This is even more important when societies are anticipating challenges related to indecision related to internal leadership conflicts which may lead to poor operations and service delivery.

The critical part of local government that will be left to run operations will be the middle management who are professionals such as engineers and accountants.

The sad reality is that some municipalities lack this critical layer of management that enables service delivery. One municipal professional once indicated that there’s a local government entity in South Africa that has half the engineers of the whole country combined. Today that municipality is considered as one the few that delivers service delivery although to just some members of society.

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If significant parts of the country have a potential to be impacted by leadership challenges and absent middle management and professionals, what will happen to service delivery? Is this not the right time to think about automating some functions within local governments? Municipalities need to start thinking about automating some tasks that are repetitive and critical for society.

According to the Guardian, Leeds University is leading a £4.2 million (about R90m) project to create a fleet of robot repair workers that can spot infrastructure problems before they become disruptive – including drones that climb on lampposts to change bulbs, automated machines that fix potholes without digging up half the road, and robots that live in utility pipes and patch cracks. The idea here is to assign repetitive tasks to robots and live humans to do more complex work.

Some councils in other parts of the world are also beginning to apply robotic process automation, which mimics human interaction with computer systems, to repetitive tasks such as signing people up to some repetitive administration tasks. Again this would allow the machines to do the boring data entry tasks, which they generally perform faster and more accurately than human beings. And human beings use their time to improve front-line services that cannot be done by robots.

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In waste removal there are now automated side-loaders (ASLs) that come equipped with fully digital platforms with remote diagnostics, real-time global positioning, full customer service data integration, 360-degree cameras, proof of service tools, and a full complement of safety equipment which makes vehicle operators’ jobs safer and more productive than ever before.These are just some of the examples of automating some municipal functions in a way that would enable efficiency while assigning people to jobs that are more complex.

To make some of these services possible there will be a need for government operating systems to be created and tailored specifically for local government services. Ultimately this could also lead to better service delivery. Society should be cushioned from leadership conflicts that may come with a potential to impact on service delivery by ensuring that there are systems in place to deliver what people really need. When humans are distracted by leadership issues and withheld by lack of skills, technology should be deployed to ensure that things get done.

There are elements of governments that should function like machines especially when other cogs in the system are failing or dealing with challenges. There are just some things that should never be compromised because of differences between leaders. Water services cannot wait for human beings to get along in the same way that refusal removal cannot wait for people to get along.

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Technology has a way of just working when humans can’t and we should allow it to help us where we can’t. To make this possible may take time as automation works if there was a working manual process in place to be automated. Some municipalities may not even have manual processes to start with. Organisations such as the South African Local Government Association (Salga) may need to intervene by making the process of developing a government operating system that can be shared. At the end this should allow South Africa to have functioning local governments whether leaders are there or not.

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