Knowledge management: the missing link for sustainable local governance

South African organisations face various challenges, one of which is the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment.

The energy crisis, service delivery protests and corruption as well as the fragility of our democratic institutions, have become the backdrop for the nation’s governance challenges. In addition, a VUCA environment places long-term projects and programmes constantly at risk, hindering organisational decision-making and planning.

Although several studies exist on knowledge management (KM) in South Africa, KM has not been studied in-depth and very little empirical research exists on how to effectively implement KM specifically in the South African local government sector. KM can be considered a rapidly developing discipline and considered the most creative and innovative management concept to have emerged over the last quarter of a century. KM can be understood and interpreted on individual and organisational levels. It is a dynamic non-linear process including concepts such as retaining, acquiring, creating, applying, structuring, and sharing (ubuntu) knowledge. It is built on the belief that the most valuable resource of organisations is the knowledge of its people. Hence, KM has two main objectives - to improve efficiency and effectiveness and to encourage innovation that leads to increased organisational performance. This said, the Local Government SETA (LGSETA) commissioned research to examine the state of KM in the local government sector.

The literature review confirmed that the effective implementation of KM is dependent on leadership, culture, structure, processes, technology, and politics. Implementing KM in any organisation is difficult as several factors can influence the success or failure. In total 25 municipalities were sampled – 306 questionnaires were completed, and 17 focus group discussions were conducted with a randomly selected group of senior and middle managers across the 9 provinces. The research results paint a bleak picture in terms of the understanding, application, and integration of KM in the local government sector. This was highlighted by the quantitative results (questionnaire) and confirmed in the qualitative results (focus group discussions and discussions with key informants).

Respondents indicated some understanding of the concept of KM but were not sure how this is aligned with other mandatory processes such as the integrated development plan and or skills development processes. This is the result of a leadership and management deficit and a lack of effective communication of the value to be gained from harvesting knowledge. For KM to succeed, decisive and ethical leadership to drive the KM agenda is required. The absence of a KM culture was highlighted. The culture of an organisation is the result of what the organisation rewards or punishes. People behave themselves into a culture. A culture where employees create, acquire, share, and learn from one another was found to be wanting. The foundations of ubuntu – sharing knowledge and learning and growing are not emphasized sufficiently. The tone is set at the top, however, if leaders behave (govern) contrary to what is said, then no employee will misunderstand the message. 

The how part of KM involves procedures and processes that are expressed through policies and practices. The KM policies and procedures section also scored low as confirmed in the focus group discussions. This must be supported by an organisational design that supports KM, which currently is absent. These processes must be supported by the appropriate technology and platforms. Technology is an enabler, and all processes must be identified and considered to ensure optimisation to build the KM value chain. The empirical evidence points to a different reality in the local government sector in terms of technology as an enabler.

KM and the knowledge worker as coined by Drucker in 1959 (Armstrong, 2006), stand at the centre of all organisational activities, whose successful implementation will have as an outcome, strong institutions - Sustainable Development Goal 16. These must be co-designed involving as many of the organisational actors, including representatives of labour as highlighted in the literature. This will ensure legitimacy and that knowledge workers at all levels engage in KM activities, creating a coaching and mentorship regime. 

The LGSETA as the authority for skills development must lead the knowledge and knowledge management revolution by mobilising all available resources and working in concert with the primary identified strategic partners (South African Local Government Association and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs). It is recommended that the strategic partners also identify implementing partners such as the Municipal Institute of Learning and institutions of higher Learning.

Municipalities and municipal entities wishing to embark on this change management journey should work through the recommended implementation framework (Governance5iQ) that is applicable on the micro (municipal) and macro (strategic) levels. The implementation framework is based on 5 questions. (1) Why do we do what we do?  (vision) (2) How is it being done? (mission) (3) How will we know at any given moment that we are on track? (monitoring and evaluation) (4) What happens if we are not on track? (consequence management) (5) How do we lead and learn? (knowledge management).

The proposed recommendations to achieve KM in the local government sector have far-reaching implications for (individual) development and capacity building (institutional level) within the local government sector. The effective implementation of KM in the South African local government sector will result in the institutionalisation of the organisational processes to ensure that evidence-informed policy and program decisions are made. This critical organisational paradigm shift is a move away from a focus on process only, to outcomes that are considered more important for the long-term sustainability of the organisation. This will ensure that KM is mainstreamed and will lead to good governance outcomes (ethical culture, good performance, effective controls, and legitimacy) as envisaged by King IV principles and championed by KM ambassadors (politicians).

The empirical evidence presented is clarion clear - KM is the missing link for sustainable local governance and the biggest threat to the democratic project in South Africa.


This article is part of a series reporting on research commissioned by the Local Government Sector Education & Training Authority (LGSETA) (Contact:

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