The role of municipal leadership in accelerating transformation and service delivery

Municipal leadership is a driver of transformation and an agent of improved service delivery in South African municipalities. A study commissioned by the Local Government Sector Education and Training Authority (LGSETA) established that, despite various efforts to transform municipalities and enhance service delivery through effective leadership, evidence suggests that local government leadership faces many challenges that impede its efforts to transform and improve service delivery.

The study adopted a mixed-method approach comprised of surveys and interviews with selected provincial and municipal officials to gain a deeper understanding of the role of municipal leadership in accelerating transformation and service delivery in local government. This article provides key findings of this study.

Key findings

Participants' responses regarding the role played by municipal leadership in accelerating service delivery and transformation in local government

  • 37.6% of respondents believe that municipal leadership influences local government reform to some extent, closely followed by 33% who believe that it does to a large extent. Only a small proportion (4.6%) believe that it does not, and 24.8% feel it is only relevant to a limited extent. This suggests that while a significant proportion of municipal leaders are engaged in influencing reforms, there's still a considerable segment that is either minimally involved or not perceived as actively participating in reform processes.
  • 46.8% of the respondents believe that municipal leadership is involved to some extent in exploring reform alternatives, with only 27.5% largely seeing it. 12.8%  of the respondents feel that this is not the case, and 21.1% feel that this is only minimal. This data indicates a moderate level of engagement in the search for new and effective reform strategies, suggesting that while exploration is taking place, there may still be room for more proactive and comprehensive exploration.
  • In terms of framing and fostering citizen participation, the involvement of municipal leadership was perceived most strongly. 42.2% of respondents view their involvement as largely substantial, and a further 23.9% believe it is to some extent. Conversely, a smaller yet notable proportion, each constituting 12.8%, perceive municipal leadership’s involvement as non-existent or minimal. This data suggests that municipal leaders are generally seen as effectively engaging with citizens, highlighting their active role in promoting citizen involvement in the governance process. It underscores the municipal leaders' commitment to enhancing participatory governance, although there is room for improvement.
  • The responses from the interviewed participants revealed a complex scenario where leadership instability, the need for robust political and administrative support, departmental challenges, and innovative communication strategies all play a role in shaping the effectiveness of municipal leadership in service delivery and transformation. These responses correspond with the survey results, indicating varied levels of involvement and effectiveness in different areas of leadership and governance within local municipalities.

Participants’ responses regarding the extent transformation impacts service delivery in the local government sector

  • A notable 46.8% of respondents believe that leadership transformation moderately promotes the simplification of procedures, while 30.3% felt it significantly contributes to this aspect. However, a combined 22.9% perceive it to have little or no impact. This suggests that while leadership transformation is generally seen as effective in streamlining procedures, there's still a considerable perception of its limited influence in simplification.
  • 45.9% of respondents identified leadership transformation's role in optimizing resource allocation as substantial, with 31.2% noting moderate impact. Only a minor fraction (8.3%) felt that it had no impact, and 14.2 % viewed its impact as minimal. These findings indicate a strong belief in leadership transformation's ability to enhance resource allocation efficiency.
  • Regarding timely and cost-effective service delivery, 34.9% of participants rate the impact of leadership transformation as significant, and 41.3% as moderate. Conversely, a smaller segment (23.9%) perceives minimal to no impact. This result highlights a generally positive view of leadership transformation in fostering efficiency in service delivery, though some areas may still need improvement.
  • A significant 47.7% believe leadership transformation fosters innovation in service delivery, while 30.3% see a moderate influence. A smaller proportion, totalling 22%, considered its impact minimal or nonexistent. The data points to a strong belief in the transformative leadership’s capacity to nurture innovation, which is crucial for evolving and improving service delivery.
  • 33.9% of respondents regarded leadership transformation's impact on integrating novel technologies and inventive approaches as high, and 45.9% regarded it as moderate. Only 20.2% believe it has little or no impact. This suggests that the majority view leadership transformation as instrumental in adopting new technologies and innovative solutions, vital for modernizing service delivery in the local government sector.

Participants’ responses regarding obstacles hindering the municipal leadership's efforts in accelerating transformation and service delivery

  • The survey data on municipal leadership challenges in transforming and delivering services highlights a variety of key obstacles. Insufficient expertise, recognised by 47.2% of respondents, emerges as a significant impediment, suggesting a pressing need for skilled professionals in municipal governance. Fiscal restrictions, identified by over half of the participants, further underscore budgetary constraints as a major hurdle in implementing transformative actions and effective services. Additionally, the lack of accountability and maintenance issues, perceived as obstacles by 50.9% and 54.7% of respondents, respectively, reflect critical operational challenges in municipal administration. Meanwhile, political dysfunction, acknowledged by a notable 61.2% of the respondents, pointed to the adverse impact of political issues on municipal governance efficiency.
  • Other challenges identified include environmental sustainability concerns, inadequate managerial practices, ageing infrastructure, and recruitment and employee retention issues, each recognized by nearly half of the respondents. These findings suggest that environmental factors and managerial and infrastructural inefficiencies are considerable barriers to effective municipal leadership and service provision. Furthermore, the concerns about social equality, seen as an obstacle by 49.1%, highlight the importance of addressing social inequities for equitable service delivery and transformation in municipalities. Collectively, these challenges paint a comprehensive picture of the multifaceted barriers facing municipal leadership, underscoring the need for multifaceted solutions and targeted strategies to enhance service delivery and governance.
  • The qualitative findings from local government leaders in South Africa indicate that the main impediments to effective leadership in local government revolve around capacity and literacy challenges. Participants unanimously identified significant skills deficit within local government, severely impacting their ability to drive transformation and enhance service delivery. This skills gap, as highlighted by the respondents, manifests in several key areas, including a lack of adequate expertise in leadership roles, insufficient training and skills development initiatives, and a mismatch between the responsibilities assigned and the actual capabilities of the council members.
  • One of the primary issues raised is the inadequacy of literacy and comprehension of complex policies, regulations, and administrative procedures among community leaders and council members. This literacy deficit extends beyond essential reading and writing skills to encompass an understanding of intricate municipal governance mechanisms. The leaders expressed concerns about the impact of this gap on implementing developmental initiatives and efficiently executing municipal duties. This situation is exacerbated by the absence of robust institutional support for capacity building, leading to further inefficiencies in governance and service delivery.
  • Furthermore, several leaders mentioned initiatives like skills audits undertaken to assess and address these gaps. However, the persisting challenge of insufficient expertise and the lack of contribution towards skills development remain prominent concerns. The gap in skills and literacy significantly hampers municipalities' ability to deliver quality services and achieve transformative goals. This aligns with existing literature, which emphasizes that skills deficits in local government can critically impact service delivery and transformation, highlighting the need for targeted skill enhancement and capacity-building programs.

Competencies of transformational leadership that are instrumental in changing the outlook of the local government sector

  • The survey results on transformative leadership competencies in local government show a deep knowledge of governance skills. As a critical ability, ethical leadership was valued by 60.2% of the respondents, indicating that ethical behaviour is essential to local government transformation. Visionary leadership is also recognised by 57.3%, showing that the industry needs forward-thinking and inventive executives. Communication skills are also necessary, with 59.2% underlining their importance in resolving complex local governance issues. Conflict management is also essential to 63.1% of respondents, demonstrating local governments' complex stakeholder contexts and the requirement for conflict resolution skills. Most people consider these talents essential since local governance is changing, and leaders need ethical, visionary, communicative, and conflict-resolving skills.
  • On the other hand, competencies like emotional intelligence, resilience, and innovation show a more varied perspective among respondents. While 31.1% acknowledged the importance of emotional intelligence, a notable 47.6% remained neutral, indicating varied perceptions of its relevance in local government settings. Resilience and innovation, valued by 43.7% and 48.6%, respectively, also show significant neutrality, suggesting a recognition of these qualities but not universally regarded as critical. Financial and administrative acumen and project management were seen as necessary by 44.7% and 55.3%, respectively, highlighting these as key functional competencies in local government. However, the relatively high neutrality in responses to these skills might suggest variability in their application or understanding across different municipalities. The data illustrates a landscape where specific leadership competencies are universally acknowledged as essential while others are viewed with varying degrees of emphasis, reflecting the diverse challenges and priorities in local government sectors.
  • Qualitative data on transformative leadership abilities in local government indicated many crucial areas. It highlighted the need for adaptive and agile leadership in service delivery transformation. Leaders are urged to adapt to different situations. Participants emphasised the necessity of working with educational institutions and the private sector to improve service delivery. Emotional intelligence, resilience, ethical leadership, and visionary leadership help manage local governance and provide responsive, efficient, and ethical administration. These qualities are highly valued by respondents (39.8%), visionary leaders (37.9%), and communicators (33%). This shows a thorough awareness of transformational leadership traits needed for local government reform.

Participants' responses regarding the role of LGSETA in enhancing transformational leadership and capacity building for effective local government

  • The data showed a positive perception of LGSETA’s contributions, particularly in areas like capacity building and training programs, where 56.4% (either agreed or strongly agreed) recognised the LGSETA’s effectiveness. Similarly, technology adoption and innovation, as well as collaboration and partnership, were acknowledged by 54.5% and 54.6%, respectively, suggesting a significant role of LGSETA in these domains. Leadership development and knowledge management are also areas where LGSETA's impact was notably recognised, with 40% and 47.3% agreeing, respectively. However, there's considerable neutrality in responses, especially in leadership development (42.7%) and knowledge management (36.4%), indicating some uncertainty or lack of awareness about LGSETA's roles in these areas. Interestingly, monitoring, evaluation, and accountability had the highest agreement at 46.4%, underscoring LGSETA's perceived strength in ensuring responsible and effective use of resources and programs. The survey data reflected a generally positive view of LGSETA's role in fostering key competencies and innovations required for effective local governance in South Africa.
  • The survey data and qualitative interviews revealed LGSETA's pivotal role in enhancing transformational leadership and capacity building for effective local government. The data showed a positive response to LGSETA's impact on leadership development, collaboration and partnership, and knowledge management. Particularly noteworthy is the strong agreement on LGSETA's role in capacity building and training programs, with 38.2% agreeing and 18.2% strongly agreeing. This reflects a widespread recognition of LGSETA's skills development and leadership enhancement efforts within the local government sector.
  • Participants from various municipalities underscored the effectiveness of LGSETA in addressing local government challenges, emphasising its role in fostering skill enhancement, promoting continuous learning, and reinforcing ethical governance. The emphasis on skills development, particularly in areas such as monitoring, evaluation, and technology adoption, highlights LGSETA's commitment to equipping local government officials with the necessary competencies to tackle contemporary issues and improve services. This comprehensive approach by LGSETA, focusing on a range of competencies from emotional intelligence to financial acumen, aligns with the current demands for proficient governance and leadership crucial for local economic development and inclusivity in South Africa. This effort by LGSETA reflects an understanding that effective governance and service delivery at the local level requires a multifaceted approach, addressing both technical skills and leadership qualities.


In conclusion, this research highlights the pivotal role of transformational leadership in enhancing service delivery and driving change in South African local government. The analysis of study results unearthed the multifaceted challenges local government faces, which include leadership instability, lack of political will, poor accountability, skill deficits, and lack of compliance with legislation, among others. Further, the analysis indicated the pivotal role LGSETA plays in leadership development, capacity building, and the promotion of collaborative partnerships as strategic mechanisms in addressing local government challenges. The establishment of a learning organisation was highly emphasised in the findings as continuous learning is key in transforming local government leadership and attaining sustainable municipal service delivery. The research underscores that tackling these challenges requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders, leveraging LGSETA's frameworks and initiatives to build a more responsive, ethical, accountable and efficient local government sector 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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