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Are coalitions bad for service delivery?

As local government enters an era in which coalition governments are increasingly prominent the question arises as to whether or not this is good for governance and service delivery.

Coalitions are formed when no single political party has a majority of seats in a local council. Under these circumstance an alliance may be formed by parties to govern the council collectively.

However coalition governments are unstable as they tend to have slim majorities and, when the coalition displaced an incumbent, an opposition well versed in how government works.

A slim majority and coalition members that represent diverse communities force governing coalitions to constantly negotiated with their partners.

This can slow down the decision making process and even lead to impasses within the coalition on key issues.

Underlying the vulnerability of coalitions is the suspicion that the opposition has no interest in the coalition being effective and that opposition will constantly seek to topple the ruling coalition.

Coalitions highlight the adversarial aspects of democracy, emphasise the vulnerability of elected officials, and the constant pursuit of change by competitors.

These aspects can render coalitions unstable and indecisive – possibly to the point of them becoming dysfunctional or unable to ensure the provision of services.

To the extent that governance depends on political decisiveness and stability the above concerns seem valid.

However good governance depends on factors other than such decisiveness and stability. It also requires clean administration, informed decisions, clarity of objectives, adherence to procedures etc.

The pursuit of these aspects of governance are enhanced by the adversarial nature of democracy.

Compared to situations where one party is dominant the level of oversight under coalitions is greatly enhanced.

Decisions put to councils face scrutiny by coalition partners and those on the opposition benches.

Opposition parties seek evidence of impropriety and, if found, can use that to discredit or even topple the administration.

The coalition partners may not benefit from any impropriety and it is in their interest to seek these out before the opposition does. Enhanced scrutiny is particularly evident with respect to budgets and the awarding of contracts.

One of the best ways the governing coalition can deal with tensions within the coalition and undermine the oppositions ability to discredit it is by being transparent in all dealings.

If the local government can be unseated by an insinuation of impropriety it is best to ensure that the scope for such allegations is minimised.

For example, full transparency in awarding tenders ensures a) that the administration is less tempted to enter corrupt deals and b) the ability of competitors to construe any deal as corrupt is undermined.

Similarly transparency in appointment procedures undermines nepotism and the deployment of cadres who are not the best candidate for any position.

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