The Municipal Three-Legged Stool
Urban Crossroads #69

Most activities involving the larger public may be compared to a three-legged stool. Remove one of the legs, and the stool will fall down. One “leg” is financial resources: the money needed to carry out the activity. Another leg is human resources: the people needed to carry out the activity. The third leg is the existence of a suitable number of stakeholders who benefit from the activity, and the relationship between them and the providers of the activity. No public activity will succeed if any of these three elements is missing or faulty.

This rule applies to urban services, a public activity primarily offered through municipal authorities. These services need to have adequate budgets, adequate staff, and a well-worked-out relationship with a suitable number of stakeholders who benefit from them. The issue of financial resources conceptually is the simplest of the three requirements. Urban services cost money and therefore need to have suitable budgets. In order to secure such budgets, a municipal authority primarily depends on tax collection, whether directly collected from city residents or provided by the central government as an allocation of national taxes. A municipal authority also can raise funds through other means as with privatizing certain services it offers such as garbage collection, and charging the private-sector outfit that takes on the service a concessionary fee.

When examining budgets, it is not enough to look at total budgets. An equally, or even more meaningful, figure is found in per capita budgets. For example, the Greater Amman Municipality’s 2006 budget exceeds 140 million Jordanian Dinars ($200 million), which seems like a reasonable sum. However, when considering that Amman has a population of no less than two million inhabitants (some would go as far up as three million by factoring in members of the Iraqi diaspora living in the city), that budget translates to a maximum of 70 JD per inhabitant, which isn’t very large. Since the municipality also has to pay salaries for its over 13,000 employees, this leaves it with relatively little to cover capital expenditures or even non-salary-related operating expenditures.

The issue of human resources is a bit more complicated. Urban services need skilled people, whether technicians, planners, financial managers, community development specialists, or legal experts who would devise strategies, objectives, and policies, as well as implement them. Even if those skills are available in the market, it takes years, if not decades, for a municipal authority to develop the internal mechanisms and systems that would attract such skilled personnel, develop their capacities on the job, allow them to achieve a rewarding level of professional growth, and ensure the transfer of their capacities and experiences to the generations that succeed them. Having the necessary financial resources to hire those skills is extremely important, but providing a work-environment that attracts them, retains them, and allows them to grow is equally significant, and takes time to achieve.

The third issue, that involving stakeholders, is the trickiest of the three. The availability of enough stakeholders to benefit from the standard services that municipal authorities offer in most cases is not a problem. The challenge, however, is to ensure that municipal services are distributed to the city’s various stakeholders efficiently and fairly. By definition, a city is a place in which diverse communities reside, each with their own socio-economic specificities, and also their own interests, expectations, and demands. A competent municipal authority needs to identify those different stakeholders and their needs, reach out to them, and engage them. Of course, decent financial and human resources are needed to carry out those tasks.

When dealing with stakeholders, considerable efforts need to be made so as not to let the loudest of them take on the lion’s share of attention from municipal authorities. This is especially true in the case of communities where there isn’t an established tradition of public participation. Under such circumstances, moneyed interests (primarily represented by large-scale real-estate owners, developers, and speculators) on the one hand, and demagogues on the other hand, easily can end up getting most of the attention and consequently services from the municipality, leaving the silent majority of city residents feeling ignored and marginalized.

To move on with the three-legged stool analogy, the services that a municipal authority provides are the weight that the stool can carry. In other words, the scope of services offered depends on the carrying capacity of the “legs.” If a municipality attempts to deliver more than the legs can handle, the whole municipal system will be stressed and may collapse. This puts the municipal authority in a difficult and unenviable balancing act, for it regularly will have to assess and reassess the services it offers to the public, and to decide which services it is able to deliver adequately; which services should be relegated to other organizations, with the municipal authority taking on the role of coordinator; and which services would be best privatized, with the municipal authority only taking on the role of regulator.

A municipal authority always will need to carry out its core activities, which primarily relate to drafting and implementing building and land-use regulations, as well as carrying out overall physical urban planning activities. Ideally, it also should be intimately involved in providing various other services relating to issues such as public transportation, public health, as well as cultural and recreational activities. However, if it does not have the capacity to carry out these various tasks in a relatively efficient manner, it would be best to leave them to other governmental, non-governmental, or private-sector organizations that may be better positioned to do so. This admittedly will limit a municipal authority’s presence in the city and does not provide for an ideal situation, but it might be the only way to ensure that the three legs of the stool are kept standing.

Mohammad al-Asad

June 7, 2007