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Published on: 11/03/2012

As service levels improve... clarity about who is responsible to do what becomes ever more important.

Importance of defining institutional roles and functions

The clear definition of roles and functions and understanding of the relationships between different institutional levels are critical for truly sustainable rural water services operating at scale. Conversely the lack of clearly delineated roles can undermine sustainable services at scale. Establishing a service requires policies to be set and/or adjusted at national level, decentralised governments to support service delivery in their area of jurisdiction, and community-based service providers to actually manage services. Sustainability at scale can only be achieved if such key functions are fulfilled at all levels. As service levels improve in rural areas and service providers become progressively more professionalised, the separation of functions and clarity about who is responsible to do what becomes ever more important.

Challenges of clearly defining roles and functions

However, historically in the rural water sector institutional functions and the level at which these functions are carried out have not always been clear. This is due to three main reasons. Firstly, many countries have been going through processes of water sector reform and broader decentralisation that have often been slow, sometimes partial, and frequently contentious. While in the urban sector these have often resulted in a relatively clear separation and definition of functions to different bodies such as planning, financing, operations and regulation, in the rural sector, there has often been a continued blurring of responsibilities or poor definition of functions between central organs of the state, local government and community-based service providers. One reason for this is that rural water supply has received less attention in such reform processes. Moreover, community-based service providers have often lacked formal legal status, and hence have been unable to take up formally mandated roles and responsibilities. The second reason for the poor definition of functions is that many development partners – including international NGOs, water charities and even programmes funded by bi-lateral donors – have simply ignored institutional mandates and boundaries, choosing instead to develop and use their own parallel institutional frameworks. A final reason is that, in a number of cases, previously centralised government agencies have themselves resisted changes in functions and the broader trend towards devolution of powers to local authorities.

In a number of cases, previously centralised government agencies have resisted the broader towards devolution of powers to local authorities.

The result of this lack of clarity about who is supposed to do what – or the rules of the game – is that many interventions funded in the rural water sector have been based on a set of assumptions around responsibilities and legal ownership of infrastructure assets that are ill-defined or simply untrue. Without a clear understanding of functions, different projects or programmes can fill the vacuum and basically do whatever they want. It can also result in situations where, for example, community water committees are given management responsibilities, but are not recognised as legal entities, which limits their ability to function. Even where functions are clearly understood, lack of capacity, especially at the level of decentralised government acts as a major constraint to sustainable service delivery.

Defining some generic functions and institutional levels

There is no one framework or taxonomy which can account for all possible scenarios, but we do recognise some important elements and relationships which can be helpful in better defining functions and the levels at which these are carried out. The definition of these levels is based on the functions related to service delivery. Functions may or may not be linked to one or more specific institutional level, depending on the degree of decentralisation and specific administrative hierarchy of the country. There are of course big differences between countries and regions of the world and often grey areas or hybrid situations exist, but the following descriptors will capture the different institutional levels and functions in most cases. Broadly speaking, three distinct groups of functions can be identified with corresponding institutional levels.

i. Policy, normative and support functions – national level. This refers to the overall enabling environment functions where sector policy, norms and regulatory frameworks are set, service levels defined, and macro-level financial planning and development partner coordination takes place. It can also be the level at which broad sector development support functions are carried out, such as the promotion of learning, piloting and innovation, overall sector guidance and capacity building. This nearly exclusively takes place at national level, although in federal countries, states may also execute some of these functions. Support and backstopping functions are frequently carried out via deconcentrated offices of central government.

ii. Service authority functions – intermediate level. Service authority functions include planning, coordination and oversight in a geographical area of jurisdiction. The responsibility for these functions typically lies at the intermediate level (i.e. in between the national and local level, such as district, commune, governorate or municipality as a generic term to describe this level). In some cases the ownership of the physical assets of rural water supply systems is held by local government entities, but this varies from country to country. Arguably the functions of monitoring and technical support to service providers also are part of the service authority. In reality, these may also be contracted out to other entities (either from the private or public sector) or carried out by national agencies working via deconcentrated regional offices.

iii. Service provider functions – system level. The service provider functions refer to the day-to-day management of a water service, including operation, preventative and corrective maintenance, and administration activities (bookkeeping, tariff collection, customer care, etc). This may also involve asset ownership and investment functions under certain arrangements. Typically, the service provider functions are found at the level of a community or grouping of communities, depending on the size and scale of the water supply system(s) in question. Under community-based management, these functions are fulfilled by either a dedicated community- based service provider (which, depending on the country, may be called a water committee, water board, water users' association, etc.) or a more general community-based organisation, such as a village development committee. In cases where community-based management is more professionalised, the service provider delegates or sub-contracts certain tasks to an individual (plumber or technician) or to a local private operator. Under self-supply, the individual household fulfils the service provider function.

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