Effects of the state’s informal practices on organisational capability and social inclusion: Three cases of city governance in Johannesburg

Blog by Li Pernegger

17 Apr 2020, 1:22 p.m.
Li Pernegger

Abstract: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0042098020910111#abstract


As a former government official for many years in local and national governments, I was often puzzled about the unexpected turns policies could take in practice. I gradually saw that the phenomenon of informal practices, outside the accepted rules, as possibly being part of this puzzle.

So when  other  University of Witwatersrand (South Africa) colleagues began to work on informal practices of the state in 2013, I couldn’t resist joining in, as a side line to my doctorate on conflict in local governance. I started this article then, but I gave up on it more than once. But the puzzle kept drawing me back. Writing this article (and rewriting it more times than I care to admit) helped me to stand back and understand that informal practices were not quite the undesirable practices I may have initially thought.

I was able to see how sometimes quite momentous changes in city governance were informed by informal practices undertaken outside the rules for (sometimes very) good reasons. Indeed, the more I studied shifts in directions of city governance, the more informal practices I began to see.

Despite state actors’ uses of informal practices in urban governance, my sense is that practitioners and scholars do not really recognise their prominence in changing policy. The effects of these informal practices are even less examined. Informal practices are so entwined with formal ones that they can be hard to tell apart. But, informal ones clearly impact on formal governance, the state and its citizens. This impact is felt most keenly at the local and city level.

My article showcases three cases of contested urban governance from Johannesburg’s post-apartheid city administration: its efforts to manage taxis and traders; deal with protests in an informal settlement called Orange Farm; and cope (but mostly avoid) with the demand for pro-poor Inner City housing. All reveal pivotal informal practices in response to challenges encountered in local urban governance. These practices are informed by multiple complex and (sometimes absent) formal practices, contexts, timings and players.

The City of Johannesburg’s officials and politicians deliberately applied different sorts of informal practices in response to different pressures. These pressures included the need to cope with immediate problems, conflictual relationships, political agendas, lobbying groups, competing priorities and resource limitations.

The effects of these informal practices on the local government’s organisational capability and citizens’ social inclusion are evident and varied, and sometimes surprising. Findings imply the state’s informal practices and their effects shape governance in ways that can deeply undermine or uphold democratic ideals. Certainly, state actors’ informal practices and their impact on governance warrant more scrutiny than they have been given so far.

I think, as an academic and as a practitioner, that city administrations have become enormously complex to manage. Sometimes we gloss over the roles of individuals who are trying to make governance work and do so in contexts that are extremely pressurising. Even after writing this article, I still have questions about this unexplored terrain. If we cannot be mindful about how the state and its actors go about their practices, both informal and formal, with their successes and flaws, how can we expect to improve governance?


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0042098020910111



You need to be logged in to make a comment. Please Login or Register

There are no comments on this resource.

Return to Category