A city problem, not a citizen problem

A city problem, not a citizen problem

As part of our work with the Africa Smart Towns Network of 11 cities across Africa (aka ASToN), Brink worked with the City of Matola in Mozambique on a project to increase tax income for the city council. Local officials were convinced that tax non-payment was because citizens were choosing to avoid paying taxes; but when they dug deeper, the team found very different reasons - and came up with creative new service ideas to experiment with.

In brief


The challenge

Understand why income from taxes in the City of Matola in Mozambique was so low and create innovative new ways for the council to provide effective local services.

The dent Brink made

Challenged assumptions and introduced ‘bureaucratic innovation’ right across the council, leading to smart, citizen-centered services that make paying taxes simpler.

How we did it

Enabling crucial conversations: As outsiders we were able to broach some uncomfortable topics and uncover new ground: By streamlining priorities, tackling bottlenecks and hacking away at reporting and budgeting approaches we left teams with more clarity and focus, along with a more positive and efficient approach to delivery.

Progress through practice: We introduced more iterative ways of working, which meant first changing attitudes at leadership level so the organisation could become comfortable in testing its assumptions, learning from its mistakes and experimenting with new ideas.

Brought people together: By breaking down internal organisational silos we were able to give teams that don’t normally work together a chance to reflect and collaborate, and this led to more collaborative and collegiate team atmosphere across the organisation.

In more detail

The city of Matola sits on the western side of Mozambique’s capital, Maputo. As of 2017, over a million people lived in this busy suburb that’s a centre for industry and manufacturing.

Despite the buzzing local economy, income from taxes is lower than it should be - which in turn affects the City Municipal Council’s ability to provide effective local services.

It’s hard to hold non-paying citizens to account, because the Council doesn’t have robust data on who is supposed to paying for what.

At the start of the project, Council officials assumed that non-payment was down to citizens deliberately avoiding tax payments. The fix seemed simple: find ways to persuade people to pay what they owed.

As often happens, talking to users (in this case, taxpayers) uncovered something quite different: something that caused the Council team to re-assess, then completely reverse, their assumptions.

Engagement for enlightenment

Matola is one of 11 cities across Africa taking part in the ASToN Network - a collaborative project to share knowledge and resources related to digital tools and practices.

Representatives from member cities gather regularly to share what they’ve been doing and learning.

In December 2021, Brink and ASToN ran workshops with Matola Council staff. Together we defined the vision for the project and mapping the key stakeholders. We also worked to clearly define the problem the city was trying to address.

Through this experience we realised the Matola team would benefit from more research to better understand the problem and the root causes. We worked with them to find tools and approaches for consultation with stakeholders and citizens.

The consultation was eye-opening for everyone. Council staff came to a sudden and unexpected realisation:

💬 “This is the city’s problem, not the citizens’ problem.”

Increasing tax income wasn’t about tackling deliberate non-payment by citizens; it was about using service design and digital transformation to make paying taxes easier.

The workshops introduced new ways of working to Council staff. Omar Bay, the local ASToN co-ordinator at the Council, said afterwards: “The workshops gave us better input and perspective.” He has since started sharing the methods he learned with colleagues in other Council departments.

People are more likely to pay tax if paying tax is easier

In many cases, people were not paying relevant taxes because they simply didn’t know how to pay. In other cases, they knew how, but the task is by no means easy.

The existing Council bureaucracy meant that many payments could only be made by turning up in person at a particular office, at a particular time. Not easy for everyone in a bustling city of a million people.

Even if people could turn up at the right place and the right time, the internal Council systems and processes weren’t good at handling payments efficiently. Many processes were still manual, dependent on moving pieces of paper around from desk to desk. Documents often got lost or delayed. Existing IT services were outdated and unreliable. And crucially, there wasn’t a reliable source of data describing who should pay, or who had already paid.

Because the the Council didn’t always know who should be paying certain taxes in the first place, it had no way of knowing the true extent of non-payment.

Local circumstances add more layers of difficulty: literacy rates are low, digital illiteracy is high, and only about 20% of the population have regular or reliable access to the internet.

Prototyping user-centred tax services

Since consulting with citizens, the Matola Council team have been working on a series of prototype tax payment services:

🛻 One experiment is all about data to enable vehicle tax payments. Existing data isn’t comprehensive, and is stored in many different places, which makes it hard to access and use. The Council team will launch a new database project in April 2022, which aims to establish a single central database for all vehicle tax payments. Building the database will make simpler tax payment services possible - so citizens will be able to pay using a mobile app on their phones, or through a website, or in the traditional way, face-to-face at the Council office.

🏪 Another experiment is a pilot project for paying market taxes. In Matola, stallholders at the city market are supposed to pay a small daily tax for every day they trade - but many stallholders weren’t

As part of our work with the Africa Smart Towns Network of 11 cities across Africa (aka ASToN), Brink worked with the City of Matola in Mozambique on a project to increase tax income for the city council. Local officials were convinced that tax non-payment was because citizens were choosing to avoid paying taxes; but when they dug deeper, the team found very different reasons - and came up with creative new service ideas to experiment with.

In brief


The challenge

Understand why income from taxes in the City of Matola in Mozambique was so low and create innovative new ways for the council to provide effective local services.

The dent Brink made

Challenged assumptions and introduced ‘bureaucratic innovation’ right across the council, leading to smart, citizen-centered services that make paying taxes simpler.

How we did it

Enabling crucial conversations: As outsiders we were able to broach some uncomfortable topics and uncover new ground: By streamlining priorities, tackling bottlenecks and hacking away at reporting and budgeting approaches we left teams with more clarity and focus, along with a more positive and efficient approach to delivery.

Progress through practice: We introduced more iterative ways of working, which meant first changing attitudes at leadership level so the organisation could become comfortable in testing its assumptions, learning from its mistakes and experimenting with new ideas.

Brought people together: By breaking down internal organisational silos we were able to give teams that don’t normally work together a chance to reflect and collaborate, and this led to more collaborative and collegiate team atmosphere across the organisation.

In more detail

The city of Matola sits on the western side of Mozambique’s capital, Maputo. As of 2017, over a million people lived in this busy suburb that’s a centre for industry and manufacturing.

Despite the buzzing local economy, income from taxes is lower than it should be - which in turn affects the City Municipal Council’s ability to provide effective local services.

It’s hard to hold non-paying citizens to account, because the Council doesn’t have robust data on who is supposed to paying for what.

At the start of the project, Council officials assumed that non-payment was down to citizens deliberately avoiding tax payments. The fix seemed simple: find ways to persuade people to pay what they owed.

As often happens, talking to users (in this case, taxpayers) uncovered something quite different: something that caused the Council team to re-assess, then completely reverse, their assumptions.

Engagement for enlightenment

Matola is one of 11 cities across Africa taking part in the ASToN Network - a collaborative project to share knowledge and resources related to digital tools and practices.

Representatives from member cities gather regularly to share what they’ve been doing and learning.

In December 2021, Brink and ASToN ran workshops with Matola Council staff. Together we defined the vision for the project and mapping the key stakeholders. We also worked to clearly define the problem the city was trying to address.

Through this experience we realised the Matola team would benefit from more research to better understand the problem and the root causes. We worked with them to find tools and approaches for consultation with stakeholders and citizens.

The consultation was eye-opening for everyone. Council staff came to a sudden and unexpected realisation:

💬 “This is the city’s problem, not the citizens’ problem.”

Increasing tax income wasn’t about tackling deliberate non-payment by citizens; it was about using service design and digital transformation to make paying taxes easier.

The workshops introduced new ways of working to Council staff. Omar Bay, the local ASToN co-ordinator at the Council, said afterwards: “The workshops gave us better input and perspective.” He has since started sharing the methods he learned with colleagues in other Council departments.

People are more likely to pay tax if paying tax is easier

In many cases, people were not paying relevant taxes because they simply didn’t know how to pay. In other cases, they knew how, but the task is by no means easy.

The existing Council bureaucracy meant that many payments could only be made by turning up in person at a particular office, at a particular time. Not easy for everyone in a bustling city of a million people.

Even if people could turn up at the right place and the right time, the internal Council systems and processes weren’t good at handling payments efficiently. Many processes were still manual, dependent on moving pieces of paper around from desk to desk. Documents often got lost or delayed. Existing IT services were outdated and unreliable. And crucially, there wasn’t a reliable source of data describing who should pay, or who had already paid.

Because the the Council didn’t always know who should be paying certain taxes in the first place, it had no way of knowing the true extent of non-payment.

Local circumstances add more layers of difficulty: literacy rates are low, digital illiteracy is high, and only about 20% of the population have regular or reliable access to the internet.

Prototyping user-centred tax services

Since consulting with citizens, the Matola Council team have been working on a series of prototype tax payment services:

🛻 One experiment is all about data to enable vehicle tax payments. Existing data isn’t comprehensive, and is stored in many different places, which makes it hard to access and use. The Council team will launch a new database project in April 2022, which aims to establish a single central database for all vehicle tax payments. Building the database will make simpler tax payment services possible - so citizens will be able to pay using a mobile app on their phones, or through a website, or in the traditional way, face-to-face at the Council office.

🏪 Another experiment is a pilot project for paying market taxes. In Matola, stallholders at the city market are supposed to pay a small daily tax for every day they trade - but many stallholders weren’t paying, because doing so would mean leaving the stall to pay in person. A pilot has been planned to make the payment process easier, by taking a simple contactless payment device to the market, so that stallholders can pay on the spot with cash, a card or a cellphone. This pilot is currently paused while the team seeks financial support.

There are so many layers of innovation here. There’s technical innovation, but more importantly there’s bureaucratic innovation: changing how the Council thinks and works, so that it can conduct experiments in the first place.

“Smart cities” means making smart choices

There are “smart city” initiatives all over the world, and they often put their focus on technology: hardware and software to make things better.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach, and new hardware and software can make a big difference. But that’s not the only approach worth considering.

What’s clear from Matola is that sometimes, being a “smart city” means making smart choices about simpler things. Such as: the nature of bureaucracy, how paper documents get passed around; or what might happen if you take the services to the citizens, rather than expecting the citizens to go to the services.