Can you even participate?
The Constitution of South Africa speaks to the responsibility of the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces to provide public involvement in the legislative and other processes of the legislatures and their committees in Sections 59, 72 and 118 respectively. To the average citizen, it's very unlikely that they would ever attend a parliamentary meeting or portfolio committee meeting at either National or Provincial level. Closer to home of any citizen is its Municipality.
When you review the Municipal Systems Act, it dedicates an entire chapter (4) to community participation. With all this legislation to ensure community participation within government, and to ensure community needs are taken into consideration when planning and budgeting, why is there a sense that it's not really happening? Can I make this statement? Am I wrong, are government entities taking information from community engagements and then developing their plans to respond to these needs?
The Centre for Social Change says that in 2005, there were 105 protests reported in the country, whereas in 2017 this number increased to 375.
Over the past few years, the media in South Africa has regularly broadcast about service delivery protests. I ask myself why is there a need for communities to have these protests if various forms of legislation guide and instruct for a process of engagement between citizens and government? Isn’t it an indication that this process is broken?
OpenUp developed a Public Participation Guide online tool for the Matzikama Municipality. The aim of the tool was to explore whether people understood the participation system or process of community participation within Local Government, and what barriers existed for them to participate. We had already worked with youth groups in Vanrhynsdorp, through another project of ours called Codebridge Youth.
The public participation tool has three key focus areas: Inform, Empower, and Activate. Pillared around these three areas, the project team, lead by Shaun Russell and Adrian Kearns, developed a basic version of the initial concept. In its first iteration, we wanted to ensure all the necessary public participation information was available in an understandable format.
We drew from the Municipality’s approved Time Schedule, which is required in terms of Sec 21 of the Municipal Finance Management Act. Not many citizens are even aware of the time schedule. Even I, as a public servant for nearly 16 years never really paid attention to this document. The time schedule is important because it sets out the milestones or time frames for certain activities to happen in terms of both the Municipality’s Budget and its IDP. Because it has to be completed and approved, it means the Municipality has to meet these activities.
Available on a Municipality’s website as a scanned PDF, and generally not within reach on the site, a big win was just to make this information more accessible.
If you have read official government documents, you will know that there are terms, jargon, and abbreviations galore. That's just the way they communicate, I guess. My initial stab at pulling this information into an online participation tool didn’t really bring much change. I worked in the government for 16 years, so naturally, I understood most of the terms, and I found it difficult to read this information from the perspective of a regular person. With some feedback from Codebridge youth and my colleagues, I was able to tone down and translate the language into a more “human form.”
Version 1 of the tool was ready for the world - well the world of Matzikama (with its population of 70k)! As feedback started coming in immediately started on the next iteration of the tool.
Some of the important areas which users commented on were:
“We love that we have access to all the information about an upcoming public meeting, but there are no contact details of the responsible municipal official to enquire about the meeting, activities or deadline.”
“We need more learning material about what the IDP and Municipal Budget is about. Why it is important for a citizen to participate, and when it is our time to participate.”
“I find the event/ activity cards very useful, but I would like to make my submission through the tool and not have to go and attend a meeting.”
The above information, though valuable, needed to be applied and users wanted to take some form of action.
We wanted to provide the citizens of Matzikama with every opportunity available to them to participate in the Municipal IDP and Budget process for 2021.
A big push from OpenUp’s side without a doubt is the direct opportunity to make a submission in the event card below.
We built the functionality, tested it with youth groups and made adjustments based on the feedback. I repeat user feedback a lot, I know because we aim to build to meet a particular need of a user. We want to make the process easier, more effective, more responsive, but really, making sure all the roleplayers in the process gain value from the tool. Remembering this, what we thought was going to be an innovative way to gather citizen submissions in a structured way for a Municipality, which it was, needed Municipal buy-in.
Was the Municipality ready to unleash this new way of making IDP submissions? Would they be able to handle the volumes? Would the Municipality accept the potential views and issues of citizens? We never got around to testing this in Matzikama, but this was understandable because the Municipality at the time had been embroiled in various allegations made against some of its senior political officials.
We took the Public Participation tool through its “3 Pillars” paces and now we are eager to take it to a community to openly and freely use. Some of the questions we are left with are:
- Can we implement this tool within a particular municipal space without the partnership or support of a Municipality?
- Public Participation is a legal requirement within all three spheres of government, could we build this tool as a stand-alone?
- Civic Organisations are the proxy voice of many communities, could they be our main partner in a municipal space?
- Can the public participation tool develop, through strategic partnership, an IDP and Budget parallel to the Municipalities? Could we help create “the People’s Budget & IDP''?
It should be responsive, right?
Public Participation should be a responsive mechanism, in that, communities, or citizens must feel confident that their comments are being considered. Whether we can see this in Municipalities, through their IDPs and Budgets, would require some level of research and analysis from the Civil Society.
The ideal could potentially be to implement a concurrent “public participation” process with a Municipality, or just support the municipality in effecting a robust, wide-reaching process of community participation. Either way, the information is catalytic to understand and compare the alignment of community needs to municipal planning and implementation. This seems to be a good opportunity to measure Municipal IDP and Budget responsiveness to its citizens and their needs.