OpenUp in partnership with Matzikama Municipality aims to enhance public participation through a tool specifically designed to support citizens by informing, empowering, and activating them throughout the entire process.
The Public Participation Guide, a smart application designed by OpenUp, a civic technology organization, may help to promote citizen participation in local government decision-making processes and governance. Besides empowering and activating citizens, the application allows municipalities in South Africa, to fulfil their legal and policy obligations with regards to information access and public participation.
Upon the attainment of independence in 1994, the South African government committed itself to promote citizen participation in all spheres of government through section 3 of the constitution and a range of other policy provisions.
Aiming to provide an opportunity for citizens to obtain information about Municipal Integrated Development Plan (IDP) and Municipal Budget, the Public Participation Guide was primarily created to support the Codebridge Youth, an existing project within OpenUp, teaching young citizens about data literacy, public participation and storytelling.
Implemented in partnership with Matzikama Municipality; the Codebridge Youth project intends to remind local authorities of the integral role of young citizens in society today.
It was important for Matzikama, a remote rural community, facing challenges of lack of infrastructure, lack of internet and cell phone connectivity, to be the project beneficiary in order to ensure their participation in governance within their municipality.
Chapter 4 of the Municipal Systems Act 32 of 2000, outlines the need for local government authorities, to create opportunities for citizen participation in decision making processes of their local communities.
Although the tool was primarily designed to capacitate young citizens within municipalities, its impact made other demographic groups interested.
Based on its vision to inform - empower - activate, OpenUp sought to broaden its target group to include community members who simply wanted a way of accessing information, being empowered and taking action.
In order for OpenUp to achieve its expansion drive, the question of who the audience were was critical.
Convinced about the importance of knowing the varied groups to benefit from the project, OpenUp partnered with Ideas42, a behavioural science research organisation, to conduct the much needed user research.
Designing for user buy-in
The research was an eye opener. Feedback received through the user research indicated that the Public Participation Guide must have information about specifics of public engagement activities planned by the municipality including time, date and venue for upcoming events, information that is simple and understandable, participants want to participate in the meeting directly or be given a contact information of the person responsible, need for learning materials they can use to inform other members of the Codebridge Youth Project when recruiting new members and the municipality wanted the tool to show clearly that the information is centered around IDP and Budget process were some of the recommendations which came out very clearly from the research.
Whilst there was no guarantee for direct community participation, the fact that citizens were aware of council events like meetings, internal municipal meetings, meant they could at least understand what was going on behind the scenes in a municipality.
With the experience gained, and equipped with valuable user research, the second phase of the project will look at empowering and activating citizens to access valuable information and make their voices heard, by engaging the municipality.
In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, a lethal corona virus that has claimed millions of lives globally, the tool may not only be used to promote citizen engagement with the government, but will touch on other aspects of public life.
With 55% of the population using their mobile devices to access the internet, OpenUp endeavours to ensure its innovation is mobile friendly, even trying to explore “zero rating” opportunities for many of their tools.
In a world where information technology is key, the Public Participation Guide may help to promote sustainable democracy and development in South Africa.