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Public participation platform: Municipalities must actively engage with citizens on social media

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Lakela Kaunda is Deputy Director-General responsible for corporate governance at the National School of Government. She has previously served as Chief Operations Officer (COO) in the Presidency as well as Head of the Private Office of the President and spokesperson to the Deputy President of South Africa. She is the former COO at the Ministry of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Executive Director of the Centre for Public Service Innovation and head of communication for the Department of Social Development. Prior to entering government, she worked as a journalist at the Natal Witness and Echo newspapers in Pietermaritzburg and as editor of the Evening Post in Port Elizabeth. She is also a former chairperson of the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef). She holds a master’s degree in South African politics and political economy from the University of Port Elizabeth.

The visibility and presence of local government officials on the Facebook pages of municipalities is crucial as the power of social media lies in its interactive nature. Social media users are active social beings who want to connect and engage. But in those municipalities where someone does respond to comments, such as eThekwini, Cape Town and the City of Joburg, the responses are few and far between.

Public participation has been a buzzword in the local government sphere in the country for years. The commitment to working with the public and involving them in municipal affairs will once again become a key feature in political party manifestos as we move towards local government elections on 1 November 2021.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has made it difficult to hold physical consultations with residents since March 2020, social media has become a viable option for public participation and engagement. However, most municipalities appear to have missed the boat when it comes to effective utilisation of the interactive capability of social media. They are not using social media tools such as Facebook optimally to engage the public and ensure a two-way flow of communication. They tend to post information and vanish, with nobody being made available to engage and respond to comments, complaints, questions and suggestions.

Local government is described as the sphere that is closest to the people because municipalities are supposed to provide basic services that people utilise daily. These include water, electricity, refuse removal, working streetlights, cutting grass on the verges of roads and ensuring good roads without potholes. Ensuring local economic development and promoting investments and job creation are also key measures of success.  

Municipalities are obliged by law to undertake these responsibilities in consultation with the people. The Constitution, the White Paper on Local Government and the Local Government Municipal Systems Act direct municipalities to create conditions for the local communities to participate in their work. Public participation is thus the cornerstone of the country’s local government system.

In addition to face-to-face public participation and consultation, municipalities can now also use social media more effectively to engage the public. Internet penetration reports have produced positive reports about progress in the country, and point to an increased access to the internet and mobile phones in South Africa.

DataReportal’s Digital 2021 South Africa report, which contains the latest statistics for the internet, social media and mobile phone usage, indicates that there are more than 100 million cellular phone connections in the country. This is about 169% of the population, given that some people have more than one cellular phone. The report adds that there were 25 million social media users in January 2021 which translated to 41.9% of the population.

Meanwhile, the 2021 Social Media Landscape report for South Africa, produced by Ornico and World Wide Worx, indicates that among social networking sites, Facebook remained the most popular platform in the country, with an estimated 27 million local users. WhatsApp and YouTube were the most used, with about 93% of internet users using these platforms each month, the report states.

Metropolitan municipalities already have a presence on social media. A snap survey has indicated that the Facebook presence by the metros is as follows: eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality, the only Metropolitan municipality in KwaZulu-Natal, has the largest Facebook following compared to the other metros, standing at 327,285. In Gauteng, the City of Tshwane has 231,321 Facebook followers, the City of Joburg has 176,047 while the City of Ekurhuleni enjoys the attention of 180,282 followers. In the Western Cape, the City of Cape Town has 269,300 Facebook followers while Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality in the Free State has 16,071 followers. The Eastern Cape has two metros, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Municipality in Gqeberha which has 62,026 Facebook followers and the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality in East London with 51,615 followers.

A perusal of the Facebook pages indicates that the municipalities post information daily on their pages for public consumption. These include updates on service delivery issues such as power outages, announcements on post-July riots economic recovery programmes for Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, alerts on waste removal backlogs, Covid-19 updates and vaccination drives, oversight visits to certain communities by members of mayoral communities, warnings on illegal electricity connections, appeals to financially struggling residents to contact the city with debt repayment plans, calls for registration on city supplier databases, activities to keep the cities clean, invitations to virtual council meetings, tourism promotions, and advertising of job vacancies.

The Facebook pages are used largely as a one-way communication tool and a platform to post information, with little or no engagement with the users or followers who are probably residents of the municipality in the main. In those municipalities where someone does respond to comments, such as EThekwini, Cape Town and the City of Joburg, the responses are few and far between. 

The citizens on the other hand respond immediately and continuously to the information posted. Comments include alerting the municipality about power and water outages in certain areas, alerts on refuse not being collected, streetlights that are not working, potholes, complaints about driving licence centres that are not operating optimally, the need to fix or upgrade signage on street corners, requests to ensure that calls are answered in municipal call centres, potholes, and questions about how to send water and electricity meter readings.

The responses meet a dead silence in the majority of cases. An ongoing engagement with users would be in line with government’s Batho Pele People First White Paper on Transforming Service Delivery which promotes citizen-centred public services through eight key principles to which citizens are entitled. These are service standards, access, courtesy, information, openness and transparency, redress, value for money and consultation. These principles are being promoted in September which is Public Service Month in the country.

The visibility and presence of municipal officials on the Facebook pages is crucial as the power of social media lies in its interactive nature. Social media users are active social beings who want to connect and engage. They respond immediately online to anything that agitates them in any way. This illustrates the dramatic manner in which people’s lives and work have changed due to digital transformation globally.

Historically, if something was published in a newspaper that instigated an urge to respond, one would post a letter to the local newspaper for publication, before the advent of the internet and email. It could be many days before the letter was published due to slow mail as well as internal editing processes. People are now liberated technologically. They are free to share their opinions or stories instantly on their social media platforms. This liberation has also given rise to citizen journalism where everyone with a smartphone can share news and opinions with various audiences.

This has serious implications for municipalities. If a resident experiences bad or discourteous treatment at a municipal service centre, he or she can post it on Twitter or Facebook immediately. This should in time hopefully contribute to improving citizen care and efficiency in government frontline service centres.

The eagerness and capacity to engage by citizens augurs well for local government as it provides a ready-made audience for public participation and ongoing feedback. Granted, the comments may be negative at times where users complain about service delivery failures. However, they still need to be engaged in the spirit of building a responsive and listening government.

Some of the comments are also useful for urgent follow ups, such as alerts on water leakages in communities or roadways that need to be attended to urgently.  

Social media thus provides a convenient and viable communication platform for municipalities and should be utilised profitably for public participation. Ignoring feedback from enthusiastic citizens on these platforms defeats the purpose and spirit of a listening and responsive government. DM

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  • I disagree, without having read the article!

    Social media – i.e. even just using email, is killing service delivery. Communities expect immediate answers – it’s the current communication culture. In the municipal service delivery areas, available staff are (hopefully) supposed to be out there working. Managers are (hopefully) managing. The public sends emails to everyone, all the time. I have a complaint, I email everyone from the MEC, Mayor, Director to the manager. Not client services. Then I follow up 24 hours later – where is my answer? The Mayor passes the email tot the director, who has passed his onto the manager, etc. I know officials with 1000 plus unread emails. To open an email, read it, decide what to do, takes say a minute. You get 180 emails (easily) – 3 hours gone. Then you haven’t yet done anything with the complaint.

    It makes no sense having a wonderful social media platform, passing on issues, if there are not enough staff to address the issues. No response leads to follow-up queries, so further reduces time available.
    So – rather have a system where calls are processed and passed on – allowing say 14 days for a response. You know know, as if you had written a letter and posted it!

    OK – so maybe there is a place for social media – but in my view only in the communication, consultation arena.

    • Well said Andre, could not agree with you more. Same experience over and over again with two municipalities and with so few, some mentioned in the article, doing anything remotely like responding I doubt whether they actually have computers left most have been stolen or sold! the sooner government gets back to their real offices the better. if not vaccinated no job! Nothing difficult about that. taxpayers want to see the people they are paying taxes for.