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Citizens shaping policies in South Africa through the public participation platform Dear South Africa

Introduction

South Africa is still a young democracy having made the transition from an apartheid regime to democracy in 1997. Its constitution took effect on 4 February 1997. According to the founders of the platform Dear South Africa, it is widely regarded as “the most progressive constitution in the world, with a Bill of Rights second to none”.

One of the pillars of this constitution is public participation. South Africa’s democratic system not only provides for citizens to elect their representatives, but also allows citizens to have a say in matters that affect them. The web-based platform Dear South Africa - https://dearsouthafrica.co.za/ - enables citizens to influence policies by making submissions concerning pieces of legislation and policies under consideration by a Parliamentary Committee or other government institution. This case study provides a specific example of how South African citizens have shaped a policy responding to water shortage in Cape Town.

Objectives

The drafting of a government policy requires input from various sources relevant to the subject of the policy, e.g. applicable legislation, court judgements, different government departments and units, academic experts and the general public.

The internet platform Dear South Africa provides citizens with the opportunity to make written or oral submissions in order to influence public policies at national and local levels. The founders stress that Dear South Africa does not run petitions, but supports citizens to take part in a legally protected policy-shaping process, as mandated under the South African Constitution. In particular, citizens may propose changes to existing legislation or new legislation considered by Parliament or their local council.

Dear South Africa provides a tool to overcome obstacles to public participation by highlighting important public policy issues at the national, provincial and local levels and providing a user-friendly forum which enables citizens to submit comments on government policies or proposed legislation. 

Leadership and change management

Dear South Africa was founded by a group of concerned citizens who wanted to use the constitutional space and increase the opportunity for citizens to influence policy making in South Africa. It has the status of a non-profit organisation. This initiative aims to improve collaboration between citizens and government at the national, provincial and local levels.

Dear South Africa has created the opportunity for a large group of citizens to air their views either individually or as a member of civil society organisations in the development of policies or laws.  According to the website, over 700,000 citizens have been involved in its public campaigns during the past 18 months. By creating a web-based participation mechanism for citizen contributions to the design of policies or laws, the opportunity to influence government decision-making is made much easier. It allows crowd-sourcing of ideas from the wider public. It is a way of empowering citizens through digital technology to contribute to public policy-making (Lember 2018, p. 120).

The team of Dear South Africa identifies a specific policy or proposed law or changes to current policies or legislation and provides a description of this on its website, including various sources for further information. In some cases, the public consultation has been expressly desired by government. For example, the Minister of Public Works called for public comment on the controversial Draft Expropriation Bill published on Friday 21 December 2018, which was highlighted on the Dear South Africa webpage. Over 70,200 citizens provided feedback on this bill via the Dear South Africa platform. In other cases, the government seems to be less proactive in seeking public consultation and Dear South Africa itself selects these issues if they are considered to be important and controversial.

The website does not run polls or petitions asking simply for support or opposition to a particular issue. Rather, it requires contributors from the community to provide reasons why they agree or do not agree (or do not fully agree) with a government policy, so that contributors are required to think about the issue and provide an input in their own words. The website also shows the comments made by citizens and provides information on sessions of parliamentary committees where public submissions on new legislation are to be heard and discussed.

These submissions are collected on a database of Dear South Africa and then submitted as individual e-mail contributions to the respective government institution which is dealing with the policy or law under discussion.  In some cases, Dear South Africa also provides a written summary of the submissions received to the relevant government institution.

Obstacles

The use of a web platform to get input from the community on policy or legislation issues can attract a huge volume of contributions which can easily overwhelm public sector organisations. However, Dear South Africa has recognised this as a problem and has created a kind of filter to aggregate and analyse individual submissions in a more effective way. It also provides a summary of the submissions on a particular matter to the relevant government institution.

While in some cases, as in the Draft Expropriation Bill (which allows government expropriation of land without compensation in some cases), the government has encouraged public consultation, this is not always the case. This means that the co-production dynamics between the exercise of citizen voice and the level of government input to the debate depend on the issue at stake. In those cases where the government does not seek a public consultation process, and does not even provide public feedback on its views of the submissions made via Dear South Africa, it is clear that this does not qualify as a co-production process, since co-production requires meaningful inputs from both citizens and government.

However, in cases where the government uses Dear South Africa as a vehicle to carry out a meaningful public consultation, so that both citizens and government make significant contributions to improve public policies (and their outcomes), we can see Dear South Africa as providing a potentially valuable mechanism for co-production. It is important to note  that in the case of legislation, the legislature (the national Parliament or the provincial legislature) is legally obliged to invite input from the public. However, in the case of policy making it is not obligatory but still encouraged.

Outcomes

We can illustrate the kind of outcomes which can be achieved by Dear South Africa through a high profile example.

A heated policy debate which was facilitated on Dear South Africa was around a new water tariff policy in Cape Town. During 2017 and early 2018 the Western Cape experienced the worst drought in 100 years and this led to serious water restrictions, introduced by the City of Cape Town and various other local authorities.  Due to the fact that far less rain than usual occurred, the water in the dams that supply Cape Town dropped over time to record low levels, which meant that consumers had to reduce their water usage to a bare minimum. 

Various public awareness campaigns about the drought and water scarcity contributed to a behaviour change in the community and coupled with the serious water restrictions resulted in a major reduction in the consumption of water.  The City of Cape Town, like other local authorities, sells water to its citizens and when less water is sold, it means less revenue for the City.  In December 2017 the City Council decided to introduce a new water tariff policy, which included a special drought levy based on property values and much higher water tariffs in an attempt to regain the revenue that it was losing due to reduced water consumption.  Additional funding was also needed to pay for new desalination plants and boreholes to get additional water supply to the consumers.

This new water tariff policy was published for public comment in December 2017 during the summer holiday period when thousands of tourists visit Cape Town and surrounding towns.  Dear South Africa published this information on its website and invited the public to make submissions.  More than 55,000 written submissions were received and Dear South Africa then submitted all the individual contributions to the City Council for consideration.  The overwhelming view flowing from these public submissions was that it was an unfair policy and not supported by the public.  This resulted in a reconsideration of the policy by the City Council, which then decided in January 2018 to scrap the controversial drought levy. Instead the City Council adopted a revised water tariff policy that allows for a progressive scale of tariffs based on consumption.

Water is a topic that touches everyone, but this proposed policy touched a nerve in society and, due to the initiative of Dear South Africa, the biggest input from the community ever experienced with regard to a public policy issue in Cape Town was prompted.  This was a unique way of influencing the end result, which was the City Council’s adoption of a water tariff policy much more acceptable to local people.

Performance indicators

The debate on Dear South Africa over the new Cape Town water tariff policy received more than 55,000 contributions from the community, which is the largest number of contributions received from the public on a policy issue in Cape Town.

Costs and savings

Dear South Africa is funded by public donations. Currently, there are no figures available as to the costs of its public campaigns nor an evaluation of the benefits of the public campaigns on public policies.

Lessons learnt and next steps

The creation of the internet platform Dear South Africa has harnessed the ability of information technology to obtain diverse contributions from the public, whether by way of a targeted initiative in one city, such as the water tariffs in Cape Town, or through a country-wide initiative, as was the case with the property clause and land reform issue in South Africa.  It is an innovative crowd-sourcing initiative originating from civil society. The current format of submissions used by Dear South Africa enables citizens to provide alternative policy solutions which are then submitted to the relevant decision-making body.  Where the government accepts some of these proposals, we can appropriately describe this as a process of co-creation of public policy.

The experience gained by Dear South Africa since its creation has led to improving the web platform. In particular, a rating system has been developed for the comments received from the public, in order to enhance the quality of the input provided to the relevant government institution.  It also aims to provide a report to the government institution on each case published on the platform. 

It is evident that by far most (85%) of the public comments received by Dear South Africa are submitted on mobile devices, which highlights that people want easy access when they are looking to make a contribution on a policy issue.

However, the platform still has some limitations. At present, the website is reactive in the sense that the public is invited to comment on existing and planned government policies. In order to reinforce co-design with citizens and co-creation with wider stakeholders, citizens need to be provided with more opportunities to propose original solutions and discuss the solutions suggested by other citizens. This would enable Dear South Africa to capture the creativity of citizens more fully and would allow the government to tap even more effectively into the knowledge and experiences of South African citizens.

It is to be hoped that this initiative will also influence government institutions to shift more towards co-production and to work more closely and from an earlier stage with those citizens in co-design processes who have made the most useful contributions. This could be the next step to allow the platform to shift from simply hosting public campaigns towards promoting a genuine dialogue where both sides make a significant contribution towards better public policies for South Africa.

Further information

https://dearsouthafrica.co.za/

Lember, V. (2018). The increasing role of digital technologies in co-production and co-creation. In: T. Brandsen, T. Steen and B. Verschuere (eds.), Co-Production and Co-creation. Engaging Citizens in Pubic Services. New York and Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 115-127.

About this case study
Main Contact

Dr Dirk Brand
Extraordinary Senior Lecturer
School of Public Leadership
Stellenbosch University
dirkjbrand1@gmail.com

This case study was written by Dirk Brand 
in July 2019.

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