Tuesday, August 09, 2022

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Enhancing Public Participation

The South African Constitution is underpinned by principles of good governance, also highlighting the importance of public participation as an essential element of successful good local governance. Section 152 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa,1996 confirms a number of citizen rights and more specifically, the rights of communities to be involved in local governance. Municipalities are obliged to encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in local government. This obligation extends to the entire way in which a municipality operates and functions.

The principle behind public participation is that all the stakeholders affected by a public authority’s decision or actions have a right to be consulted and contribute to such a decision

The municipality is obligated to:

  • Take into account the interests and concerns of the residents when it crafts by-laws, policy and implements its programmes;
  • Communicate to the community regarding its activities

Rowe, G. and Frewer, L. J.  (2005) A typology of public engagement mechanisms, Science, Technology, and Human Values, 30 (2), 251-290 identify mechanisms of public participation/engagement namely: public communication, public consultation and public dialogue. Public communication is the lowest but often necessary level whilst the public dialogue is the highest level.

  • Public communication involves the municipality giving information to other stakeholders.
  • Public consultation involves other stakeholders providing information to the council at the request of council or out of their own initiative.
  • Public dialogue involves the mutual exchange of information between the stakeholders and council representatives.

Rowe, G. and Frewer, L. J.  (2000) Public participation methods identify criteria for acceptance of public participation and competence criteria for public participation.

Criteria of acceptance include the following:

  • The participants should be representative of the target population. It might not be possible to include every member of the population but the aim is to strive to include all the known interests including trans-border concerns.
  • The process should be independent of any political or funder’s influences. Care should be taken to avoid relying on politically aligned local structures.
  • There should be early involvement of the public. As soon as council has identified a need for policy, it should communicate the perceived need to the public.
  • The inputs by participants should influence policy. For public participation to be effective, the public must have confidence that their contributions will influence decision making. Furthermore, the public must receive feedback on each outcome of their contribution.
  • The process should be transparent. The process of participation should be communicated to all affected parties.

Criteria for process competence include the following:

  • Participants should access resources including materials, information, experts and sufficient time to make decisions. Council could establish timelines for engagement such that consultation is planned, anticipated and not ad hoc. The timelines should be shared with all stakeholders through the most relevant means.
  • The purpose of the participation should be clearly communicated. The public should be aware if they are receiving, giving, and sharing information with council.
  • There should be a predetermined and structured decision making process communicated to all stakeholders. Residents should be aware of how their contributions will be processed and input into the decision making process.
  • The chosen method should be cost effective.

Tools for enhancing public participation

  1. 1. Ward committees

While acknowledging that public participation is an integral part of local democracy and participatory local governance and that the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government is one of the objects of local government, SALGA sees ward committees as only one of the methods to be used to ensure public participation and community involvement in the municipality. Formal ward committees have been established in all municipalities except in the City of Cape Town who established a different system of sector representation. It is evident that there is a strong willingness by municipalities to encourage public participation, and in particular through effective ward committees, and therefore there does not appear to be a need to oblige municipalities to establish ward committees.  Rather, the focus should be on the effective operation of such ward committees, with specific regard to the governance model, a model for accountability and the resourcing thereof.

Governance model for ward committees

The purpose of the ward committee should be to strengthen democracy in the ward by creating a platform in the ward where all interest groups are given an opportunity to identify their needs and raise their concerns, in order for a total ward need analysis and priority list to be prepared by the ward councillor.

An area of concern is the terminology used, being a committee, which creates the impression of an elitist group in a ward identifying matters to be raised with the councillor and municipal council. In order to have true local democracy and community participation on ward level, more focus should be placed on ward meetings as opposed to ward committee meetings. Regular local gatherings in the form of inclusive ward meetings should be arranged by the ward councillor with the assistance of the municipal administration, in order to identify all interest groups in the ward and to address matters of concern in the ward and matters that need to be elevated for attention. Based on the interest groups and the needs analysis of a specific ward, a smaller committee or work group can be established to assist the ward councillor to interact with the council on these matters and to further formalise the ward structure.

The ward committee or working group should be a support mechanism for the ward councillor to formalise the needs analysis of the ward and to enable the ward councillor to make submissions to then council on matters emanating from his or her ward. The concept of ward meetings will ensure a better participation of interest groups in ward structures and ensure the inclusivity required for true local democracy.

Ward committees must represent all interests in the ward and therefore, the principle of consensus in matters should apply as opposed to voting on matters raised. The ward councillors as well as his or her committee should be biased towards the needs of the ward. The Community Development Worker appointed in a ward must support the ward councillor by assisting to clarify which matters are municipal competencies and should be referred to the ward councillor, but also facilitating those matters that are the responsibility of other spheres of government and to assist community members to direct them where matters are to be dealt with by other spheres or to access services.

After establishing ward committees, municipalities need to enable them to perform functions that they delegate to ward committees. One of the enabling factors apart from resources is knowledge and skills. To achieve this, municipalities need to expose ward committee members to training programmes that introduce them to the local governance environment as well as clarify the role of ward committees within the context of developmental local government. Capacity building for ward committees is of importance at 2 levels. Firstly, it prepares ward committees to function properly and cope well with complexities that characterises South Africa’s system of local governance. Secondly, it should contribute towards ward committee members’ long term career pathing. This aspect is even more critical given the high unemployment rate amongst ward committee members. The graph below presents the number of municipalities that have exposed their ward committees to training programmes.

A  model for resourcing

As set out above, the municipality must assist the ward councillor with support in terms of notices of ward meetings as well as venues and secretarial services. With the new of the proposal set out above, ward committee members may receive a limited stipend to reimburse them for costs incurred, but the remuneration of ward committees as a principle is not supported, as it will then become a clear duplication of the functions and duties of a ward councillor.

One of the obstacles for effective ward committees is the lack of continuous involvement in terms of administrative and financial support by the municipalities. The predominance of these factors in the ward committee is symptomatic of the challenges experienced by local government in general governance and not peculiar to the ward committee system and should be seen in that context. Any funding stream channelled to municipalities must support the complete public participation process and not only be focussed on ward committees.

  1. 2. Model for accountability

The location of the public participation office in the formal structure of the municipality is less important than the coordination between this office and that of service departments in the municipality, as the latter such coordination is the key for success in providing feedback to ward councillors, ward committees and community at large on matters emanating from the community .

Each municipality, according to the principle of a differentiated approach supported by DCOG Outcome 9,  Output 7, should develop a system of accountability to determine how the accountability between the ward and the municipality as well as the municipality and other formal public participation structures will be dealt with. The number of wards in the municipality will have to be taken into account in this respect.

  1. 3. Oversight committee

Municipalities that scored low on their financial accountability should identify means to improve. One of the mechanisms to achieve this could be to involve communities in the oversight of municipal finances through the establishment of well capacitated audit committees as well as the establishment of MPACs to prepare the oversight report over the annual report and to fulfil such other oversight functions as determined by the council. As the MPAC is a section 79 committee, the meetings of the committee should be open to the public and the public should be encouraged to attend such meetings.

  1. 4. Public Participation Policy

Institutionalisation of plans and approaches towards public participation by adopting of a public participation policy in the municipality provides the function of public participation with legitimacy to mainstream public participation in overall municipal planning, and budgeting. Without institutionalisation, the integrity of public participation in a locality is thus challenged as there would be no formal institutional commitment to it.

  1. 5. Identification of interest groups

Councillors must establish a database of all interest groups and civil society present in their wards

  1. 6. Language policy

While it is widely agreed that public participation is one of the key elements of democracy and that it can function as a tool for preventing any form of marginalisation, it seems that municipalities are not being intentional about responding to the different language needs of their community members and it is proposed that the municipality adopts a language policy that will allow all community members to be able to participate in council proceedings. The policy should be informed by the needs of the community in the specific municipality in terms of language preference.

  1. 7. Public Participation Resources

Beyond political commitment, promoting public participation requires an investment and this must be in the form of institutional systems, finances and personnel dedicated to public participation in the widest form.

  1. 8. Location and Functioning of Public Participation

Public participation as a cross cutting issue needs to be placed strategically at a level that can oversee and coordinate the inter-departmental responses to public participation. Public participation must be embedded on all municipal activities/approaches/policies. The Systems Act makes reference to both the political and administrative leadership to ensure that communities are involved in municipal policies, planning and any decision that affects them.  For example, section 55 states that among other responsibilities, the municipal manager is responsible for facilitating participation by the local community in the affairs of the municipality.

Furthermore, since council is responsible for delegating tasks other than that which is already stipulated in the legislation, the political office also bears the responsibility of ensuring the involvement of communities in municipal processes.  In this regard, it follows that it is ideal that the function of facilitating public participation should be located at senior political and administrative level.

  1. 9. Skills for Facilitating Public Participation

Engaging with communities requires a wide array of skills among others facilitation, negotiation, management, coordination and an understanding of the context. It requires skills to manage a healthy communication lifecycle where communities are consulted, their inputs are taken into account and feedback is given. Without proper skills, public participation could be an unprofitable and at worst a destructive exercise. The latter could possibly lead to participation apathy (where communities see the engagement sessions as a mere waste of time) or protests due to frustrations. Staff responsible for public participation should therefore be assisted to develop the skills required in this regard.

  1. 10. Ward Based Planning

Ward based planning is a process of development planning that is rooted and driven at a ward level. This process involves the active involvement of all stakeholders in the ward and is not only limited to ward committees. Whilst the municipality might be the initiator of this process, it does not necessarily have to be the sole driver of the process. Stakeholders in the ward such as NGOs with a reasonable capacity can assist in facilitating some of the processes. In this case, the municipality may enable the process through providing venues and other logistical and technical support where applicable.  The ward based planning process is not only concerned with identifying the development needs and challenges in the ward but it is also interested in finding ward generated and driven solution. As a result, all stakeholders bring together their wealth of knowledge in identifying and analysing the development requirements of their ward, seek viable and sustainable solutions, and work together in mobilising resources to implement their proposed solution.

  1. 11. Functionality of the IDP Representative Forum

The IDP is central to a municipality’s ability to deliver on its mandate. It is recognised as a business plan for the municipality and determines projects that a municipality may or may not undertake. Thus the IDP formulation process is required to be a transparent and inclusive one and the content of the IDP must be representative of the needs and aspirations of all interest groups in the ward.  An IDP representative forum is one of the vehicles utilised to promote inclusivity and transparency during the IDP process. This forum should be inclusive of all stakeholders in the ward and should serve as a platform for stakeholders to advance and defend the inclusion of their interests in the IDP. The graph below represents the levels of functionality of IDP representative forums in the 5 participating municipalities

  1. 12. Community Involvement in Municipal Processes

In addition to establishing structures and forums public participation, municipalities are expected to create other platforms for broad community engagement. This may not be through structures but rather adhoc and spoteneous invitations to ordinary members to contribute in municipal decision making regarding various municipal processes. In this regard, municipalities may publish proposed decisions on various issues through mediums such as websites, news papers etc and invite members of the public to offer their inputs.

Structured forums for community involvement in municipal processes can include developers’ forum, business forum and a municipal sports council.

  1. 13. Feedback to communities

Various methods can be used to provide feedback to communities on the activities of the municipal council and municipalities in general. Municipalities can use media announcements, public notices, ward committees and ward meetings to provide feedback to communities. Mayoral and ward councillor reports can also be used.  Municipalities can also use community radio stations to provide information to the community on a regular basis, and in a specified time slot. A municipality can also place suggestion boxes at frequently used customer care centres for community feedback.





  1. 14. Municipal Communication with Communities


Communication is one of the critical elements of public participation. Mechanisms that municipalities use to communicate with members of the public have a potential to either promote or limit public participation. Municipalities can use  municipal newsletters/magazines and mayoral imbizos to communicate with communities as well as municipal accounts, the local media, posters,customer satisfaction surveys and public notice boards. The least utilised mechanisms for communication are municipal websites, emails and billdboards and sms.

  1. 15. Mechanisms for Promoting Participation by Marginalised and Vulnerable Groups

Situational circumstances that marginalised and vulnerable groups find themselves in tend to be an inhibition to their participation in municipal processes. This category of society is mainly comprised of individuals living with disabilities, and people who cannot easily defend their interest in society because of age, gender and socio-economic circumstances they are in. Municipalities need to design mechanisms that facilitate the inclusion of these groups in municipal decision making processes.

A person’s literacy levels have a potential to determine the ability and depth of their participation in municipal processes. Illiterate people are likely to participate less in municipal process especially if the mechanisms used by the municipality to promote public participation require levels of literacy such as reading and writing. Their literate counterpart would thrive in those circumstances. Yet the correlation between illiteracy levels and low income capabilities imply high dependence on municipal services. As a result, it is important that participatory mechanisms be tailored to increase accessibility to municipal decision making and service delivery by illiterate people.