Dr Ralph Mgijima, PSC Chairperson
In answering the questions of whether South Africans actively participate in public life, and if an interactive state has been achieved, it is important to distinguish between participation in formal policy-making processes, and engagement with citizens on their day-to-day concerns.
Parliament and the legislatures have involved the public in legislative processes, and public hearings are a critical step in the consideration of draft legislation.
Within government, a number of participatory mechanisms have become commonplace, including national and provincial izimbizo, citizen satisfaction surveys, ward committees, integrated development planning forums, and links between communities and government through community development workers.
These mechanisms are largely driven by the executive, and not public servants. Research by the Human Sciences Research Council has found that izimbizo are well-received and positively assessed by citizens, although the Public Service Commission (PSC) has also found that insufficient feedback is given to communities about how their concerns have been addressed.
Further, public participation cannot be restricted to these events alone. Service delivery is undertaken by public servants, but often delivery units do not consult with citizens on the specifics of their service area, although there are some exceptions.
Meaningful public participation in policy development also requires access to information. PSC studies show that compliance with basic prescripts, such as the Promotion of Access to Information Act, is inadequate. While many departments adequately communicate basic information through annual reports, media statements and programmes of action – often using the internet – many do not have the necessary systems in place to handle requests from the public for more specific information.
PSC research has also found that government departments’ understanding of the concept of public consultation is not aligned with White Paper on Transforming Public Service Delivery. Consultation is limited to information-sharing, discussions and conferences, and not the consultation about the level and quality of public services as an integral part of the service delivery approach that the White Paper envisioned.
Among departments, capacity to facilitate effective public participation is inadequate. In a sample of five national and eleven provincial departments, the PSC found that 38% had no budget for public participation, and none of the officials responsible for public participation in any of the sixteen departments had been training in effective engagement with citizens on policy development and implementation.
A clear step in improving interactions between citizens and the state would be to ensure that public servants have the necessary skills, capacity and confidence to effectively facilitate public participation. As raised in the 2009 State of the Public Service report, this requires an understanding that: powerful and well-organised citizens may drown out other voices; open engagement processes can lead to polarization; public participation may cause delays in decision-making; and that citizens often have an inadequate understanding of economic realities. Unless public servants are skilled in this area, public participation may achieve very little.
The PSC has also recommended that government departments develop clear policies on public participation objectives and processes, and establish public participation units that are adequately funded and staffed. Departments should also make use of the PSC’s Citizens Forums Toolkit, and of the findings of the findings of citizen satisfaction surveys to review and improve service delivery.
To conclude, public participation is critical to sustainable development and effective service delivery, and deepens democracy by ensuring that citizen views are registered and workable solutions are identified. Participation also fosters a sense of ownership and self-worth. Therefore, it is critical that citizens, as both as service users and active role-players in planning processes, are afforded ample opportunity to play a meaningful role.
Dr. Ralph Mgijima is Chairperson of the Public Service Commission.