#LGE2021: How to Get Involved in Your Municipality
Public participation: the bedrock on which democracy rests
Voting is one of the ways we make democracy work. But this on its own is not sufficient. Democracy is also strengthened when citizens participate and are actively involved in decision-making processes.
Public participation is one of the cornerstones of democratic governance. With the 257 municipalities across the country soon to be constituted by the newly elected cohort of councilors, active participation by citizens will ensure maximum democratic accountability of the elected political leadership for the policies they are empowered to promote.
According to the White Paper on Local Government 1998 municipalities require active participation by citizens at four levels: as voters, to ensure maximum democratic accountability of the elected councillors; as citizens who express, via different stakeholder associations, their views before, during and after the policy development process in order to ensure that policies reflect community preferences as far as possible; as consumers and end-users who expect value-for-money, affordable services and courteous and responsive service; and as organised partners involved in the mobilisation of resources for development via for profit businesses, non-governmental organisations and community-based institutions.
Notably, public participation is promoted and encouraged for four main reasons:
- because it is a legal requirement to consult
- in order to make development plans and services more relevant to local needs and conditions
- in order to hand over responsibility for services and promote community action
- in order to empower local communities to have control over their own lives and livelihoods.
Public participation: Structures and mechanisms
In each municipality across the country, there are a number of structures and mechanisms that can be utilised to facilitate public participation. These include but are not limited to: ward committees, stakeholder forums, council meetings open to public, surveys and community complaints management systems.
A ward committee consists of the councillor representing the ward who must also chair the committee, and not more than 10 other persons. Ward committees are seen as the vehicle for deepening local democracy and the instrument through which a vibrant and involved citizenry can be established. It is at the local level within wards that all development issues converge. Ward committees have a crucial public participatory role to play as an interface between government and communities. They provide a vital link between Ward Councillors, the community and the municipality. They allow for members of communities to influence municipal planning in a manner which best addresses their needs.
2. Ward Forums
Ward forums are gathering of all ward committees in a Local or District municipality, chaired by the Municipal Speaker. The role of the Ward Forum is to monitor and evaluate the operation of ward committees, including community-based planning, and preparation for input into key municipal processes.
3. Stakeholder Forums
Stakeholder forums include civil society organisations alongside residents, ratepayers and visitors as part of the local community within municipalities. Stakeholder forums are very useful for quick and ongoing consultation as well as for building partnerships between the community and local government.
4. Community Complaints Management Systems
To deal with community complaints, most municipalities have well-established institutional systems and set of procedures to follow. Many larger municipalities have such systems within each of the major service-orientated line departments, and smaller municipalities have a centralised system in one office to manage all service complaints so as to make the most rational use of their resources.
Public participation: Key people
Effective public participation requires as many structures and organisations that represent the community as possible, hence the importance of the abovementioned structures and mechanisms for participatory governance. Beyond these, there are a number of people that also play a pivotal role in facilitating public participation.
1. The Mayor
The mayor is the public face of the municipality and gets to engage with local communities in big public meetings, municipal stakeholder forums and media. Communities interact with the mayor in regard to the issues for which the mayor is directly responsible, such as the municipal budget and policy issues.
2. Ward councillors
Ward councillors are the representatives of specific communities and are ideally placed to be the link between the people and the municipality – as part of their mandate, they are expected to bring people’s needs and problems to the municipality and consult and inform the community around municipal services and programmes.
3. Community Development Workers (CDWs)
Community development workers are deployed by government to work in communities to make sure that people can access government services. They have to give advice, help people with problems, assess needs and work with local organisations to build partnerships with government. They usually know the community well, have good contacts with organisations and can help to do consultation, do research, spread information and monitor implementation.
Ways to participate in municipalities: Petitions, Calls for Written Submissions
Section 17(2)(a) of the Municipal Systems Act provides for municipalities to establish mechanisms, processes and procedures to receive, process and consider petitions and complaints lodged by communities. Petitions thus come as an intervention mechanism for residents to voice their concerns by creating and/or signing in the event that they are dissatisfied about service delivery.
Further, Section 17(2)(b) provides for municipalities to establish processes and procedures to notify the community about municipal issues and how they must submit their comments. Therefore, residents can have their voices heard by responding to call for comments and written submissions published by municipalities periodically.
Lastly, residents can attend council meetings that are open to the public to ensure they are kept informed of council decisions, community rights and duties, and municipal affairs.
In a nutshell, public participation must be meaningful and genuinely empowering, and not token consultation or manipulation. It should involve consulting people about service levels, problems and proposals for new services. Communities should be informed about tariffs and council decisions about new services. Where problems are experienced with service delivery, ward committees, organisations and members of the public, should have access to officials, service centres, help desks or other services that will deal with the problem.
About this blog
"That week in Parliament" is a series of blog posts in which the important Parliamentary events of the week are discussed.