Accountability and Community Participation

What is in this guide

This guide covers:

  1. Representative and participatory democracy
  2. Public participation
  3. Ethics and conduct

  1. Representative and Participatory DemocracyThere are two main forms of democracy:
    • Representative – where people elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. Local government councillors are elected directly by residents to represent their interests in the local council. They get a mandate from the voters based on their election manifesto. This is a form of representative democracy.
    • Participatory democracy – where people make all decisions themselves. All the people affected participate in the decision-making and there are no representatives who can decide on their behalf. This can work in small communities or organisations where everyone can meet to discuss and decide an issue. An example of participatory democracy would be all parents of a school meeting to decide whether to change the school uniform.

Effective local democracy needs a combination of representative and participatory democracy. While elected councillors make the ultimate decisions, residents should be consulted as much as possible.

Councillors receive a mandate from communities when they are elected to serve on the council. Local government elections are held every five years. Between elections, decisions taken by the council impact on the lives of local residents. Communities are continuously undergoing change. They are confronted by day-to-day problems. The nature and the cause of problems also change over a period.

Councillors have to be in touch with these changes and the needs of residents. In addition, councillors have to keep residents informed about decisions taken by council.

To make democracy meaningful, communities have to be in touch with the work of their council. Democracy is more than voting for a councillor every five years. The laws governing local government ensure that communities participate in the local government decision-making process through various methods, including ward committees, consultation meetings, calls for public comment on issues and stakeholder meetings. The involvement of residents in the democratic process beyond just voting serves to strengthen and deepen democracy.

  1. Public participation

Public participation is a principle that is accepted by all spheres of government in South Africa. Participation is important to make sure that government addresses the real needs of communities in the most appropriate way. Participation also helps to build an informed and responsible citizenry with a sense of ownership of government developments and projects. It allows municipalities to get buy-in and to develop partnerships with stakeholders.

A number of laws make it compulsory for municipalities to consult or inform the community. Sometimes politicians and officials can see this as something they are forced to do rather than something that will benefit them. Some are also scared of facing the community because report-back or consultation meetings can easily become forums for complaint and protest about problems or against non-delivery. It is not easy to face a hall full of angry people.

Participation is one of the cornerstones of our democracy and has equal benefits for politicians, officials and civil society:

  1. Consultation will help council make more appropriate decisions based on the real needs of people
  2. The more informed people are, the better they will understand what government is trying to do and what the budget and resource limitations are
  3. Councillors can only claim to be accountable if they have regular interactions with the people they represent and if they consult and report back on key council decisions
  4. Government cannot address all the development needs on its own and partnerships are needed with communities, civil society and business to improve service delivery and development.

In each municipality there are a number of people, structures and mechanisms that can play a role in public participation. Here is a summary of the main ones:

  • The mayor
    The mayor is the public face of the municipality and should be used in big public meetings, municipal stakeholder forums and media.
  • Ward councillors
    Ward councillors are the representatives of specific communities and are ideally placed to be the link between the people and the municipality – they should bring people’s needs and problems to the municipality and consult and inform the community around municipal services and programmes.
  • Ward committees
    Ward committees are from different sectors in communities. Ten members are elected in each ward to assist and advise the ward councillor and increase community participation. They can be very useful for spreading information, assessing needs, building partnerships, consulting the community and picking up local problems with services.
  • 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.  
  • Stakeholder forums
    Many different forums already exist – for example community police forums and IDP forums. Other forums that are made up of stakeholders should be set up for specific projects and programmes. Forums are very useful for quick and ongoing consultation as well as for building partnerships between the community and government.
  • Community liaison officials
    Most municipalities employ staff to liaise with the community - they should be used as part of any outreach and public participation programme.
  • Media
    The municipality usually has access to its own media, for example notice boards, rates and water bills, etc. This can be used for spreading information about prices, new plans, budget priorities, etc. The commercial media as well as radio should also be used to inform people, and in some cases like phone-in programmes, to consult people.

Communication and participation strategy

Public participation cannot simply be a series of once-off events. Every municipality has specific goals and plans for every year, an integrated development plan and a budget. The municipality delivers services to the community, builds infrastructure and supports development projects. A key part of the municipality’s annual plans should be how to communicate all this to the people and how to involve them in decisions or as partners. This should be developed into a public participation and communication strategy.

The strategy should look at all municipal plans and projects and set out where and how communication and public participation should play a role.

For each project or new development, the following key questions should be asked:

  1. What do we need to communicate or get participation on? (Purpose)
  2. Who are the target groups
  3. What are the best methods for that purpose and that target group?
  4. Who will drive the process?
  5. Who will implement each step?
  6. What resources and support are needed?

1. Purpose

It is important to understand that communication and participation can be for different purposes – it is not only used for consultation as part of the decision-making cycle. It can also be used to:

  1. Report back and account to residents about council decisions, plans and budgets
  2. Inform people of new services, tariffs, developments and policies
  3. Involve people in partnerships for delivery

A strategy can only be developed if you are clear about the purpose.

Where consultation forms part of decision-making it is important to remember that the ultimate decisions are usually made by the elected council meeting and not by community meetings. The consultation process is there to help council make better decisions that will address the needs of the community. Where a consultation meeting recommends something that council rejects, councillors and ward committee members should report back and explain the council decision.

In some cases, beneficiaries can be involved in decision-making, but this approach is more suitable for projects than for decisions that affect the municipality as a whole. For example people involved in a scheme to build their own subsidised homes may be involved in decisions about the size of the homes and the amount of own labour time they will contribute. However, when the municipality wants to build a swimming pool, consultation with different communities will probably result in conflicting proposals about where to build the pool and council has to make the final decision.

2. Target group

Once you have decided the purpose, it is easy to define the target groups. In many cases, the target group may be all people in the municipality – for example when the municipality increases service charges or introduces new by-laws. In other cases, the target group could be a sector of the community – for example, people who may be to poor to pay for any services and can benefit from the municipality’s indigent policy. Alternatively, it could be a very specific geographic area – for example, people who will benefit from a housing upgrade project in an informal settlement.

3. Best methods

Defining the purpose and the target group will help you to decide the best methods. Here are some examples of different methods for different purposes. Your target group will determine which method is most appropriate.

  • For consultation
    Community meetings, meeting with sectors and community leaders, ward committees, door-to-door surveys, questionnaires included in municipal accounts, suggestion boxes, and public hearings.
  • For reporting back or informing people
    Ward or other public meetings, sectoral meetings, newsletters, newspapers and community radio, community notice boards, advertisements and posters.
  • For involving people
    Meetings with affected community or relevant sectoral groups like religious, welfare, cultural, business, etc. Well publicised community meetings, appeals through radio and newspapers.

Always consider the reach of any method you choose as well as how easy it will be for people to understand the information. The worst method is to print small advertisements and legal notices in newspapers. These usually reach a very small target group and will probably get a very unrepresentative response.

4. Who drives the process

Often public participation and communication are treated as add-ons and dealt with only by consultants or outside agencies.

For a communication and participation strategy to be effective it has to be clearly directed and the feedback that it generates must be integrated into other municipal plans. This means that the mayoral or executive committee and/or the municipal manager must be central to the process and must get regular reports.

Problems, concerns and suggestions will be raised by the target communities and they must be properly processed so that the participation process actually results in better decisions or responses.

5. Who implements each step

Implementation of the different parts of the communication or participation plan can be allocated to different role player. For example:

  1. Overall direction - mayoral committee
  2. Management – municipal manager
  3. Resources, project coordination and support – IDP, community liaison and communications officers
  4. Media – medial liaison and communications officers
  5. Community outreach and public meetings – mayor, ward councillors, ward committees
  6. Sectoral meetings and feedback – councillors, ward committees, community development workers (CDWs)
  7. Door-to-door work – councillors, ward committees, CDWs
  8. Surveys – IDP office, community liaison, research officers, CDWs

6. Resources and support

The municipality should ensure that its communication and participation strategy is properly resourced and supported. This means that a clear plan has to be developed that include all events, meetings and media, who is responsible for implementation, what budget is required, by when it will happen and what other support is needed.

Legal requirements

Section 17 of the Municipal Systems Act requires municipalities to put in place systems for communities to participate in the decision making process. These include

  1. The process of receiving, processing and considering petitions
  2. Procedures for notifying the public of issues being considered by the council and a process that allows for public comment
  3. Procedures for public meetings and hearings by councillors and officials
  4. Regular sharing of information on the state of affairs of the municipality through consultation with community organisations and traditional leaders

Municipalities must ensure the participation of people who cannot read or write, people with disabilities, women and other disadvantaged groups.  Section 16 of the Act considers the following as key areas requiring community participation:

Integrated Development Planning

Integrated Development Planning (IDP) is a planning method to help municipalities develop a coherent, long-term plan for the co-ordination of all development and delivery in their area.

Municipalities face huge challenges to develop sustainable settlements that meet the needs and improve the quality of life of local communities. In order to meet these challenges, they will need to understand and develop a concrete vision for the area. They then have to develop strategies and plans to realise and finance that vision in partnership with other stakeholders. Stakeholders and target communities should be consulted throughout the IDP process to help identify needs, discuss strategies and develop projects.

Performance Management

Performance management is a system that is used to make sure that all parts of the municipality work together to achieve the goals and targets that are set. The municipality must have clear goals and specific targets of what has to be done to make sure the goals are achieved. Every department and staff member should be clear what they have to do and how their performance will contribute to achieving overall goals and targets.

Performance of individuals, departments and the municipality as a whole should be monitored to make sure the targets are met. Performance management is very important to ensure that plans are being implemented, that they are having the desired development impact, and that resources are being used efficiently. Municipalities should publish their goals and targets so that the public can actively monitor implementation and hold them to account.

Preparation of the Municipal Budget

A budget is a financial plan. It summarises, in financial figures, the activities planned for the forthcoming year by setting out the costs (expenses) of these activities, and specifying where the income will come from to pay for the expenses.

The financial year of South African municipalities runs from 1 July of each year to 30 June the following year. Municipalities must prepare budgets for each financial year and the content and processes are set out in the Municipal Finance Management Act and the Municipal Systems Act.

Council must approve these budgets before the new financial year begins, after proper planning and consultation with ward committees and other stakeholder groups in your area. For example, the budget for the financial year beginning in July 2002 must be approved before the end of June 2002. The draft budget should be ready a three months before so that it can be used for consultation and submitted to Provincial Government for comments.

The municipal budget is complex and detailed and every item cannot be discussed in consultation meetings. It is important to identify the budget items that should be debated with communities and stakeholders. For example, key development projects, service level options and new facilities should be discussed with target beneficiaries. Items like wages for staff are not suitable for consultation since they are the result of negotiations with unions and cannot be altered.

Service Delivery

Municipalities must make sure that people in their areas have at least the basic services they need. The most important services are:

  1. Water supply
  2. Sewage collection and disposal
  3. Refuse removal
  4. Electricity and gas supply
  5. Environmental health services
  6. Municipal roads and storm water drainage
  7. Street lighting
  8. Municipal parks and recreation

These services directly affect the quality of the lives of the people in that community. For example, if the water that is provided is of a poor quality or refuse is not collected regularly, it will contribute to unhealthy and unsafe living environments. Poor services can also make it difficult to attract business or industry to an area and will limit job opportunities for residents.

Public participation 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.

Please note: More information on the IDP, performance management, budgeting, service delivery and ward committees is contained other guides in this section.

  1. Ethics and conduct

Local councillors are the democratically elected representatives of the people in their area. They are expected to behave in an honest and transparent way and to always remain accountable to the voters. There are many laws and procedures in place to ensure that councillors and their municipal officials do not become corrupt or self-serving.

Accountability is part of democracy and the previous section covered all the mechanisms councillors should use to report to and consult their constituencies. In this section, we briefly look at the Code of Conduct for Councillors as set out in Schedule 5 of the Municipal Structures Act of 1998.

Code of Conduct

The Code of Conduct expects councillors to act in an honest and transparent manner at all times and to always act in the best interest of their municipality. It has the following clauses:

Councillors must attend all meetings they are supposed to be at, unless they have been granted leave of absence. They can be fined for not attending. If they do not attend three or more meetings in a row, they must be removed from office.

Disclosure of interests and personal gain:

Councillors may not use their influence to gain any benefits from municipal work or contracts. If councillors, or their business partners or family members or partners, have any interest in a matter that is being discussed by a council meeting or committee they are part of, they have to disclose this to the meeting. They should then withdraw from the meeting until a decision is taken. Councillors may be given contracts with the municipality if the council approves the decision, but if more than one quarter of the councillors object, the matter must be decided by the MEC. In the same way as MPs, councillors must also declare their financial interests and any gifts above a certain value that they receive.

Full-time councillors:
If councillors are full-time, they may not have any other paid employment unless they have the approval of the council.

Councillors may not ask for or accept any gifts, rewards or favours to vote in certain ways or to sue their influence in council.

Disclosing information:
The councillor may not disclose any confidential information that they heard in a closed committee meeting or read in a confidential council document.

Intervention in the administration:
Councillors may not interfere in the administration or management of a department unless mandated by council. They may not give orders to staff or stop staff from doing their jobs. This should not stop them from asking questions, requesting information, monitoring progress and lodging complaints.

Council property:
Councillors may not use, take or benefit from any municipal property or assets unless they have a right to use it.

Breaking the Code:
Councillors who are suspected of breaking the Code of Conduct must be investigated. The investigation must be started by the chairperson of council and is usually conducted by a committee. The outcome must be reported to the MEC. Councillors found guilty can be warned, reprimanded, fined, suspended or removed from office. They can also appeal to the MEC.