Public Participation

Wednesday, 31 October, 2007 - 09:31

Need for a Re-DefinitionThe Draft National Policy Framework for public participation published in November 2005 defines the concept as “an open, accountable process through which individuals and group

Need for a Re-Definition

The Draft National Policy Framework for public participation published in November 2005 defines the concept as “an open, accountable process through which individuals and groups within selected communities can exchange views and influence decision making”.

It is also viewed as a democratic process of engaging people, deciding, planning, and playing an active part in the development and operation of services that affect their lives.

In the South African context, public participation is promoted for various reasons.

Firstly, our Constitution makes it a legal requirement for the public to be consulted.

Secondly, besides the need to comply with the law, promotion of public participation is meant to ensure that development plans and services are more relevant to local needs and conditions.

Thirdly, quite often the need to ensure that development projects and processes are sustained demands that communities be capacitated by being involved in the requisite activities around the projects. In this way, long after state or non-governmental development agencies have left the scene, communities can still run with the projects, having internalised a sense of ownership over an extended period of meaningful involvement.

A fourth reason for promoting public participation is the need to encourage and empower communities to have control over their own lives and livelihoods.

Additionally, a factor that is quite often shoved onto the back burner is the benefit that accrues from the positive exploitation of societal diversity. In a despotic political system, undemocratic structures and legal impediments are erected to bar the participation of certain groups of people in the decision-making processes. This is in part aimed at keeping the oppressed groups powerless and totally unable to challenge the excesses of their rulers.

Not surprisingly, political restrictions to public participation either deliberately or inadvertently tend to affect the economic wellbeing of a society – specifically of the oppressed, but sometimes of an entire society generally.

In South Africa, the apartheid system encouraged and exploited racist sentiments for selfish economic and political purposes. However, they also effectively harmed the overall productive potential of the entire society by restricting opportunities for the black majority to participate fully in the economy. Scores of potentially productive citizens were either deliberately kept semi-skilled or woefully under-employed.

In the southern states of the USA, thanks to the wickedly misguided efforts of the notorious Ku Klux Klan aided dubiously by a complicit federal government, millions of African-Americans only began to fully enter the political and economic life of their country in the 1950s and 1960s.

This was at the height of the agitation by the Civil Rights Movements headed by, among others, the late Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

Speaking recently about challenges of diversity and democracy, the US ambassador to Kenya observed that racism, which effectively restricted people’s participation, retarded the economic development of the region.

The other parts of the US, which embraced diversity to a much greater extent and did a better job of bringing all groups into the economy, surged ahead and became hugely prosperous. 

The American experience indicates that it was only in the post-1960s – when southern states began to honour their varied cultural heritage and allowed the participation of the entire population in the political and economic process – that prosperity started emerging as manifested in the centres of excellence in education, business, medicine and politics.

There are other numerous examples of just how the promotion of public participation can bring about economic dividends to society. For instance, we need not underscore the immense value to society wrought by the greater empowerment of women. Their participation in political processes as well as in businesses has had an impact of monumental proportions in many societies the world over.

The concept of micro finance and the practice of advancing small loans to scores of poor women in less developed countries has in large measure been popularised by the insistence of its proponents to work with women.

These are ordinarily people boxed out to the periphery of mainstream society due to their dire material position.

Yet, their participation in petty trading as enabled by micro finance has had a tremendously positive impact on the lives of their families.

Besides upping their self-worth, they have been able to improve the nutrition, education and overall health of their families. Additionally, they have been able to make a much-needed contribution in the development of their respective nations. This is especially the case in parts of Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

It is thus refreshing that a key concern by policy makers currently is the need to make public participation more meaningful. Seemingly there is a renewed desire to move beyond placation and mere consultation.

Speaking recently during an Afesis-corplan quarterly seminar, the DPLG’s Themba Fosi frankly acknowledged that there had been challenges around the issue of public participation. He admitted that a now-frequent accusation from critics is the fact that while the DPLG has done a commendable job at fostering and allowing for consultations, actual public participation has been dismal.

This is so not because the majority of citizens are apathetic and less bothered about governance. Rather, the spaces and in some cases the means provided to facilitate public participation are fraught with flaws that effectively swell the potential for failure.

Therefore, what passes as a participatory process is nothing more than what was described by Arnstein as “manipulation”. This is where the concept of participation is employed as a decoy or pretence. It involves picking “people’s” representatives to sit on official boards or selectively informing the community on the basis of an existing agenda. Frequently, the community’s input is only used to further this existing agenda.  

Is it possible that we have largely been entertaining public manipulation while all along beating the drums of public participation?

A keen observer might want to submit that as a society we seem to have perfected tokenism, and this is perhaps best reflected in our public consultation and participatory processes.

Clever local bureaucrats and politicos have found a crafty means by which to dispense with this rather irritating and tedious process of facilitating public participation in governance practice. It is much easier and quicker to cobble up decisions and plans in the comfort of cosy public offices away from the inquisitive civil society and the general public.

Besides, all you might have to do is organise a token consultative session, ensure that the public notices over such meetings appear only at the 11th hour (probably in the least accessible media), and yes, do not forget to obtain an attendance register.

If you end up attracting a couple of “loud mouths”, just pretend to listen and to scribble notes, which you will of course discard, even before you compile the workshop report! At this rate we hardly need to be surprised that we have been average in our consultative processes and terribly lacking in the facilitation of public participation.

While it is acknowledged that ward committees are perhaps the most accessible forum for community participation, studies have repeatedly shown that this structure is not adequately facilitated to play its rightful role.

This is probably where we need to start if we hope to “root government amongst the people”.

It is time to confront the challenges that bedevil the ward committee system. Pretensions about voluntarism just won’t wash. Good as it is – for it reflects patriotism and selflessness – it does not appear to work well under circumstances of severe poverty and involuntary unemployment.

The situation is not helped much by sometimes-intransigent council officials and insecure civic leaders.

If we truly desire to involve the majority of citizens in the governance system and therefore make them more productive in the context of a developmental local government, then we must be ready to harness their potential by matching rhetoric with tangible mechanisms facilitative of real public participation.

Moreover, their contributions must be reflected not only in the policy documents but also in the actual projects that are ultimately implemented.  

- This article, written by Peter Kimemia of Afesis-corplan, first appeared in the Local Government Transformer Oct/Nov 2007.

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