Diana’s team working with the community on The Heights, South Africa
Citizen participation is challenging and although some principles are easy to grasp in theory, translating them into practice can be very frustrating. In fact, there is a vast literature on how to make citizen participation work, based on issues such as empowerment and information access, but examples of successful practices are less frequent. The Latin American experiences over the last decade with methodologies such as citizen report cards and multi-stakeholder dialogues have yielded some interesting results in the oversight of public services. Now increasingly well-known across the world, the citizen report cards methodology is based on survey assessment tools that gather citizen feedback on the quality, efficiency and coverage of public services, to inform decision making and improve those services. The exchange of experiences in citizen engagement practices between Latin America, Africa and Asia which was made possible by the ELLA Programme offered a wealth of practical knowledge for cities such as Cape Town to experiment with new approaches to improving public participation. Diana Sanchez provided the link.
Diana is a researcher in the Democracy and Governance research programme at the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa (HSRC). She is Colombian but has lived in Cape Town for more than ten years. She was responsible for coordinating the South African outreach of the ELLA Programme 2012 Learning Alliance on Citizen Oversight. ELLA is a UK Aid funded south-south knowledge initiative that mixes research, exchange and learning to inspire evidence-based policies and practices. Together with FUNDAR, a Mexican think tank, Practical Action Consulting Latin America managed a Learning Alliance on Citizen Participation in which Diana, together with peers from Latin America, Africa and Asia, discussed citizen oversight of public policies. Following a four month dialogue, it was clear to all participants how citizen participation mechanisms can contribute in different ways to strengthening the social contract between citizens and their governments. Latin American case studies were shared to demonstrate how mechanisms such as ICTs and Citizen Report Cards have brought about improvements in government accountability, and helped to bridge the gap between public administration and the reality of people lives.
Diana says that her experience in the ELLA Programme provided valuable practical knowledge from Latin America for HSRC on local level governance. HSRC is a knowledge and service provider in the Cities Support Programme (CSP) of the National Treasury, and the CSP was a valuable platform to support South African cities to experiment with new mechanisms of citizen participation.
Cape Town, South Africa
When designing the HSRC involvement in the ELLA Learning Alliance, Diana reviewed the material available on issues such as the Scorecards used in Latin America. While the Latin American report cards were not exactly what the urban context in Cape Town required, the practical experiences shared through literature, and by members of the Learning Alliance network triggered creative and flexible thinking. “We were inspired by many Latin American cases, mainly stories from Mexico, but also from some cases from India and Malawi. So we adapted them to the reality of Cape Town, and specifically for the provision of energy and water. We realized that it was completely feasible to adapt ideas and tools to slowly develop a context-relevant method”, said Diana in a recent interview.
Informed by the learning from ELLA, a HSRC pilot project using a Community Scorecard, was implemented in 2014 to 2015 in Cape Town in five informal settlements known collectively as ‘The Heights’. While it is too early to evaluate impact, residents and city officials have reported improvements in service provision. Electricity problems are solved more efficiently and good communication channels have been built between residents and public officials. According to Diana, the success of the project was due to the careful adaptation of existing methodologies, allowing flexibility for the new tool of Community Scorecards to be built as the process unfolded, with the direct input from both residents and city officials. A platform of trust, in an area known for high levels of conflict, was created between residents, community leaders and city officials where they could openly communicate. The collaborative space allowed for new relations and changed negative perceptions as both the community and local officials began to understand their challenges and constraints. As Diana explains, this meant breaking away from standard customer satisfaction surveys and practices where local government comes in with a survey, gets the data and leaves. “In this case, we came together with both, residents and public officials, set the questions, identified indicators and together gathered the data and proposed actions for change”. As a result, both citizens and officials gave useful feedback, took responsibility for whatever they could do and experienced the value of improving community engagement practices.
Following on from this positive experience, Cape Town municipality has requested HSRC to replicate the experience in other informal settlements around the City starting with Gugulethu township in 2016. Diana and her team recognised through this process that practical projects are key to improving core elements of democracy and governance. The hope is that by piloting more Community Scorecards in other communities and other services in a participatory research and action oriented way, HSRC and local government in South Africa can keep learning about how to improve community engagement. As the CSP operates at the national level the aim is to take and apply these lessons and methods to other cities.
Stories like Diana’s and her use of the knowledge gained through ELLA to help promote citizen oversight of local government services in Cape Town, show that south-south exchange can contribute to change when there are windows of opportunity, and where programmes work with committed, capable individuals able to deploy the knowledge they picked up as the opportunity develops.
In the ELLA programme UK Aid bet on the benefits of south-south learning. Diana’s story is just one case among the many registered by the programme. Knowledge exchange between regions of the ´global south’ can work, even where countries are very different, when sufficient attention is paid to understanding the local context and adapting knowledge from elsewhere to that context. In this case, research uptake happened because Diana took the evidence Latin America shown on governance best practices and used it to design a pilot project at city level with good results.
|This article has been written by Alicia Quezada, Manager of Practical Action Consulting Latin America, and is based on an interview with Diana Sánchez (15 March 2016) and programme reports, including a report on ELLA Learning Alliance on Citizen Oversight “Module 3: Improving Government Accountability through Mechanisms for Citizen Participation” and a Spotlight on publications “Methodologies of Latin American Report Cards on Health”..|
|You can contact Mark Lewis if you want to know more about the ELLA Programme and Alicia Quezada if you want to engage with Practical Action Consulting Latin America.|
|This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license|