The long journey to innovation

November 13, 2019

Let's talk App demonstration at Thulamela Municipality launch

Citizen trust on government is an issue across the globe and South Africa is no exception. Accountability and transparency from local, provincial and national governments are topics which are forever under scrutiny and discussion; this is evidenced by the number of state enquiries and corruption charges laid against various organs and members of the state.

Lack of service delivery remains a challenge, and there has been an increase in service delivery protests – particularly in Gauteng and Eastern Cape provinces. There was a marked increase in violent service delivery protests recently in the first three months of the year in the light of the elections, with ‘Total Shutdown’ campaigns driving the actions and most protests centred in Gauteng Province, home of Johannesburg and Pretoria.

UNDP embarked upon a journey to propose and pilot a solution which would potentially reduce violent service delivery protests based on the theory that improving communication between citizen and government would be one way in which this can be achieved. It was also anticipated that some of the consequent outcomes would also be improved citizen satisfaction with government; increased transparency in government reporting; and more inclusive policy and service monitoring through verified citizen engagement. The solution also includes a citizen education and engagement aspect which would be driven by an NGO network which would also serve as solution and advocacy hubs.

And the journey began….

After 8 months, 23 presentations and 7948 kms travelled (the equivalent of Pretoria to Cote d’Ivoire!) throughout South Africa sharing our idea, UNDP country office have come to understand that the road to innovation is a long one, particularly during election year. This was a year of National and Provincial elections in South Africa, which is relevant to mention because government were to be a key partner in this initiative, but the timing proved difficult as the local government capacities were deployed to these elections.  Sure enough, there was some waiting to be done, but eventually, the Limpopo Province proved to be a partner where the proof of concept would unfold.

The innovation…

Let’s Talk is a mobile App and web platform created by Johannesburg based company Saya Setona. The company is a start-up and is owned by a young entrepreneur from Soweto, Moepi Setona. Moepi designed the app after undertaking research with a municipality in the Free State Province.

The App has five functions that allow citizens and government to communicate as you would with a friend on any popular App that is widely used like WhatsApp.  Let’s Talk enables citizens to send alerts to local government about service delivery issues and receive a reply; receive news updates related to service deliver from either the Office of the Premier or the Mayor; establish chat groups with other citizens in their wards and with local councillors; rate services and learn what the local municipality is doing in their area related to a particular service. Citizens can send all functions by SMS if they do not have access to data or a smart phone.

On the other hand, the local and provincial government, can use the App to send live news updates to citizens in a particular geographical area related to service delivery disruptions; receive real time reports of service delivery complaints related to a certain geographical area to inform engagement with the public; and receive verifiable citizen generated and real time data on service delivery for reporting against Integrated Development Plans and Provincial Development Plans. This data can be disaggregated by age, gender and race.

One may argue that what is listed here is what government is supposed to do anyway and that would be true; why this qualifies as an innovation in this context is the fact that a lot of the work that is currently carried out in South Africa in this regard is paper-based, which delays the process of feedback and consumes a lot of government administrative resources; Another is the telephone-based system which is costly to those who really need to access the service, which becomes a deterrent for reporting issues.

The real-time data provided by this App puts the information at the fingertips of both the government and the citizens, thus enabling transparency and promoting dual accountability.

Local partnerships for implementation…

This project is one of the first UNDP has implemented at local level since the UN signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) in December 2018. SALGA is an autonomous association of all 257 South African local governments; this will enable the process of expansion into the province and therefore to national government. It was through this partnership that UNDP was able to gain access to relevant local government platforms to make presentations and sell the concept.

Once there was agreement on the project, it was eventually launched on July 23in Thulamela Local Municipality under the banner of Let’s Talk-Batho Pele. Throughout the engagements, Let’s Talk became synonymous with the various stakeholders and Personal Premier did not really resonate because the Premier sits at a provincial level. On the other hand, Batho Pele, a Sesotho word  which means people first, is a political initiative first introduced by the Mandela Administration in 1997 to stand for the better delivery of goods and services to the public. The initiative promotes 8 Principles aimed at educating citizens of their rights and expressing government’s commitment to its people. The approach is about moving public service from a rules-bound to an innovative and results-driven way of working; thus, enhancing transparency and accountability.

To bring the national element linking with the international space, the launch was livestreamed by the International Society South Africa Gauteng Chapter, of which Saya Setona is a member. The launch ended with the Mayor downloading the App on his phone and his engagement with councillors and the community who themselves were enthusiastic about the App. Three alerts in Thulamela were sent out on the day; 14 chats were activated, and 24 new users signed up to the application; 3 Alerts in Thulamela (2 seem legitimate). With this, 44 users opened the application (a combination of existing and new uses).  This was followed by training of ward committees from the selected pilot areas where the project will be implemented.

Challenges and lessons learnt..

This project exposed a lack of meaningful partnerships UNDP had with provincial and local governments in South Africa. This prolonged the process of engagement, coupled with government bureaucracy i.e. going through provincial structures to get to local government – the processing of the MOU is done at provincial level and additional agreements concluded at local level. Furthermore, the national election in May and the highly politicised nature of service delivery in South Africa delayed implementation due to nervousness on the part of the Provincial Government. The capacity for the Provincial Government to respond and action the pilot project was also greatly reduced as resources were diverted to the elections. The elections were identified as a risk in the risk register but the mitigations failed to reduce the impact

Decision making in municipalities is challenging and multi-faceted. There are a number of decision makers that must be met with before a final decision is arrived at by the political principals. The capacity of municipal governments to respond quickly and the lack of strong coordination between political and official stakeholders delayed implementation.

Engagement with the municipalities have been challenging given the informal use of contact preferred and the formalities of UNDP processes e.g. mission invitations being sent by WhatsApp. This has required additional capacity to follow up with municipal partners requesting invitations by email to adhere to UNDP rules and evidence required for Travel Authorisation. Conflict also arose where the local municipality would decide to convene at short notice thereby compromising the rules of UNDP.

The NGO environment in South Africa is poorly coordinated and to a large extent, politicised and incorporating an NGO partner, especially if vetting is not carried out diligently, would jeopardise the project and strong partnerships with the municipality. It is unclear whether the civic organisations who are operating in the pilot wards are constituted and therefore we were not be able to transfer funds in partnership. UNDP mitigated this challenge by engaging with ward committees, a legislated conduit between communities and local government, and support the ward councillor in advocating for their communities. They are as local as it gets in local governance!

This project has built strong partnerships with the Limpopo provincial and local government; have used SALGA as an engagement instrument. This will undoubtedly simplify future engagements in these areas because of the trust that we were able to build. It is important, however that more effort be put into building partnerships with provincial governments and local municipalities. Involving these partners in the co-design of project ideas will facilitate project ownership leading to easier navigation through the bureaucracy and enable government to allocate resources to joint projects such as this one.

As UNDP, we did not have the technical expertise to develop this project alone, this proposal was therefore co-designed with the young entrepreneur using his unique product prototype. This then made procurement challenging as business processes and procurement policy is not supportive of this approach. Alternative means of procurement must be considered in projects like this in future, especially in the delivery of the accelerator lab.

Working with young entrepreneurs require a great deal more time and support capacity to complete UNDP reporting requirements and in presenting their business model/project. Time and staff capacity must be factored in when working with young entrepreneurs in the future.

Understanding the local languages facilitates effective communication. This project is implemented in almost 500km away from Johannesburg and the predominant languages in the area are Tshivenda and Xitsonga. The more local we go, the less English is used and understood; the municipal councillors therefore become very important at this point. Translating communication materials into local languages should then form part of the budget.

Let’s Talk allows for information to be shared in any language, this is a great advantage as it brings the element of inclusivity into the project. A current limitation is the navigation language which is only in English.

The journey continues…

We have explored the landscapes of South Africa, built professional relationships that will, without a doubt benefit UNDP in future. The journey does not end here, moving forward, the project will be implemented in the ten selected wards within the Thulamela Municipality; Ward councillors will be the champions of the project managing the registration drive, communication, monitoring and reporting of progress. In the meantime, we shall ensure that all the Wi-Fi hotspots are functional and that engagement in the steering committee (consisting of provincial and local government, SALGA, the project donor and ourselves) remain engaged. This project has great potential and, if the pilot is successful, scale up funding will be pursued through private sector and other partners.

And so, with that, the journey continues…