The Government Development Communication Initiative: A Response to Democratic Communication and Citizen Participation in South Africa
A venture of the South African Government in partnership with stakeholders from civil society, the non-governmental sector, parastatals, and business
The Government’s national Communication and Information System (co-ordinated at the GCIS) has, amongst others, been tasked in the Cabinet-approved Comtask Report to provide development communication and information to the public, to ensure that they become active participants in changing their lives for the better.
To achieve this, all appropriate forms of media have to be used to provide the required information and two-way communication services, including the print and electronic media establishment, direct communication with communities through unmediated products and community liaison, the internet and telecenters. In South Africa, Multipurpose Community Centres (MPCCs) have been identified as the primary approach for the implementation of development communication and information as they can offer a wide range of services that communities can use for their own empowerment.
The current approach is envisaged as a response to particular historical, social and economic factors which characterised freedom of access to information and citizen participation, in our past political system. This includes socio-economic problems such as high levels of poverty and unemployment, low standards of living (people living below the poverty line), poor access to basic services, remote settlement patterns, lack of access to technology, lack of information, poor health services, lack of education and skills, lack of infrastructure etc.
In this context, a familiar feature of accessing information and services in South Africa is the frustration of being referred from pillar to post and through a maze of public institutions. This leads to understandable despondency and a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of government service delivery.
This phenomenon is exacerbated in rural areas where distances are vast and the cost of travelling to urban centres to access services, is high. This places a great strain on incomes of those citizens who can least afford it. Early in 1999, the GCIS started the process of networking with National and Provincial Communication counterparts toward a more effective and community-centred communication.
When President Thabo Mbeki assumed office, however, the focus shifted to integrated service delivery; an idea he long supported while Deputy President, toward one-stop government information and service delivery. The logic here was that being able to access a number of government services and a range of government information products, as well as to communicate with government at one locality, added value to the experience of citizenship. Further, such a process of accessing services would allow for an improvement in the quality of such service delivery in line with the Batho Pele principles guiding government delivery. These principles speak of ‘people-centred’ governance and place a high premium on client satisfaction and redress.
- Identify community information and service needs.
- Provide access to integrated, cost-effective and responsive government information and services, particularly to those in rural areas.
- Provide government information to the public in a manner in which it can be used by people to improve their lives.
- Provision of two-way communication between government and people.
- Improve community participation in government decision-making process.
- Enhancing co-operation amongst the three spheres of government in terms of delivery.
- Proper management and control of government resources, for example, financial and human resources.
- Enhance the decentralisation of government services.
- Provide access to, and use of, Information and Communication Technologies.
Development Communication Approach
The primary focus of this development communication and information initiative is on the poor and disadvantaged, whose profile reflects not only a dearth of access to information, but also features as the main target of government socio-economic programmes. They are to be found mainly in the townships and rural areas.
Some of the salient features of this approach relate to the expressed need for face-to-face interactions between government and people; "Government with a Human Face." A high premium is also placed on the introduction of Information and Communication Technologies to such communities. This will also promote literacy and access to technology in communities. Political neutrality and acceptance by communities of the centre, is paramount.
The main content of such communication and information includes:
- the rights and obligations of citizens
- the policies and activities of government
- opportunities and how to access them
- specific campaigns affecting communities.
At the "Information Society and Development" conference of May 1996, the now President Mbeki identified MPCCs as one of the five South African Information Society pilot projects. This, as well as a number of other policy prescripts, drives the MPCC initiative.
In October 1996 the report of a specialised Communication Task Group, was presented to government. Its primary responsibility was the development of a new policy and structural framework for South Africa’s government information system, through all three spheres of government. This report recommended the establishment of the GCIS, and specifically that this agency promote and accelerate the development of Multipurpose Information Centres in order to facilitate public access to information.
A guiding principle of the public service in South Africa is that of "service to the people". This principle is provided for by the Act on Transformation of public service delivery, 1997 (Batho Pele). This Act, like all other acts must be interpreted in the spirit of the Constitution of South Africa (Chapter 10), which also provides for the basic values and principles governing the country.
Batho Pele means "People First".
Chapter 10 of the Constitution advocates a public service that is based on objectivity, ability, fairness, and the need to redress the imbalances of the past. It further advocates that service provision should be provided impartially, fairly, equitably and without bias. The Act provides that "Citizens should be regarded as customers", hence public service must work hard on customer satisfaction and improving service delivery.
The principles are:
- listening to the customer’s views and taking account
- treating them with consideration and respect
- that programmes in the public service must be aligned with the objectives of Batho Pele
In the process of co-ordinating the establishment of MPCCs / One-Stop Government Information and Services Centres, such principles of Batho Pele are not only critical in explaining the expected conduct of public servants in their dealing with clients; they also make it imperative that communities are involved in the determination of the information and services they want.
- Consultation of service users
- Service standards
- Increasing access
- Providing more and better information
- Increasing openness and transparency
- Getting the best possible value for money
Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Strategy
In his address at the opening of Parliament in June 1999, President Mbeki announced that the government was ready to implement an integrated and sustainable rural development strategy (ISRDS). A process to involve national departments in the formulation of the ISRDS was followed and pilot areas were targeted in the Northern Province, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Since then, government departments initiated projects and programmes that targeted identified areas in the three provinces. The implementation process is underway in these areas. The MPCC initiative has been developed within this framework and MPCCs are seen as key institutions in the process of bringing services and information to areas identified in this programme.
The mandate of the GCIS is to provide information to the public to ensure that they become active participants in changing their lives for the better. Under the directive of a Cabinet Memorandum of November 1999, the GCIS was given the role of co-ordinating and facilitating government’s development communication initiative through MPCCs. The GCIS and its provincial Government Information Centres (GICs) should also support the effort by:
- continually assessing information needs in communities and developing creative ways to meet these
- identifying and promoting the utilisation of the most appropriate mediums available in each area
- working with communities and all stakeholders involved, to develop creative ways of passing on messages for all-round development
- organising events for national, provincial, local and other stakeholder leadership to interact with communities
- helping communities understand by utilising all available sources of information including radio, TV and the Internet
- promoting the need to maintain specific focus on gender, youth and other sectoral issues
- sustaining intergovernmental relationships between national, provincial and local government
Multipurpose Community Centres - a response toward a better life
There are currently many establishments where communities congregate or frequently meet to obtain services and information. Research indicates that these are mostly libraries, schools, churches, clinics or some type of community service centres. The MPCC approach aims to optimise the use of these facilities by supplementing their communication capacity, thus minimising costly construction and staffing. These should therefore be the nucleus of the intended community centres, which provide multipurpose services.
The aim is to have a Multipurpose Community Centre in each of the forty-six district or regional Councils (third sphere of government), throughout the country, based on the current demarcation by the provinces. Current Demarcation Board processes are changing these boundaries and a final distribution of district-based MPCCs will be developed by the end of May 2000. Each area would service roughly 300 000 people, with major differences in terms of distances as well as population concentrations between urban and rural areas. In most cases service and information delivery will also be through satellite points across the district.
These MPCCs should be a beehive of activity, where communities could access a variety of services. In this arrangement the GICs would provide available information on government as well as two-way governmental communication facilities. This would imply, among others, availability of various kinds of media, including the internet, video and audio facilities. The GIC’s themselves should be able to go out on road-shows utilising creative means of reaching out to the public. They should also have effective infrastructure for the distribution of government information. GICs should therefore be the communication and information nucleus of MPCCs.
Clearly, this requires intergovernmental partnership among national, provincial and local spheres of government to share available resources and to avoid duplication. The combined aim of government as a whole is to move towards the establishment of MPCCs, where communities can access all government services including government forms and the processing of all kinds of applications, legal services, arts and culture, passports and identity documents, information on welfare, health, housing, education, bursaries, etc. This will enhance the process of decentralising government services to where they are most needed, and were never provided before.
On a broader scale, government cannot meet the needs for all these services and undertake the required community liaison, all on its own. Partnerships between the public and private sectors, NGO’s, CBO’s and the many sectoral structures that exist [for example, Universal Service Agency with its Telecentre Project, Local Business Service Centres with the Brain Project, the Public Information Terminal (PIT) project, the Community Post Office initiative of the Department of Communication, and the Department of Public Service and Administration with its Shared Service Delivery approach etc], are crucial.
Progress to date
Lessons on MPCCs learned from other countries, identify lack of co-ordination among spheres of government and amongst government departments, as one of the constraints of the success of MPCCs (Emberg J, ITU 1996). For this reason, and to develop learning for the roll-out of MPCCs across the country, a pilot project ran from October 1999 to March 2000. Three centres were launched in rural and under-serviced areas: in Tombo in the Eastern Cape province; in Kgautswane in the Northern Province, and in Worcester in the Western Cape. The pilot phase identified significant learning experiences to prepare a launch schedule for twenty sites planned for the 2000/2001 financial year.
A number of key issues have been isolated as significant steps in the establishment of MPCCs:
- Significant consultation processes with affected spheres of government as well as community stakeholders:
This is aided by the establishment of co-ordination structures at local and provincial level, representing these sectors. The operation of an existing national co-ordination structure should also be reviewed to define clear roles for various public sector institutions and parastatals operating from national to local levels. The creation of sustainable partnerships at all spheres of government and non-government level should therefore be regarded as crucial for the sustainable establishment of MPCCs and through them, for the successful maintenance of an integrated government information, communication and service delivery programme.
- The issue of the sustainability and management of these new centres needs to be tied to the decentralisation processes of government departments, as well as to community-driven initiatives introducing cost-recovery programmes at centres.
A leadership role for the various provincial governments in centre administration and management also emerged as a strong possibility.
- In site identification there should be a balance between the provision of services versus the existence of infrastructure:
While the more effective use of existing facilities is a sound principle when identifying sites, in some areas, historical factors have meant there are simply no facilities and services. Such areas cannot be ignored and therefore marginalised further. The feasibility of mobile units also needs exploration.
- Systems need to be in place to monitor and respond to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).
Information products need similarly, to be appropriate to the communities they are intended for.
- Effective research, monitoring and evaluation systems need to be in place not only at centres but at all stages of the roll-out process.
Specific funding areas have been identified:
- Computers and other information technology equipment
- Mobile units to service the entire district from a centre
- Audio-visual units
- Exhibition or display centres popularly referred to as Public Information Points