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Government accountability and public participation

    What is in this guide?

    This guide explains the concept of a developmental state and the role it seeks to play in economic and social development. It contains the following sections:

      1. Laws on access to information and administrative justice
      2. Public participation and communication

    The relationship between government and citizens is very important. Ultimately government is accountable to citizens for decisions taken – at a macro level, at a community level and at an individual level.

    At a macro level public accountability is exercised through oversight by public representatives in the legislative arm of government. At a community level government should consult and involve communities in discussion about projects and programmes that directly affect them. At an individual level citizens have the right to hold government to account for, and get reasons for government decisions that directly affect them.

    This guide covers the key laws and mechanisms for accountability, communication and participation. The legislatures are covered in the guide on the three spheres of government.

  1. Laws on access to information and administrative justice

The Bill of Rights guarantees all citizens the right to information (section32) and just administrative action (Section 33) about decisions that affect their rights. Laws have been passed to make it compulsory for all spheres of government to provide information and reasons for decisions when citizens ask for them.

The Promotion of Access to Information Act (2000)

This Act gives people the right to get access to all kinds of government information that were previously hidden from the public. If your rights or access to government services are affected by a public service decision or a government or municipal policy, you have the right to see the information that government used to make those decisions. The Act is meant to protect people against corruption and unfair action by government and should make government more transparent and accountable.

The Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (2000)

This Act is important because it provides a weapon to people who are unfairly treated by any government department or agency working for government. The Act allows people to ask for reasons for any decision that is taken that affects them. The decision must be lawful, fair and reasonable. If someone is not satisfied that they were fairly treated, they can use the department’s internal appeal procedures, ask a court to overturn the decision or appeal to the Public Protector. Once a person has asked for reasons for a decision, a department has 90 days to give the reasons for the decision.  If the person is not satisfied they should be referred to the department’s appeals process. If they are still not satisfied they have six months to appeal the decision (or the appeals process decision), through court action.

  1. Public participation and communication

Public participation is a principle that is accepted by all spheres of government in South Africa. Participation is one of the cornerstones of our democracy and has equal benefits for politicians, public servants and civil society:

Government has many institutions and structures that can be used to enhance public participation. Among the most important ones are:

The Executive: stakeholders and Izimbizo

The Executive in each sphere of government accounts to the Legislature through annual reports, budget votes and responses to questions asked. The Executive also has to maintain ongoing relationships with key stakeholders in their area of work. For example the President regularly meets different groups like the business community, women, youth, traditional leaders, etc. All Ministers and MECs should maintain ongoing contact with key stakeholders in their area of work.

Wherever possible the senior public service management should also be part of stakeholder meetings.

Izimbizo and public meetings are important methods used for consultation with the public. An Imbizo is meant to encourage participation and allows the public from a particular area to interact directly with the Executive. Senior public servants often attend Izimbizo to provide information and to follow up on issues raised.

The Legislatures and public representatives

As the direct representatives of the public, MPs, MPLs and councillors use different methods to stay in touch with their constituency and to get public input on new laws, policies and programmes.

Public hearings

New laws have to be published for public comment and public hearings are usually held by committees in Parliament, Legislatures and Councils as part of the law-making process. They present an opportunity for interested parties to make submissions. The inherent weakness of public hearings is that they usually elicit responses only from well organised and resourced interest groups. Further mechanisms have to be used by public representatives to ensure that they are in touch with public concerns and key issues that affect their constituency and important stakeholders.

Public meetings and report-back meetings
Public representatives often use public meetings to inform the public about specific issues or consult them around specific development or other programmes. Public meetings are also used to report back on government programmes. Public servants may be asked to participate in these meetings to provide technical support and information and to hear the public’s views and concerns. 
Political parties also use public meetings to mobilise their supporters or to persuade the public to vote for them in an election. Public servants should avoid being on the platform of meetings that have an explicit election campaign agenda.
Inspections or site visits
Public representatives can also use inspections as a way of gauging public opinion or of investigating problems that affect specific groups or areas. Examples are MPs visiting prisons, schools or clinics.
Local government and public participation
Each municipality has a number of people and structures that should be used to enhance public participation. The most important ones are:
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 geographic areas 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 councillors’ public participation programmes are coordinated by the Council’s Speaker.

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 service delivery.

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.  CDWs should work closely with ward councillors and ward committees.

Stakeholder bodies
At national, provincial and local level many key stakeholders and potential development partners are already organised into representative bodies. Examples are business organisations, unions, welfare organisations, community organisations, faith-based organisations, sport and cultural bodies.
Government builds ongoing partnerships with these bodies and use them to enrich policy, assess programmes and improve delivery.
Local stakeholder forums

Many different local 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. They often represent a number of stakeholders and are also useful for resolving disputes and avoiding local conflicts over resource allocation.

Community or beneficiary organisations

Many development programmes are inappropriate because of poor consultation with intended beneficiaries.  Some projects are also destroyed by conflict among intended beneficiaries. Government aims to work with organisations that already exist or help build strong organisations among intended beneficiaries.

Examples of good practice are;

Community liaison officials

Most municipalities and many government departments employ staff to liaise with the community - they are used as part of any outreach and public participation programme.


Many government departments and all municipalities have access to their own media, for example notice boards, rates and water bills, etc. This is used for spreading information about prices, new plans, budget priorities, etc.

The commercial media as well as radio are some more communication tools used to inform people, and in some cases like phone-in programmes, to consult people.


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