With the local government elections set to take place in August this year, citizens across the country might want to contact their local political representative for their area. But many South Africans have no idea how to find out who that is, exactly.
That is where The People’s Assembly comes in. The website has one main goal: to put citizens in contact with their local representative so that they can air their views and share their grievances.
“Engaging directly with one’s political representatives is seldom seen as the means to a solution for South Africans who were historically denied access to political representatives. People’s Assembly was set up to encourage this engagement,” explained Gaile Fullard, Executive Director of People’s Assembly, to htxt.africa.
According to Fullard, The People’s Assembly website can be described as a civic technology tool. “It aims to make South Africa’s elected representatives less invisible, more accountable and more available. It helps people to connect with their political representatives. It started with national and provincial representatives and in 2016 it included local representatives as well,” she added.
Parliamentary people database
Browsing through the content, it is quite clear that a major feature of the website is that it creates a database of Parliamentary people – users can find MPs by name, constituency or by browsing debates.
Parliamentary attendance records? It has that as well, and you will be able to see who owns which tracts of land in South Africa. Previous speeches? Just browse to an MP’s profile and it should all be there.
“This is hugely important. We believe that citizen participation beyond elections helps to institutionalise democratic structures, improve service delivery, reduce government corruption and enhance accountability and individual performance of elected representatives,” said Fullard.
Fullard added that it helps to foster more inclusive communities and enables broader ideas for solutions, and not just the views of the privileged or well-connected.
“Without active involvement of citizens, government power can be abused and used to benefit a narrow group. In order for citizen engagement to work successfully, people need to understand their rights and feel that they can make a difference.”
The website is updated daily – both manually and automatically – and is populated by information from multiple credible sources, including the Parliamentary Monitoring Group website, the official Parliament website and others.
A stable backbone
Information of this nature needs a stable backbone, and the technology behind it is a combination of Pombola (software that provides several functionalities, including matching people and what they say), and mySociety’s MapIt software, which matches geographic locations with the relevant representatives.
But even with the best technology running the back-end and several helping hands at the front, things can get a bit tough.
“Because of the volume of people (MPs/MPLs/councillors) data involved it’s not possible to have all the information available at once. Trying to make sure the information is complete and correct is an ongoing battle. Mistakes are a reality of managing a huge database… it’s all about trying to correct the error as soon it has been discovered or pointed out,” Fullard explained.
Through all of this, you have to ask yourself what really interesting information has come to light, since The People’s Assembly deal with data that aren’t readily available to the public.
“We’ve been able to have more dialogue with our Parliament and municipalities, gaining access to data that is not being made public such as the lists of MP/MPLs’ assigned constituency offices and cell phone numbers of ward councillors. MPs and MPLs are slowly coming forward to engage with us about updating their profile pages. And our MP Attendance data has generated interest.”
Fullard also went on to say that The People’s Assembly’s pilot survey of MP constituency offices revealed that most of the issues and complaints raised by citizens relate to service delivery challenges that should be addressed at a local government level.
The People’s Assembly also ran a small survey on the website, asking users for basic information about how and why they use the website.
Besides revealing the geographic areas where people access the website from and their general age, the survey did vindicate the website’s existence.
In response to the question ‘Before today, have you ever contacted a Member of Parliament?’ 60% said that they had not contacted a politician; 24% said they had to ask for information; 7% had made contact to make a complaint; and 17% had made contact for another reason.
Taking the website further, The People’s Assembly would like to include candidates for each ward in the future; a similar system is already working in other African countries like Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
From what the survey results show, there is definitely a need for The People’s Assembly, so now you have no excuse not to contact your local representative about any issues that you might have.[Image – CC by 2.0/Michael Hebb]