- Public participation in policy making can allow constituents to provide input on desired community change, but there is low participation in the process.
- Helping individuals see that their participation matters, clarifying the process, and leveraging social influence can help increase participation.
- Removing hassles through well-designed civic technology can also help increase participation.
The South African constitution mandates that municipalities involve constituents when crafting their five-year community development plans, called Integrated Development Plans (IDP). During the planning process, municipal officials solicit community input on topics such as service delivery, public park maintenance, and neighborhood safety, and encourage resident involvement through community meetings, social media accounts, and broadcast radio.
Nonetheless, despite a growing focus on the importance of involving communities across governments, academia, and non-governmental organizations, municipalities across South Africa continue to struggle with low participation in the IDP process. Both local officials and residents stand to benefit from low-cost innovations that improve public participation and foster inclusive governance.
Many complex factors contribute to limited public participation in the IDP process. Using key insights from behavioral science, we sought to understand how community members perceive themselves, their government, and the participation process.
We collaborated with OpenUp—a civic technology organization based in Cape Town, South Africa—to design solutions to increase community engagement. Through extensive desk research, conversations with key stakeholders, and collaborative workshops with the OpenUp team, we gathered insights to better understand what prevents community members from following through with participation. Our work revealed four key behavioral barriers that prevent constituents from publicly voicing their opinions during local policymaking:
- Community members do not consider themselves as the type of person who participates in formal IDP processes.
- Community members believe that participation is unlikely to change anything in their local government.
- It’s not clear what a community member will need to do to participate in a public forum.
- Community members face hassles to participation.
Drawing on the four key behavioral barriers, we worked alongside OpenUp to generate low-cost, light touch solutions to improve their public participation digital platform. The final solutions, which will be implemented by OpenUp in 2021, include an improved public-facing digital tool that provides information on the IDP process and eliminates hassles to participation, as well as a youth accountability program that facilitates youth engagement. These solutions ultimately aim to foster more responsive policy and improve government-constituent relationships, in line with ideas42’s long-term commitment to help improve government responsiveness around the world through behavioral science.
Hassles to participation, feelings of disempowerment, and a lack of trust in government are barriers that can exist to varying degrees both elsewhere in South Africa and around the world. Understanding the subtle, context-specific ways in which individuals make decisions and take actions allows us to envision new, simple, and effective solutions to governance challenges that do not require costly resources to implement. The participatory nature of behavioral design also provides the opportunity for organizations, governments, and other stakeholders to build internal capacity in innovation so that they can independently develop tools and approaches to solve governance challenges in public participation and beyond.