THE REAL NUMBERS: Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa

JOHANNESBURG - Social compacts are the essential glue that holds different stakeholders and interests towards a unified social, economic and political objective.  

In South Africa, such an objective is captured in the National Development Plan (NDP), which identifies the triple challenge of poverty, unemployment and inequality as the scourge that holds South Africa back from achieving a society as envisaged in the constitution. Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) has consistently reported on the progress - or lack thereof - particularly on the triple challenge and many other areas of social concern through its nationally representative survey programmes that report simultaneously at different levels of geography, including municipalities.  How are these social compacts informed from a citizen’s vantage point? The government has adopted the Batho Pele principle through which citizens as customers have a formal channel to provide feedback. 

These include citizen satisfaction surveys. Several municipalities across the country conduct their own citizen satisfaction surveys. However, the surveys come with fundamental flaws - the way in which they are conducted is varied, the regularity not uniform, methodological considerations not consistent and not all municipalities conduct satisfaction surveys leaving state inspired asymmetries to information. The approach is also expensive, and leaves questions about the moral hazard of municipalities assessing themselves in a democracy. A unitary state requires a predictable framework through which it is uniformly informed. Yet South Africa has found comfort in driving these disjointed surveys as mechanisms for citizens’ feedback.

In 2015  the government of KwaZulu Natal entered into an agreement with Stats SA to conduct a citizen satisfaction survey every two years. The province was aware that different municipalities were in the habit of conducting own surveys and thus undermining the ability of citizens to draw high quality information from a technical competent institution established for this purpose such as Stats SA.  The survey preceded the local government election. Whether the information provided was fully exploited is a question for another day.  What is not debatable however is that a raft of information that potentially empowered the engagement of citizens with political leaders who requested a mandate through an election to deliver services was now available. 

The platform provided a framework for structuring and understanding what the concerns and their intensity by municipality, race and sex were. The survey covered service delivery satisfaction levels. Naturally the levels of satisfaction varied by race, municipality and type of service. For example, municipalities that displayed dissatisfaction upward of 50 percent were Imbabazane, Umtshezi, Umvoti, Msinga, Nkandla, Ulundi, Abaqulusi, Nongoma, Hlabisa, Mtubatuba, Jozini and Umhlabuyalingana. Some of them expressed levels upwards of 65 percent. Yet Nqutu stood out like a sore toe with very high levels of satisfaction. The question is what has Nqutu done to be in that state?  And this is where learning starts. This kind of regular feedback especially on the eve of an election, serves a number of purposes.  It improves the veracity of contestation based on the analysis of perceived. It allows for robust engagement with citizens on what is feasible and what can be improved, provides a platform for a party with mandate to hit the ground running and a unified lens through which citizens and councillors can focus on what should be done. We shared the results with other provinces and the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta) and insisted on the wisdom of ensuring that citizens have high quality feedback to the government at predictable intervals.  

The unfortunate part is perhaps this – provincial administrations were not ready to heed this call nor was Cogta in a position to assert its authority on the rights of citizens to provide feedback to government. If this state of affairs if allowed to persist, it will undermine what the far sighted leadership of KwaZulu-Natal sought to achieve. It will also not only be wasteful resource-wise, but will undermine the very noble goal of social compacts to fight the triple challenge of poverty, unemployment and inequality and make the delivery of healing divisions of the past a lot more remote.  Citizen feedback is an essential input to planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.  A haphazard citizen feedback is equivalent to a frog dance – you cannot understand which tune they are dancing to nor which direction they are pulling towards.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.