As the world continues to change governments the world over are faced with the opportunity to embrace and implement citizen and community-based participation mechanisms that not only enhance accountability, but ensure that citizens remain part of the decision making that governs their lives. 

GovChat is a citizen engagement platform, in partnership with GCIS, DCOG and SALGA that currently enables government to receive crowd-sourced inputs from citizens across a host of topics.

As the official citizen engagement platform topics ranging from policy certainty to changes in the executive were raised. As President Cyril  Ramaphosa reflected on a new dawn, I was reminded of one of the ideas proposed to the Presidency on GovChat. 

Zamandlovu Ndlovu wrote: “Create a policy think tank in the presidency.

“The last decade has seen us focused on how we’ve failed to implement policies defined almost 2 decades ago. The world is changing faster and the policies we have were not conceived in a world of exponential change. We urgently need revive strategic policy thinking that reflects the current and changing context. Otherwise we’ll continue to implement policies that are no longer relevant to the world we live in and will live in.”

This got me thinking about the number of great ideas that reside with citizen's across our country. A number of these ideas are crucial for the large scale socio-economic changes that society expects.

With the passing of the motion to expropriate land without compensation and further instructing the constitutional development committee to steer the matter.

A massive public consultation process will need to take place to ensure that any constitutional amendment is supported by consultative evidence. From the period leading up to the President’s State of The Nation Address (SONA) a large number of ideas relating to the land question were raised. They pertained to;
* Land for affordable housing for public servants, 
* Farming,
* Expropriation of land without compensation,
* Investing in the Future,
* Stable economic transformation,
* Bio-manufacturing Industries and community development,
* Farm murders and expropriation of land,
* Sustainable Food Systems. 
* Creating future for emerging farmers, and
* Farmers teaching new farmers.

As part of the conversation, “Revisit Land Redistribution Program - Now used for Patronage” was proposed by Thandeka Mali who wrote: “Land Redistribution should benefit all that need land and can work land productively, not old male farmers who use this land for old unproductive cattle (Imigqutsuba) as is the case now. Give land on basis of bankable business plan[s]…”

Similarly, as is the case in exclusive industries such as oil and gas. Public participation, particularly with communities is essential to the long-term sustainability of these entities. One of the ideas in this sector related to the “MPRDA [Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act] Amendment” by Barrisford Petersen who wrote: “Separate RSA legislation for oil and gas exploration from mining legislation and create a separate oil and gas act.”

Understanding the conversations, identifying the relevant content and actioning it appropriately is the only way to have engagement that leads to tangible solutions.  

Citizen’s extensive insight into multiple ideas, ranging from the topic to the deeply emotive, text rich conversational data presents options that allow to customize and further personalise each engagement as it occurs between citizens and government. 

Citizen-generated content provides government with a rich source of sentiment opinions about numerous policies, debates and positions on various legislative proposals. 

Curating and processing said data creates an environment for detailed sentiment analysis that factors in cultural, context and linguistic nuances. At the core of any engagement is the importance of capturing the context, without it text data is indistinguishable from strings of written text that ultimately lead to many biases in the analysis. 

As we prepare to launch our suite of applications, we have undertaken to tailor chat conversations between citizens and Councillors to enable the government to respond to citizen’s sentiment. This data gathering and engagement technique will deliver a smarter and more “humane” artificial intelligence, which will assist government and representatives to respond in a unique way based on the emotions show in a written chat conversation.

The platform could go even further by contextualising citizen participation. To give an example, citizens are more likely to share their ideas and frustrations about topics that directly relate to them. As seen above, the MPRDA is likely to affect communities in KwaZulu Natal, Eastern Cape and to a small degree the Western Cape where coastal communities endowed with oil and gas reserves. The inputs and views of these communities are the bedrock on which any  development, investment and exploration can take place. Citizens and communities should be continuously asked for their thoughts. 

For Government

Digitalisation now allows for large volumes of data to be easily managed and layered so large populations of people can be heard and consulted.

In South Africa we have been fortunate to have undertaken digital engagement as a means of communication allow for an increased responsiveness, to which we are used in this era of real-time action.

With the growing engagement there is a need to develop an effective digital dashboard that goes beyond the process of idea collection and analysis available as a standard options on GovChat. It is essential to integrate the citizen engagement software within their infrastructure and match it to their internal workflows through a some API.

The cost of online communication is significantly lower compared to offline means. Also, if you’d think of citizen participation instruments, giving your citizens the possibility to share their input on a digital platform, reduces tremendously the “cost per engagement” CPE.

Citizen Engagement Analytics

Through our partnership with government we have developed citizen engagement dashboard which help them gaining insights on their citizens’ opinions from widely available streams of data.

By considering “the voice of the citizen”, GovChat has been able to amplify multiple views across various segments, this was due at large to the advancements in data analytics. This is crucial to adding value to the decision-making processes within government. 

The data tells us that engagement is the only way forward. If we are are to work together in building a prosperous South Africa we should encourage all to share their views, particularly in a time were people's views should be heard.

* Goitse Konopi is the Chief Data Officer at GovChat, a citizen engagement platform in partnership with GCIS, CoGTA and SALGA

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus