Civil Society Organisations and Provincial Legislatures build bridges on digital platforms

Introduction

The aim of the Civil Society Participation in Provincial Legislature (CSPPL) Project is to connect Provincial Legislatures and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). The project aims to bridge the gap between these stakeholders, to drive community driven oversight and accountability on behalf of vulnerable and key populations. It does this by building capacity of both provincial legislatures and civil society organisations and facilitating platforms for them to engage and build relationships that can benefit communities and address pertinent service delivery challenges.

The project is being implemented in three provinces in South Africa: Northern Cape, North West and Limpopo. The project’s CSO partners are mostly engaged in the areas of health, education and safety. For example, they support victims of gender-based violence, work in sexual and reproductive health, and advocate for equality in education.

The project is made possible through co-funding from the European Union and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, who are also key implementing partners in particular with regards to the capacity building and knowledge co-creation for members of provincial legislatures,.

The situation

The CSSPL project has collaborated with CSOs and Provincial Legislatures across Limpopo, the Northern Cape and the North West to bridge existing gaps and facilitate partnerships. While strides have been made, opportunities remain to deepen relationships and communications between these actors, with the aim of improving community driven and democratic oversight and accountability. CSOs have submitted petitions and communications in all provinces, but responses by the legislatures have varied. In many instances the process of submitting petitions has not achieved oversight and greater accountability of the executive.

In some provinces, however, partnerships have flourished. The NCPL has reached out to CSPPL CSO partners, invited them to virtual and face to face events [https://democracyworks.org.za/lets-get-digital-first-steps-towards-inclusive-virtual-public-participation-in-the-northern-cape-provincial-legislature/] and requested CSOs to share information about what is happening in the community level.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, Provincial Legislatures have increasingly started to explore using social media and digital platforms to engage with their constituencies. This has provided a unique opportunity for CSPPL CSO partners across all three provinces to increase the use of social media as an additional channel to engage MPLs and key decision makers in advocacy efforts. In recognition of the challenges the digital divide presents, especially in vast and largely rural provinces, the project ensured to include training on non-digital communication and radio in particular.

The CSPPL team, in collaboration with RIA Digital, an online Reputations and Insights Agency, and A Capital Idea, a communications strategy consultancy, therefore engaged CSO partners from across the three provinces to provide insights,  build confidence and share tools on how to use social media more effectively in pushing for transparent and accountable governance.

This case study looks at increased virtual communication between the Provincial Legislature and a coalition of CSOs, which has grown beyond the CSPPL partners and continues to develop organically in this context.

Virtual workshops

The CSO engagements consisted of virtual cross-provincial social media and advocacy workshops, which ran over two days and consisted of 2-hour sessions each. The team employed a mixed methodology of presentations and self-directed small group work. Martina Della Togna and Michelle Joubert from RIA and A Capital Idea respectively, presented on understanding the media landscape for public participation in South Africa’s legislatures and on how to build an effective social media campaign.

Martina Della Togna posed the question: “What was the role of the Portfolio Committees in instances where parliament was meant to conduct oversight?” By way of example, the Constitutional Court needed to remind Parliament that it should conduct oversight over the Nkandla matter. This forced Parliament to go back to the drawing board and review its role. Another example: the SABC experienced governance distortions when senior managers championed an SABC that censored and interfered with editorial work outside of its mandate. News and current affairs were brought into disrepute and journalists were censored. Eight journalists, the so-called “SABC 8”, blew the whistle which resulted in the SABC becoming subject of parliament oversight through an Ad Hoc committee. In the provinces, the situation is worse, with less evidence of provincial parliaments conducting effective oversight over a provincial department. All state entities that get money from tax payers are accountable to parliament one way or another. This is the overarching context within which CSOs are operating in, when working towards access, accountability and oversight.

Michelle Joubert presented how, in practise, to plan and implement a high-impact social media advocacy campaign. Civil society should use social media because it is a powerful, accessible and cost-effective tool to use. The content ought to be inclusive and owned by everyone in the organisation. The need for pictures and short videos that profile the work of and the people within the organisation was highlighted. Finally, it is important to have a map of relevant stakeholders and who the organisation wants to reach, for example beneficiaries, provincial legislatures, potential funders, partners, etc.

Using examples of successful social media activities by participants, Michelle then outlined how to plan a 6-8 week Facebook and Twitter campaign including the appropriate and most effective use of hashtags. She also spoke to the strategic uses of LinkedIn, which includes connecting with other professionals and building professional profiles. YouTube was highlighted as a powerful tool which can be used to promote events and to drive visitors to your organisational channels.

“Social media is a powerful tool for CSOs to connect with and create audiences, that can assist in driving advocacy messages, and has the potential to galvanise support for action.”

CSO participants were then given time to decide on how they would like to work together in small groups to develop Communication Plans and Agreements of Engagements. The second day started with feedback from the groups, which organised themselves according to their provinces. The Northern Cape group led the way by presenting a well-thought out Communications Plan and a Partnership Agreement, which had already been shared with and included input from the Northern Cape Coalition – a group of CSOs which include but extend beyond the group that CSPPL engaged with over the years. The aim of the campaign was to stand together on advocacy and public participation activities. They agreed to discuss hashtags and content on WhatsApp before going live and to share them with the relevant tags once they went live. The strategy consists of a monthly profile of one of the organisations that is part of the network, highlighting the work they do and what they stand for.

The Provincial CSO Coalition Northern Cape and the Provincial Legislature “meet” online

The Northern Cape Coalition implemented its social media campaign, posting and highlighting organisations and their work with specific themes of the month relating to important calendar days. They identified and followed the relevant social media accounts of their partners, DWF and of the Provincial Legislatures. They also agreed to workshop the Agreements and strategies in the Coalition to identify how social media could be used to build relationships with the Provincial Legislature in order to build accountability and transparency processes including getting feedback on submissions made.

Around the same time, the Public Participation Unit of the Northern Cape Provincial Legislature embarked of a series of regional CSO engagements – a hybrid of virtual and face-to-face – on how to connect with the Legislature through social media, radio and official processes like petitions. As official partners of the event, DWF brought in RIA Digital and created links with the existing social media campaigns and the Northern Cape Coalitions.

The workshops also included an event for the staff of the Provincial Legislature including the Communications and IT Units as well as the Regional Liaison Officers. The aim of this workshop was to encourage and empower Legislature Staff to become brand ambassadors of their organisation and to spearhead digital and social media-based interactions. RIA Digital and DWF provided similar inputs as they did to the group of CSOs in the first event. A key highlight was the discussion around how IT, Communications and Public Participation Units need to closely coordinate their efforts to take advantage of free digital platforms. Legislature staff also agreed on the need to bring their respective managers on board, and lobby for this issue to be taken up by those managing Committees and other official bodies to ensure that everyone in the Legislature participates in digital communication.

What was achieved?

Embracing the agreements, the NCPL live-streamed one of their house sittings on YouTube for the first time on 3 December 2020. The event was shared on their social media pages and was picked up by the CSO Coalition Partners.

A WhatsApp Group, which includes relevant staff from the Provincial Legislature including the Regional Liaison Officers and the CSO Coalition members, continues to be used as a platform to share information such as the program of the Legislature, invitations to relevant event from both the CSOs and the Provincial Legislatures.

The Provincial Legislature also embarked on their own social media campaign called #LegisFridays where the PPU highlights a Committee Member each Friday and encourages them to share their professional interests, what their mandates are and how they can be reached.

With advance notice of the sittings that are being held at the Legislature, the ability to connect to a broad network of organisations in the province and a clearer idea of who the relevant people within the Legislature are, Civil Society Organisations in the province now have an avenue to reach out to and connect with the institution and the individuals that make it up. Having access to the planned sittings also allows the CSOs to request virtual access in advance. It is also promising that the NCPL is signing an MoU with the provincial radio stations, to allow them to stream relevant sessions in the future.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that the increased appetite for using digital platforms has increased as a result of the Covid19-related lockdown. What is remarkable is that the move to more virtual engagements put weight behind already existing calls to increase digital access to information related to and participation in the Legislature.

The partnership between the DWF, RIA and A Capital Idea has certainly supported changes in applied policy within the Provincial Legislature, in the sense that they started to use WhatsApp and other social media to communicate with their constituencies and used YouTube to livestream one of their sittings. With regards to CSOs, simply providing impetus and co-creating platforms for existing organisations to connect with and support each other, contributed towards building relationships, which have the potential to exist beyond the lifespan of the project.

Digital engagement and virtual public participation provide essential first steps towards increased community driven accountability and oversight, but they are first steps only. They provide building blocks for future programming which continues to support an ever-increasing network of CSOs and continues to work towards opening up increasingly diverse democratic platforms for public participation.

Mira Dutschke has a master’s degree in Human Rights law and 12 years of international research, advocacy, and teaching experience. The focus of her work is on supporting democratic participation and inclusive decision-making processes. She has also been active as a multi-media producer in Southern Africa and America. Her work has been published in books, in peer-reviewed journals media outlets like the UK Guardian, The Mail and Guardian, LinkTV and numerous other media outlets.

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