MobiSAM: A means to increased citizen participation and communication between citizens and local government

By:  Ingrid Siebörger

When I was asked to do this week’s blog post, I had to wrack my brain about what I should write about. It occurred to me that we have not discussed how MobiSAM fits into the broader research work and endeavours to improve citizen engagement with local municipalities. In this post I will give you a brief overview of how MobiSAM fits into endeavours for improved citizen engagement.

The South African Constitution [1] makes municipalities responsible for delivering (among other things) basic services such as electricity, water, sanitation and refuse removal.

Because of their proximity to citizens, they are also constitutionally mandated “to provide democratic and accountable government for local communities” and “to encourage the involvement of communities and community organizations in the matters of local government.”

South African municipalities are therefore responsible for ensuring service delivery, accountability and participation at the local government level in order to realize meaningful developmental democracy.

Local government in South Africa (for the most part) falls far short of this mandate. Prominent commentators have attributed this lack of delivery of basic services across the population to a lack of accountability at local government level, particularly with respect to a lack of public participation [2]. More recently Pravin Gordhan former Minister for Co-operative Governance & Traditional Affairs noted that the main problems faced by local government in South Africa are “a communication breakdown between councils and citizens; no accountability; political interference in administrations; corruption; fraud; bad management; violent service delivery protests; factionalism; and depleted municipal capacity” [3, p1].

Despite the numerous challenges, local government structures offer meaningful opportunities for increased citizen participation. The immediacy of people’s needs and the proximity of government to those who elected them provide increased motivation for participation. The key to success, however, is to ensure the meaningful, informed and effective participation of citizens in government processes, and to provide the mechanisms and skills to hold service providers to account for their performance in managing public resources and delivering services.

In recent years there has been a great deal of interest in using technology to deliver government services to citizens, a process that can be broadly seen as e-government.

M-government initiatives consist of a subset of these e-government systems that involve the use of mobile phones to facilitate the interaction between the parties. Although used around the world, m-government initiatives are particularly popular in developing countries, where access to fixed line infrastructure and desktop computing facilities is limited. As noted by Poblet, these mobile systems can take advantage of “the most basic capacities of already existing technologies to reach broader population segments which otherwise would not have access to more costly and sophisticated technologies” [4, p. 503].

There are a number of recent examples in Africa of the use of mobile phones to increase participation. Ushahidi, is such an example. Ushahidi, meaning “testimony” in Swahili, was designed to “harness the benefits of crowdsourcing information (using a large group of people to report on a story) and facilitate the sharing of information in an environment where rumours and uncertainty were dominant” [6]. This webpage was developed after the post-election violence in Kenya, when a wave of censorship of information in the media was felt. The Ushahidi platform has been successfully used across a number of different countries around the world. As stated by Wasserman, technologies such as Ushahidi are successful for “amplifying a brief political campaign or event but less successful in ensuring ‘ongoing and higher levels of accountability’” [5, p152]. However, as also noted by Wasserman, “the surveillance of government also has to happen in between the ‘ritual of elections’… through ongoing social movement and civil society campaigns” [5, p152].

This gap is where MobiSAM is situated, particularly focusing on ongoing accountability and citizen monitoring outside of electoral cycles. MobiSAM seeks to investigate the use of mobile phones as such a mechanism for increasing communication between citizens and their government, by utilizing the use of mobile phones together the SAM (Social Accountability Monitoring) methodology to actively and meaningfully engage with local municipality around service delivery. We hope that when the mobile application and web page of MobiSAM version 2 launch in January of 2017, you will join us in engaging with Makana Municipality around service delivery and collecting data about service delivery and quality. These can then be used to facilitate meaningful, evidence based engagement in order to hopefully see improved communication and ultimately service delivery within our municipality.


[1] Republic of South Africa, “The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa | South African Government,” 1996. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 16-Aug-2016].
[2] P. Heller, “Democratic Deepening in India and South Africa,” J. Asian Afr. Stud., vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 123–149, Feb. 2009.
[3] T. Lund, “LOCAL GOVERNMENT REFORM: Pravin’s big challenge | Cover Story | financialmail,” 2014. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 16-Aug-2016].
[4] M. Poblet, “Rule of Law on the Go: New Developments of Mobile Governance,” J. Univers. Comput. Sci., vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 498–512, 2011.
[5] H. Wasserman, “Mobile phones, popular media, and everyday african democracy: Transmissions and transgressions,” Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture, vol. 9, pp. 146–158, 2011.
[6] O. Okolloh, “Ushahidi, or ’testimony’: Web 2.0 tools for crowdsourcing crisis information,” Participatory Learning and Action, vol. 59, pp. 65–70, 2009.

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