Skip links

South African Local Governments Must Move Towards Digitalizing Their Services in Challenging Times to Make a Real Change

It has been a tough year. We got up each morning to new developments in the tragedies of the current spanning pandemic, the greatest sudden loss of life, nationwide civil unrest, natural disasters and a looming financial collapse.

Within the face of those developments, a totally understandable message from government agencies to the general public may very well be: We are unable to serve you right now. Please take a number and we’ll get back to you as quickly as possible.  However as we all know now, that this is an unacceptable path to efficiently, and proactively, addressing the rising needs of residents going through public health threat and financial uncertainty.

In reality, in the past few months, South Africans have exhibited an unquenchable thirst for quick, efficient government services and information. Residents calls for of local government and neighborhood organizations are rising. Their voices are louder than ever before. Individuals are bringing a brand new civic experience to the forefront of local governments that’s delivered on their terms — and aligned with growing demand for always-on, 24/7 info and services.


An indicator of 2020 (up to now) has been international developments impacting people at a local stage. For example, a pandemic sparked an enormous shift in South Africans civic engagement around issues like public health and financial equality. We can all definitively agree on the power local government has: To effectively and continuously render services and provide information that directly affect people’s lives. In reality then, how can local elected officials blend into this current time of civic engagement to enable them to deliver secure digital solutions that assist everybody within their municipalities?

Build a digital public platform for the people.

In South Africa, the COVID-19 pandemic has literally closed municipality offices and forced government agencies in many levels to rethink modernizing public sector work to digitally and equitably deliver citizen services. Mayors, council members and local agency officers, specifically, must embrace this advanced moment in time so as to cultivate a more vibrant, simple, inclusive and participatory municipal experience. One way to accomplish this is in making a good investment into long-term digital tools, technologies and expertise that will definitely ensure local government or municipal offices are able to develop their online civic engagement and citizen service points. Platforms that not only supply needed government services, but in addition prioritize input from residents and encourage community dialogue guided by clarity, trust and accountability.

Service has at all times been at the core of local government. Nonetheless, a primary challenge facing the public sector leaders right now is how one can move essential services to an online platform. More specifically, creating online services that enable people who no longer have the luxury of standing in lines for in-person interactions to remotely register to vote, receive or renew a permit, report electricity or water issues and more.

A really helpful path toward solution(s): At the end of the day, residents are customers. They want around-the-clock access to government services and for easier ways to interact with service providers that meet their needs while taking their personal comfort into consideration. For local government agencies that need to function right the middle of a global digital transformation, then need to build convenience right into in-house digital government services and solution procurements is very essential. Local government Digital service solutions should both be designed and deployed – by the agencies themselves or contracted professional vendors. Such systems should function as platform and device agnostic (or, at the very least, interchangeable) on the back end; taking an omnichannel approach that addresses the needs of residents and agencies by means of the worldwide web, mobile, social media and offline options on the frontend.


Deliver the value of local government to residents.

An increased online presence of neighborhood members and remote workers in the course of the pandemic affords municipalities a contemporary and cost-effective opportunity to advance local government digital service. Until not too long ago, seemingly desk stakes actions like producing photographs for identification cards, scanning essential paperwork, digitizing forms and streamlining workflows and case management were only plausible if large government teams had the finances to buy required technologies separately, then stitch them together. Finances and capacity-constrained communities had been largely left in the dark.

The good news is that today’s cloud-based solutions are complete, reasonably priced and scalable to communities of all sizes. The market has an enormous wealth of solutions which can easily be purpose-built for local governments to integrate with their existing legacy IT systems, while transitioning old in-person services to digital interactions. And it’s doable to tap these solutions to boost South Africa’s new, more lively brand of civic engagement and service residents quickly.

Additional, the advent of accessible and reasonably priced (or free) digital engagement platforms now enhances an expanding recognition among the South African society that actually impactful things can come from government sources. The shift in thinking has produced civic engagement defined not by an unexpected wave of income, as is the case within the private sector, however by the ability for a neighbourhood/ community representative to actually influence local governance policy and shape citizen services supply and delivery.

A really useful path towards solution(s): In addition to always-on capabilities, digital government platforms must have the ability to deliver goods and services to residents straight and without friction. If, for example a resident needs to access and complete an application for, or if requesting specific services, this should be done without unnecessary complications that slows down the process — and going fully virtual or largely remote during COVID-19 has made this more vital than ever. In response, agencies ought to invest in the creation of digital forums for two-way communication to capture feedback and suggestions that accurately reflects the demands and needs of the local people on the individual household level.

Enhance digital forum, accountability and representation.

Today’s elevated energy around civic engagement is a direct result of the pandemic, expanding consumer activism and recent protests towards corruption. This mixture of vital factors provides local governments with a fleeting opportunity to move past simply observing vocal citizen activity across the country without any action. This implies that there exists a small window to build on, and actively develop, levels of civic engagement and community trust over time for local government.

It’s now attainable for local governments to reach more residents by expanding their networks of subscribers and fight misinformation while keeping each resident informed. Municipalities can make great progress by offering local officials a two-way forum that encourages them to share progress being made in local policy and procedures. In any case, interacting with governments needs to be as easy and clear for everybody as checking a bank account balance or reordering Streetwise-3 from Mr Delivery.

A really helpful path towards solution(s): Municipalities should bounce at this opportunity to actually listen to diverse community voices pushing for change — particularly as some powerful individuals in government and society seek to quiet or ignore them. They seriously must look into developing sustainable digital solutions that will ensure various community voices are heard, deliver essential services and assist to inform people on a broader scale. Residents, for their part, must have have the ability to easily present suggestions, share ideas and voice their urgent needs to public sector officers or representatives who may help their constituents feel worthy, well taken-care of an secure. Expanded civic engagement influence entails reaching more people by way of their preferred channels, whether or not that’s email, sms or snail mail, and establishing a dialogue that converts to action.

Admittedly, some cities such as the City of Johannesburg are already making great strides in implementing an interactive online services platform. Without a doubt, local governments throughout the country can rise to today’s unprecedented challenges by offering digital civic engagement outlets developed to raise individual views on policy issues and surface life experiences that inform inclusive civic action and actual change.