Blog | June 29, 2017 | Evan Lieberman

Was it crazy to pursue a research project that focused on the ‘human dimension’ of politicians, at a moment when politics has become more hostile than at any other time in South Africa's democratic era?

Well, to quote the movie Spinal Tap, "it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever." And while I’m not yet sure which side of that divide I will ultimately find myself, at least my recent research trip has been promising. Importantly, I think the moment invites some new opportunities for constructive civil society–state engagements.

Recognising councillors as human beings

First, a bit of background: Our Making All Voices Count-supported project is called Closing the Feedback Loop in South African Local Governance: A Longitudinal Study of Local Councillor Performance in Urban and Near-Urban Municipalities. It is motivated by the notion that making voices count requires that someone be listening, willing and able to do something about those voices, on the other side of a dialogue.

In a democratic system, at a bare minimum, democratically-elected local leaders ought to be able to play this function. But we have little systematic research on these leaders, at least in South Africa. Are they good representatives? Do they act on behalf of community interests? Or more precisely, why is it that some of these individuals tend to be more effective leaders and representatives than their colleagues? And are there effective strategies that citizens and civil society organisations (CSOs) can use to elicit responsive behaviours?

My hunch was that if we took some of the same approaches typically used when studying citizens – that is, to understand individuals' background characteristics, personal pressures, and constraints they face; and to wed such information to the best available insights about what motivates individuals to take actions – we might gain some useful leverage on these questions.

The first part of this longitudinal study has involved fielding a baseline survey (still in process) to serve as a point of entry for learning about these councillors. I hope, with the help of various collaborators, to be able to track these councillors over several years.

In our baseline study, we are learning from councillors about their educational backgrounds and work histories, the experiences with poverty, the extent to which they have financial dependents, whether they live in their constituency, and how they perceive a range of issues and pressures. Can we recognise councillors as human beings who, in many cases, are not so different from the people they were elected to serve? And possibly influenced in the same ways that ordinary citizens are encouraged to act by politicians, governments and firms?

Getting a civil society view of councillors

With that backdrop in mind, over the past couple of weeks (along with MIT PhD student Gabriel Nahmias), I have had the opportunity to meet with over a dozen leaders from South African CSOs, big and small, to share and discuss points of intersection between their work and this ongoing research on local government and local councillors.

Our project puts a focus on local councillors, who are meant to represent local communities and find ways to support their needs. In turn, it seemed critical to speak with leading CSOs directly, so that we could get their views about whether councillors were doing such work effectively, and to discuss ways in which local governance might work better.

We were very lucky to have the good folks (especially old friend, Albert Van Zyl) at the International Budget Project (IBP) host, plan and facilitate an outstanding two-day meeting – Workshopping Evidence-Driven' Theories of Change, from Nudges to Shoves  (see their related post on inside tactics in local government). We exchanged information, ideas and strategies with some of their partner organisations; we also had meetings with some individual CSOs.

In the IBP workshop and in the other meetings, we described some preliminary findings from the MAVC-funded baseline survey. And I talked about a few insights drawn from behavioral economics and social psychology that might frame our discussions – including the effects of social pressures, tendencies towards loss aversion, the power of commitments, monitoring and feedback. How might data and theory frame future strategic action with councillors?

Some initially pushed back that this approach was a bit… naive! CSOs have a great deal of experience trying to work with councillors, of course. And many CSO leaders were quick to share what is clearly a dominant view: councillors are difficult to work with, non-responsive and often more obstacle than facilitator.

"Our strategy is to avoid the councillors at all costs,” explained one workshop participant.

For those who want to make things happen – to try to deliver certain services to the poor, to the sick, to those who live in informal settlements – past and anticipated frustration has bred this avoidance strategy. This generally involves working directly with bureaucrats and ‘technically’ oriented individuals, and frequently bypassing a set of individuals who are viewed as just too ‘political’.

I can certainly understand this perspective. (And in fact, we’ve experienced a great deal of that non-responsiveness in our attempts to survey and interview many councillors…) But it’s worth noting how this loss of confidence in a core sphere of democratic governance (to say nothing of the other spheres) is truly tragic for a country that fought so long and hard to create a democracy, and one with a pretty impressive set of institutional structures. Is it possible that painting overly-broad strokes about a more varied reality might wind up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of institutional failure?

In my own preliminary field work with councillors, I met several who were truly impressive, working from morning to night, facing quite extraordinary demands from their constituents, who view them as a point of contact for everything under the sun. And so I have been asking our civil society colleagues, is the situation really so uniformly bad... everywhere? With every councillor?

In fact, almost all of the CSO leaders agreed that they could identify some promising and/or effective councillors. Moreover, during the IBP-sponsored workshop, the participants really embraced our discussions of data and general theories of human behavior to propose some exciting theories of change in their respective domains, which they developed with particular councillor targets in mind. For example, one CSO leader identified a councillor who they believed would be receptive to a “plug-and-play” solution, agreeing that ease of implementation can facilitate action; another CSO proposed that they might experiment with the threat of withdrawing support from a councillor, a strategy rooted in the evidence-supported tendency towards loss aversion.

A moment of opportunity in the political cycle?

At least in terms of political cycles, South Africa ought to be in the sweet spot for risk-taking with respect to “bipartisan” and “multi-partisan” initiatives. It has been almost a year since the last local elections; councils and councillors are now largely established in their positions; and national elections are still two years away. The ANC has clearly lost its iron grip in urban South Africa, and competitive politics often implies a higher premium for service delivery. Thus, there is perhaps a small window in which committed actors might be able to more quietly and calmly work with one another without the pressures and constraints of electoral politics. In other words, is it possible to find some common ground about how to address “service delivery” needs without getting mired in the politics of credit-claiming, blaming and shaming?

I don’t want to over-state anyone’s optimism about what’s possible. But in our work, we will continue to search for interesting examples of successful, or at least promising strategies. Over the next several weeks, Gabriel will continue to canvas CSO leaders in various metropolitan areas, trying to learn more about what they are doing and thinking. If you have ideas about how CSO’s might more effectively and constructively engage local councillors, we’d like to hear from you.

About the author

Evan Lieberman is the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa at MIT. He is also an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Cape Town. He is a political scientist with expertise in democratic governance and human development in contemporary Africa.

About this blog

Other partners in the the study: Philip Martin and Nina McMurray are both PhD candidates in the department of Political Science at MIT, who helped design the baseline survey. Meghan Perdue is our project manager and has been involved in all aspects of the work. The survey has been implemented by Ipsos and Plus94. We received helpful feedback from colleagues at Wits School of Governance (WSG) and the University of Cape Town (UCT). Student and faculty researchers from WSG, UCT, and the Human Sciences Research Council have also been engaged in related research on this project. Participants at the IBP-hosted workshop include the Social Justice Coalition, CORC, DAG, and Planact. We also met individually with several other organisations, including Isandla institute, the Good Governance Learning Network, the Treatment Action Campaign, iKhayalami Development Services, OpenUp (previously Code for South Africa), People’s Environmental Planning, Lawyers for Human Rights, and Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce. The baseline survey will be publicly available when the enumeration period has been completed and the data have been cleaned. Please sign up if you want to receive releases.