Sharing decision making

2008-04-18 00:00

It is a fundamental principle of our democracy that the government should consult with stakeholders. Recently, the MEC for local government in the Western Cape criticised the Cape Town municipality for not having consulted widely enough in the development of its Integrated Development Plan (IDP) and budget. Apparently, less than 20% of the community had input into these documents.

I have always been somewhat cynical about consultation. This stems, perhaps, from the experience we had as the Education Council in the tricameral era. The House of Assembly Minister of Education, whose name I may surely be forgiven for having forgotten, came to address a specially convened meeting in order to “consult” regarding his plan to introduce the various “models” into House of Assembly schools. We listened, we raised concerns and, some of us at least, registered objections. We discovered soon enough that even as the consultation meeting was taking place, the circulars to schools regarding this innovation had already been printed.

Now this was carrying the sham a bit far. In most cases, it would be completely impractical for consultation to take place without some blueprint having been prepared in advance. Yet, the very existence of such a plan reveals that minds have been applied, arguments considered and decisions made. There may well be room for some tweaking, but, for the most part, the consultation is little more than an endorsement of a predetermined decision. As a headmaster, I was criticised for exactly this. However, if I approached the staff without having given a particular matter a good deal of thought, I generally found a lot of mouths full of teeth.

For the most part, they do not understand the issues and are often not in a position to make a personally informed decision. It is not difficult to promote an in-formed decision when the informing is being done by the person in control of the consultation. If it is to be done properly, considerable time has to be allowed and over a longish period, and in most instances this sort of time is simply not available.

Representative organisations, such as our chamber, face their own difficulties when it comes to consultation. We prefer to be involved at an early stage and want to participate in the planning and drafting. Being expected to visit a municipal library to view the municipal budget is not what we regard as an adequate or legal consultation with a major stakeholder. We believe that we would be able to bring an additional and constructive dimension to the IDP and the budget planning. But even our own house is barely in order.

Organisations rely on the contributions of members for a mandate to be secured. All too often, however, it is a small minority of people who make input and thereby compromise the credibility of the mandate. In fact, my experience of voluntary, representative organi- sations is that mandates are often questionable, not because they fail to represent the views of the majority necessarily, but because so few people have actually participated in their formulation. It is a measure of the insights of the leaders that, even without large-scale participation, the views of the membership may be accurately expressed.

When so few people take advantage of the opportunity to participate in consultation, does this automatically signify that consultation has been inadequate? Or is it sufficient for people to be asked? Considering the Cape Town situation, therefore, is the municipality to be criticised because it asked less than 20% of the people to comment, or is the test of adequate consultation that at least 20% of the population should have participated in the process? How widely is a municipality consulting when it places a single notice of negligible size on a somewhat obscure page in the local newspaper? It is, after all, inviting members of the community to view the policy and comment.

We must accept that if we wish to have credible consultation it must be done with representative bodies that themselves must be trusted to have done their best to consult with the people they represent. Thus ward committees, chambers of commerce, unions and any other legitimate stakeholder bodies are critical. But while public meetings, during which presentations are followed by comments from the floor, are perfectly valid in the context of information-sharing and should be held frequently to promote a better-informed society, they are deficient mechanisms of consultation, except among those who need to claim the numbers to reach the 20% benchmark.

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