Using mobile phones to fix the holes in local government

This post was written by Prof. Hannah Thinyane, Professor of Computer Science at Rhodes University in South Africa.

I live in Makana Municipality, one like many others in South Africa that is struggling to provide adequate basic services, such as water, sanitation, and electricity, to its residents. After a particularly bad spell of water service delivery, I sat down with a friend of mine, Debbie Coulson, to brainstorm what we could do to help solve the problem. My research looks at the use of mobile phones for development, and Debbie had previously worked for the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) at Rhodes University. PSAM, an International Budget Partnership partner, engages in ongoing, systematic monitoring of public resource management.

We came up with a question that we would try to answer: Can we use mobile phones to increase citizen participation in local government? In particular, can we use mobile phones to facilitate dialogue between residents and their municipality about service delivery? We didn’t want to gather the information to provide “band-aid” fixes; instead we wanted to see if citizens could gather information via mobile phones to engage with government processes using PSAM’s social accountability monitoring (SAM) methodology. SAM involves citizen engagement in each of the five basic governance processes: strategic planning and resource allocation; expenditure management; performance management; public integrity management; and oversight.

MobiSAM is our answer. MobiSAM is a polling framework and platform that allows municipalities to ask residents questions like “do you have adequate water pressure?” and automatically collates reported cases of poor services and provides a visualization mapping these. The municipality then has the ability to respond to registered users via SMS or email to update them on reported cases or to inform them of planned or unplanned service delivery problems.


There are a number of other SMS-based systems available that support local governments in gathering “real time” information from their residents. The difference between those systems and MobiSAM is that MobiSAM provides “real time” feedback to the respondents, allowing them to see other cases reported in the region.  Also mobile data is currently significantly cheaper than SMS, reducing the cost of participation to residents.

It is our hope that the feedback from the MobiSAM application will be used, along with other traditional sources of information, to monitor local governments through the five processes in the SAM methodology. For example, strategic planning and resource allocation requires information about the needs of a community. Such resources as census data or that from other population surveys could be used to determine a community’s needs for certain public services; but these data are often out of date. Using MobiSAM, citizens can be asked questions in a timely fashion to prioritize their needs. Also, logs of previous MobiSAM questions can be consulted to provide a review of the services that were provided over a period of time, in order to highlight areas that experienced the lowest levels of service delivery. In order to facilitate such use of information collected by MobiSAM, we have been training journalists from a local newspaper, Grocott’s Mail. This training revolved around how to use the SAM methodology to monitor local government. Since participating in the training sessions, staff at Grocott’s have written a series of stories focused on Makana Municipality’s budgets and plans relating to water services, as well as water service delivery issues in Grahamstown.

We recognize that a key component of the success of MobiSAM will be the municipality’s response to reported outages. We have been working closely with Makana Municipality to  provide training to ensure that there are no technical or staff capacity problems that would affect the municipality’s response time.  We will also provide ongoing support during the one year pilot study.

We experienced a number of challenges in working with the Makana Municipality to set up the project, including the unavailability of planning and budgeting documents; inaccessibility of municipal staff; and feelings of distrust from Makana Municipality officials regarding our intentions. Addressing each of these challenges led us to shift the focus of the MobiSAM project from monitoring particular service delivery projects to monitoring all the basic services that local government provides. After 13 months, we were finally able to sign a memorandum of understanding with Makana Municipality on how we would implement the MobiSAM pilot. Makana Municipality has now started monitoring reports from MobiSAM. In the first couple of months of the pilot, we have been working with the municipality on a daily basis, ensuring that they are confident in how to use the system, and helping them to integrate it into their existing modes of operation.

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