Communities need information, particularly information about what government is doing, and how people can access government services. In South Africa, this information doesn’t flow so much as trickle — and often a paper-based trickle at that!

The fact that communication between government and us citizens is so poor is arguably part of the reason why we are reportedly second only to China in terms of the number of social protests per day (and they have 20 times our population).

In many areas, government is doing more than people know, but the lack of data sharing and access to basic information helps incite anger and frustration. We lack useful information in electronic format about everything from police and ambulance response times, waste disposal, street light repair, and pothole repair, not to mention bigger issues like the provision of good social housing, the construction of new medical clinics, and data about school performance. better. Here in South Africa, anger often translates into marches, strikes, barricades and sometimes riots,. People have figured out that there is nothing like a well organised, small riot to open up the information flow.

With this background in mind, the recent Knight Commission report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital age, is helping our Iindaba Ziyafika project in South Africa. We’re approaching some of our information flow priorities with fresh insights. The deep thinking that has gone into the Commission’s report — and its unusual citizen-centric perspective as opposed to focusing on the typical ‘how do we save newspapers or journalism’ approach — is refreshing and useful.

The three big areas the commission explored, with a U.S.-only focus, are: “Maximizing the Availability of Relevant and Credible Information,” “Enhancing the Information Capacity of Individuals,” and “Promoting Public Engagement.” Below are some reflections on the first area; some thoughts on what we’re doing (or trying to do) in terms of the second and third will follow in the next few weeks.

Making Information Available

First, in terms of “Maximizing the Availability of Relevant and Credible Information,” we’ve been struck by how much information there is about government, and yet how historically inaccessible it has been, even in advanced democracies like the U.S. That much is clear from the Commission’s work. And, in South Africa, much of this information is even less easily available, and rarely in digital form.

The same is even more true in the rest of Africa. Basic information — the building blocks of representative democracy — such as knowing the timing of a local government body meeting (a city council, or municipal executive), what the agenda is etc. can be seriously hard to come by. And if available, getting it as Word document is often just as challenging.

There are other challenges, too. Though the press, and newspapers in particular, have had the resources to attend government meetings and access agendas, minutes and other documents, they have only reported on a small subset of the available information. This was usually what was deemed the most interesting through the usual but often fairly arbitrary agenda setting of editors.

There’s a lot more wrong with the traditional news reporting approach than just narrow subject selection. Most of the time, reporting is about ‘what’s happened,’ rather than what’s still coming up, and why we should sit up and take notice. In other words, the news is so often about decisions made, and issues that we can often no longer do much about.

We’re finding that a more proactive, anticipatory (and participatory) journalism is more essential in areas where the municipality or local authority does not make unmediated information easily available.

As Peter M Shane, the executive director of the Commission mentioned in a subsequent speech about the Knight commission’s work:

A community without public accountability suffers from unresponsive government. Neglect is common, corruption all too plausible. Money is wasted, as government officials are slow and awkward at doing what other governments do quickly and nimbly. Voter turnout is low, not because people are satisfied, but because people are resigned.

Sadly, these words could describe almost all local government in South Africa. Some are better than others, and our area, the Makana municipality, is one of the most efficient and effective. But they are not communication champs. And part of their relative efficiency, if this is fairly measured, relates, I believe, to having an independent newspaper, Grocott’s Mail, doing journalism in our town for 140 years without a break.

In 2008, Grocott’s Mail even took the local municipality and mayor to court after they withdraw local government advertising in the wake of a series of critical stories about financial mismanagement by the council. The case was big deal, and widely followed in South Africa. The council didn’t have a leg to stand on, which is why they eventually settled out of court. But this only happened after our dogged local paper was deprived of critical advertising revenue for many months.

Asking Citizen Journalists to Step Up

Taking up the Knight Commission’s cudgels to maximise the amount of information (and ensure it is both credible and “the right information at the right time”), we’ve been focusing on finding the information and getting it out. To do this, we’re embracing citizen journalism in more complex ways than before, including exploring different ways of training, editing, nurturing, rewarding and recognizing our citizen journalists. We’re doing this because, like many small newspapers, we don’t have the labour power to cover all the important civic issues well. We’re hoping our citizen journalists will be more able to do the work of ferreting out existing data and information.

Most times, the information is there — it just takes a really patient person to find it, stand in queues, whine, beg, plead and push… It is not for the easily discouraged, nor is it easy to do for our few busy professional journalists, each of whom has a few pages to fill virtually on their own.

So how best to inculcate a desire (and impart the necessary skills) to push and prod and persevere to get information out of every level of the state? And what does one do when a lot of the information and data is in the same format as it was before the digital age? Will people volunteer to photocopy the daily handwritten police reports and capture them in a digital system? Or do we try and encourage local government to catch the digital wave faster than it has so far?

In my next post, I’ll share more of what we’re doing, and share some big milestones and next steps for getting more useful news and information in and out. This includes ideas for allowing citizen journalists to join the usually jealously protected daily news diary meeting at the paper, and some ideas of how unearth and digitize much needed sources of information in our small town.

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