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GovChat comes to WhatsApp

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 26 Sept 2018
Andries Nel, deputy minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs.
Andries Nel, deputy minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs.

To improve engagement between citizens and local government, the Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) ministry yesterday unveiled GovChat on WhatsApp.

The collective brainchild of COGTA, the South African Local Government Association (Salga), the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency and the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA), GovChat was introduced in 2016 as a Web-based application to enable two-way conversations between councillors and citizens in their communities.

Yesterday marked the official launch of the service, with it being made available on WhatsApp as well as via USSD.

Deputy minister of COGTA Andries Nel told ITWeb the launch of GovChat on WhatsApp is a key tool towards a responsive and accountable local government, as well as making state officials instantly accessible to citizens.

"This service is powerful because it takes forward the first pillar of our back-to-basics programme, which is putting people first and at the centre of the life and function of our municipalities. It makes it possible for two-way engagement between citizens, public representatives as well as the officials that work in local government.

"GovChat and COGTA have entered into a partnership and formalised that partnership through a memorandum of understanding. GovChat has developed the technology side of the platform and COGTA has linked the technology platform to municipalities and other spheres of government.

"The programme is already online and operating in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Northern Cape and Free State. We hope next year that it will be fully rolled out in all the other provinces."

WhatsApp advantage

Nel said with GovChat now operating on WhatsApp, over 16 million South Africans will have access to more than 10 000 public representatives supporting over 30 000 public facilities and services in communities across the country.

Last year, the SA Social Media Landscape study revealed WhatsApp is the most downloaded app from the Google Play Store for Android phones in SA, with user numbers approaching the 20 million mark.

Through GovChat on WhatsApp, citizens will be able to rate and report issues relating to service delivery challenges to their councillors, make requests and give back to the community.

The service delivery issues range from anything pertaining to schools, hospitals, police stations and a range of municipal services around water, sanitation, roads, etc.

The deputy minister stated citizens can immediately start communicating with their respective councillors as soon as the GovChat WhatsApp service number has been loaded onto a phone.

The application will then prompt you and ask whether you want to evaluate a service or report a fault, and it also has the option of giving back to your community, whether with a donation or a service, he continued. "It really encourages the notion that president Cyril Ramaphosa has been speaking about of an active citizenry and spirit of volunteering to make our country better."

For those that don't have phones that enable WhatsApp, there is the option of USSD functionality, he noted.

In regards to the response timeframe when a report has been made, Nel said that will depend on the municipality. "The app itself is very interactive...the responses are immediate and it immediately indicates to the user who their councillor is and to whom the fault is being reported to.

"The amount of time it will take to resolve an issue will depend on the nature of the issue, and what's involved and needed to fix the problem. The important thing is that the GovChat app gives COGTA a dashboard to be able to review all of the complaints, queries and suggestions.

"We can at a high level monitor all of that and it is very important to our back-to-basics programme in terms of which we have put together district support teams consisting of engineers, town planners, financial and governance experts that we can deploy to municipalities that are distressed or dysfunctional."

Public buy-in

Commenting on getting citizen participation on using the service, Nel noted COGTA plans to embark on a "massive awareness campaign" to inform the public about the platform.

He added that his department not only wants to create awareness but train the public representatives and officials who will be receiving the data coming through the application.

The training will focus on how they should follow up and interact with the public, he stated.

Ayanda Dlodlo, minister in the DPSA, has also reiterated government's commitment to use technology to help accelerate public service delivery, while also encouraging public engagement.

"We will accelerate our strategy of being early adopters of technologies that promise to reduce the social distance between our people and their government; technologies which improve service delivery, enhance transparency and build trust between government and citizens," Dlodlo pointed out.

The minister said innovation has been identified as a critical catalyst in the development of South Africa. If harnessed and supported, it can create immense value.

"Innovation will be a key determiner of how we improve the way we deliver services to all our citizens, wherever they may be."