Turning Facebook likes into action

How technology was used to upend Cape Town’s punitive water tariff.

One of the biggest challenges faced by social activists is transforming a Facebook “like” or Twitter re-tweet into real-world action. In the advertising world it is referred to as the conversion rate – taking a person from being merely interested to actually casting a vote or making a purchase.

This “conversion rate” has spawned entire industries along with consultants, armies of specialists and researchers to help drive commerce.

For activists and nonprofit organisations around the world finding a method that helps the public engage successfully on issues is the goal.

Rob Hutchinson

Johannesburg resident Rob Hutchinson, who helped launch one of South Africa’s most prominent nonprofits,  the Organisation for Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA), believes he may have just found South African’s “sweet spot”. And like all good ideas, it’s quite simple. It all started in early January when Hutchinson had just left OUTA after a public fallout with the executive, most notably OUTA’s managing director Wayne Duvenage.

Meanwhile, Cape Town was in the midst of its worst water crisis in 100 years, with strict usage conditions imposed on residents who drastically reduced their personal consumption. Their anger was highly visible on social media when the city proposed adding a punitive charge of R150-a-month to the water bills of 52,510 Capetonians in order to plug the R1.6-billion loss in revenue the council had suffered from reduced water consumption. The public submission deadline was 15 January 2018.

Hutchinson, along with Sandra Dickson, a Cape Town-based activist, saw the opportunity and launched www.DearCapeTown.co.za – a website dedicated to activating public participation on local government issues in Cape Town.

The concept was simple. Residents would visit the site, input some basic details, name and email address, and make a submission in the comment box. When they pushed “send”, an email would go directly to the designated City of Cape Town email address, and a copy to their own email address. The city would receive the email as if it had been sent by the resident. The website offered a brief summary of the issue and cut out the hassle for the resident to find the contact details. It also made it incredibly easy to share on social media under the punchy “Dear Cape Town” name.

The uptake was incredible. Over 55,000 people used the site’s comment portal in the space of two weeks and the city was forced to abandon the tariff, acknowledging that it was because of the submissions.

Cape Town activist Sandra Dickson

“In 2014, while at OUTA, I went through the process of making a submission concerning an amendment to the AARTO Act (Administrative Adjudication of Road Traffic Offences) and I realised how cumbersome the process was. We then put a simple form on the OUTA website to help people make submissions but we never took the idea further. It was this idea I revisited and reinvented,” said Hutchinson.

The Dear Cape Town site has since facilitated 43,000 comments concerning the city’s draft water bylaw amendment and more than 37,000 comments concerning the draft 2018/19 budget, the latter running into 1,860 pages at last count.

“Through the database of registered users we asked residents who had the skills and time, to please interpret the draft budget for us.  Several took on the task, breaking it down into sections. This allowed us to provide a summary of the budget on the site and allowed Capetonians to make informed submissions,” said Hutchinson.

At a special council sitting in May the city council acknowledged having received a huge response to matters concerning electricity, water, rates and social issues and promised to incorporate this into the budget.

Despite this success within such a short period, Hutchinson still believes the city has not responded to the complaints in the spirit of the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (PAJA) – an empowering piece of legislation that requires government to respond to individual comments. 

“We must complain, we must challenge. We must go through the channels. They must comply. The city knows it will become a game of ‘if you have the money go to court’. If government agencies do not take the PAJA seriously then mass public participation will be seriously weakened.”

Hutchinson has  since launched Dear websites in all major cites, “from Tshwane to eThekwini” (Durban) as well as Dear South Africa – an overarching website taking on issues of national interest, which in May alone had 18.6 million visits. He has also entered into a partnership – which is still being developed – with the Thuli Madonsela Foundation whose focus is to “defend and deepen democracy”.

Within this network he is building partnerships with what are termed “expert coalitions” in various spheres ranging from water to education. The most successful coalition group is the “Energy Expert Coalition”, led by energy analyst Ted Blom who is also a former OUTA employee who led the energy portfolio.

This energy coalition is a voluntary group of people skilled in the industry who have given expert advice to South Africans on issues such as Eskom’s proposed 33% increase (114,000 comments have been generated) to the National Energy Regulator’s bizarre attempt to regulate solar panels (25,180 comments submitted).

The Dear… sites are helping the public to comment on, among others, the proposal to change the names of several South African airports (12,202 comments). But by far its biggest success has been to help submit 192,000 comments concerning the Constitutional Review Committee to examine Section 25 of the Constitution to see whether it is possible to “expropriate land in the public interest without compensation”.

Hutchinson said there are at least 10-15 new public participation processes underway every month across the country. “We have found a way of overcoming apathy in a very strange way. I’ve struggled for over a decade to get people to turn a Facebook ‘like’ into action. This approach has embraced the armchair activist. At least 30% of people who visit our sites participate. We have a database of over 600,000 active people. We don’t attempt to direct the public to a specific type of comment, although in some instances, the proposals are just so outrageous it is difficult not to do so,” he said.

With a background as a designer and creative working in the competitive Johannesburg advertising space, Hutchinson said he turned his attention to public activism as a labour of love. “It hasn’t been easy, with no consistent salary coming in and my wife has been very supportive. However my philosophy has always been that if your decision to do anything is solely based on monetary reward, it’s the wrong decision. I always ask myself if I can do something without money. I then tell the joke: ‘What’s the quickest way to quieten an activist? Give them a job’.

 “The whole idea is to encourage collaboration. Everything must come from the communities. My vision is that it will become the missing link between government and society. The only way to make sure this happens is to make it accessible and free. It can only lead to a better country that is transparent.”  

• The public can pledge support for or donate to Hutchinson’s cause at www.DearSouthAfrica.co.za or any of the related Dear websites.

Rob Hutchinson
Sandra Dickson
Dear Cape Town
Dear South Africa
public activism
expropriation of land without compensation
public participation
Constitutional review
South Africa
Cape Town water crisis
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Submitted by : MLH on 2018-08-07 16:30:04
Like. Love.
Submitted by : Patrick Dowling of Kommetjie on 2018-06-25 19:08:00
Big thanks to Rob and Sandra for upping the public participation game. This is such an important step for democracy. It helps address the problem of apathy and lack of understanding, but also provides the tools for getting people involved. The possibilities are huge. It'll be much more difficult for tiers of government to rely on the old tick-box, lip-service approach to involving citizens. Viva.

Patrick Dowling


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