Oh for a responsive state!

‘Active citizenry’, as punted currently by all and sundry, is a worthy goal. If every South African and other-than-South-African living in the country was an ‘active citizen’ (which is not likely so let’s say that if just 25% were active citizens), the country would be a different place. But I believe that such a situation will only come about if we have a responsive state.

On that score, I just wish that officials and politicians in the City of Johannesburg would have the courtesy to respond to emails that are sent to them by citizens? If I, as an ordinary citizen, take the trouble to send an email to a CoJ official or politician on a matter related to the governance of the city, surely I deserve to get at least an email in return saying that my email has been noted and will be attended to or will be responded to in due course? I have literally hundreds of examples of emails that I have sent to the CoJ on a variety of issues and over 90% have not been responded to in any way whatsoever. The only thing I know is that most of them have received the messages because the software my computer tells me so. But I have had almost no responses.

What does this lack of response say to me as a citizen? It says that I and my issues are not important. It says that the people I am emailing do not think me worthy of attention or respect. If I walk up to someone in the street and greet them, they are unlikely to ignore me. Even if they do not like me or resent the fact that I have addressed them, common decency and common practice (across all cultures) requires that they respond. So why can we not apply the same principles to communication by email?

Of course, some people will say that they are inundated by emails and they do not have time to answer each one. If they did, they argue, they would never get their work done. Firstly, I have worked as a director in government myself and, in spite of my heavy load of work, I always tried to make sure that I responded to every email that was directly addressed to me in my official capacity. Secondly, the main function of a public servant is to serve the public and part of that service is to respond to queries. So responding to an email is in fact part of the work of a public servant. (If I’m not mistaken, responsiveness is one of the Batho Pele principles which are supposed to guide the conduct of civil servants). Thirdly, if answering emails does prove to be a challenge, particularly for those without secretaries or personal assistants, it is very easy to set up your email system with an automatic return message which can acknowledge the receipt of an email, give further contact details, advise people on the correct channels to follow when raising an issue, thank people for taking the trouble to send the email and thereby take responsibility for what is happening around them, announce that you will be out of office for a period of days or weeks, or advise people on when they might expect a response to their query. I honestly do not think this is too much to ask.

In their professional and private lives, public servants deal with the private sector. Often their contact with the private sector will be by email. I am sure that, if the emailed companies do not respond, the public servants who sent the emails become irritated, frustrated, angry. In short, they would not be satisfied with the lack of response. Why should we as citizens then be prepared to accept this lack of response from public servants?

I do believe that half the battle to win over the hearts and minds of the people can be achieved simply by practicing this simple courtesy. This is not rocket science. It’s plain and simple common sense.

I am sure that someone reading this will be able to point to an email to which I have not responded in the past. Let me apologise in advance if that is the case. But that will not provide sufficient reason to challenge what I am saying. I am not talking about individual instances of an email being overlooked. I am talking about my overall experience of trying to communicate with government, more particularly the City of Johannesburg, with whom I otherwise have a good working relationship. I am also not saying that all public servants are culpable. There are some very good, responsible and responsive public servants and I applaud them for that. May they serve as an example to others.

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