Odd-Helge Fjeldstad
28 October, 2012

Trust in local government authorities and social influence affects people’s decision to pay for local services.

It is widely believed that non-payment of public services by citizens is due to their inability to pay as a result of poverty and other socio-economic conditions. However, an analysis of two surveys conducted in South Africa, shows that compliance behaviour among taxpayers was not only based on the ‘ability to pay’ but trustworthiness of the revenue enforcement mechanisms and social influence. This explains the variation in compliance behaviour among local authorities in South Africa with similar socio-economic characteristics.

Firstly, the trustworthiness of the revenue enforcement mechanisms and the penalties imposed on defaulters affected citizens’ compliance behaviour. Yet, in a number of cases the way the law was enforced and the severity of sanctions appeared to have contributed to undermine trust in local authorities and fuelled resistance: the more severe the sanctions, the more widespread and organised resistance to paying rates and charges. Excessive use of sanctions and force was more likely to fuel resistance than compliance. Thus, non-payment could to some extent be interpreted as a strategy of public resistance and opposition against the authorities.

Secondly, trust in other citizens to pay their share seemed to be important. In particular, knowledge of the compliance behaviour of others influenced the perceived probability of being detected for non-payment. The larger the fraction of the local population that was seen as not paying, the lower was the perceived risk of being prosecuted. The attitude of local political leaders with respect to payment was also found to be important, for instance by legitimising non-payment through their own behaviour.

Furthermore, the interaction between social networks and overlapping collective activities, such as in Soweto with respect to electricity charges, had in some instances, made it difficult for individuals to pay their charges without provoking reactions from their non-paying neighbours and other members of the community. Procedural fairness and the existence of a social norm to comply increased quasi-voluntary compliance. Hence, (non-)compliance is not a question of state-society relationships, but also a question of relationships between citizens, and/or between groups of citizens within local communities.

Although there were no clear linkages between payment and service delivery, there seemed to be a perception among respondents that the quality of services had deteriorated in recent years. If this perception persists, it may impact on future willingness to pay, and lead to a further erosion of people’s trust in the government’s capacity to provide expected services.

The analysis was based on the results of two comprehensive national surveys, which focused on payment of municipal services in South Africa. The surveys were conducted by the Centre for Development Support (CDS) at the University of the Free State, and the Helen Suzman Foundation, respectively.