Accountability Innovations We Love No. 6: E-Participation

E-governance initiatives, heavily touted as the ICT revolution took off in the past decade, have generally not lived up to expectations or functioned as effectively as hoped by many citizens. A number of these initiatives famously drew in significant amounts of public funds but produced online systems that were difficult to use, over-priced and based on clunky back-end architectures. Many of those projects that did work were not so much examples of e-governance as “i-government”- through which authorities put information online and made important strides in terms of transparency- but not necessarily in terms of accountability. The net effect has largely been the digitization of processes rather than transformed governance.

The key to an effective e-governance system is that the government concerned works from the citizen upwards, rather than bureaucratic procedures downwards, to ensure that the experience is efficient and tailored to specific needs- much like retail websites. The best way to do this is not through structured systems that provide stove-piped information and feedback, but creative, personalized tools which are based on integrated information and process alignment among government ministries.

In South Australia, the Just Ask Once initiative, for example, increases public access to government information and services by creating channels of information and services organized around citizens’ needs, rather than by government structures or departments. By integrating government resources and providing a single source of information and point of contact for citizens, Just Ask Once allows the government to respond to citizens more directly and more effectively.

In Korea, which won the UN’s global e-governance 2010 and 2011 awards, citizens can customize the central online governance portal (for both national and local level issues) to their needs through entering their age, gender, location, and service of interest; and can search by theme and subject. The tools that then pop-up categorize information by websites, services and news; and users can engage in everything from petitioning the government, to complaining about government services, to paying their taxes and applying for patents online. E-participation in the system is enhanced through free mobile apps downloadable from the portal that are matched to key services, knowledge hubs and employment databases.

Important efforts are now being made to share some of this learning around e-participation too. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs releases a global annual report on e-government and draws out some of the key e-participation initiatives. Estonia- well known for its e-governance efforts- has partnered with the Open Society Institute and the UNDP Regional Support Centre to take this further by establishing the e-Governance Academy, which works to create and share knowledge concerning e-governance, e-participation and the development of civil society.

Technology is only a tool, of course, and not an end in itself- e-participation does not fundamentally change the interaction of governments with citizens, it just modernizes it. Important questions have to be answered when considering these kinds of initiatives in the developing world too- in countries with a culture of secrecy- such as Liberia- how can we encourage governments to manage information as an asset that it holds in trust on behalf of citizens? How can we bridge the digital divide in societies where internet access is still limited? In places like Cape Verde, where e-governance is becoming entrenched through the government portal NOSI, how can we facilitate the next step to e-participation? Clear value for citizens and governments can be seen in intelligent e-participation services, however, and the scope for adaptation to context is significant. That’s why e-participation is an accountability innovation we love!

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