Technology Salon

Washington DC

Sponsored by

a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

Technology Approaches to Improve Governance and Civic Engagement

The terms Civic Tech and GovTech have rapidly gained popularity over the past few years. Our recent Technology Salon – What Technology Approaches Improve Governance and Civic Engagement? – explored how digital tools and solutions can be used to further improve governance and citizen engagement. We had a lively discussion, informed by four thought leaders with experience in the Civic Tech, GovTech, and ICT4D fields:

Precursors to Success

Our discussion started with an overview on how far we’ve come the past decade with increased access and connection, the open data movement, and the push for an open internet. These are foundational elements that although still have challenges (e.g., access is still not completely equitable), they have created the ability for technology to help hold governments accountable and increase citizen engagement.

That said, throughout the conversation several key precursors to success were identified for Civic Tech and GovTech solutions:

1. Political will or champion

One of the most important elements is whether a government wants to listen and respond to citizen feedback. If there is no interest, then it is extremely difficult. If there are a few within the administration, a champion, or even better – a commitment from the top – then the chance for success vastly increases. One example provided was the early days of the 311 service in New York City and how instrumental Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership and commitment was to its success.

2. The right resources

At times, the political will is there but the right resources to respond to citizen requests are not. This can be particularly true in low or under-resourced environments. This is also true in terms of providing citizens, or citizens having access, to the right resources themselves. This can include user-friendly tools, digestible information, and clear processes by which to communicate with their local representation.

3. Quality, timely, and relevant data

Related to the point above, access to the right data is extremely important. Digital tools are simply a tool and can be used to spread both accurate and inaccurate information. We’ve seen an increase in misinformation or “fake news” over the years so ensuring that citizens have the right information is important. On the flipside, governments also need accurate and representative data to adequately respond to citizen needs and provide services, which can still be a challenge.

4. Incentives

Increased connection does not always lead to results. It is hard to engage citizens on “boring” topics or if there is a high level of apathy. In addition, if citizens don’t see results or the government violates their trust (even once), then it is hard to keep them engaged. Platforms like Ushahidi were mentioned as people can easily see their inputs live and in a very tangible way.

These Barriers Sound Familiar

For anyone working in the ICT4D field, the barriers and challenges discussed were not a surprise. Data privacy and security, equitable representation and access, capacity building, donor influence, and meeting the user where they are (or not forcing the use of new fancy technology) were all mentioned.

Furthermore, other topics within the ICT4D field are highly related to the success of Civic Tech and GovTech initiatives. For instance, digital services (e.g., financial, health), data for decision making, digital inclusion, and digital identity all come into play. Makes me wonder about those silos we tend to work in.

Our Responsibility

Towards the end of our discussion, attention turned towards defining our role as implementers. The first as technical assistance, the second as a translator and guide for others looking to implement digital solutions in this space.

Local solutions and programs tend to not only be more appropriate for the given context, but also more sustainable. By fostering local ownership and innovation through the provision of technical assistance, we can further this type of progress.

In addition, with so many years of design and implementation experience, we can also provide guidance for those looking to implement digital solutions for the first time. This includes being realistic and even self-critical for the best solution may be the most basic (e.g., radio) or not digital at all.

By Cathryn Meurn, Director, Client Services at Vital Wave

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