How Technology and Data Support Better Governance

We have been rolling through a lot of conferences and tech events lately, the most recent one being the Global Conference on Citizen Voices for Enhanced Development Impact hosted by the World Bank in Washington D.C. last week.  This gathering focused on innovative uses of technology and open data to support better engagement between governments and their citizens. From interacting with elected officials on Twitter, to finding details online about a new public infrastructure, digital media has made the world a smaller place, as citizens can now access information, track delivery of services and sound off about community problems all with a click.

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim spoke to the crowd about the “science of service delivery” and how technology has broken down walls and created more transparency in how organizations are run today.

“Whether it’s bed nets, or medicines, or textbooks, or roads, we know a lot about what could make lives better—but not always how to ensure that these goods and services reach those that need it most,” Kim said.  “If we can help governments and other actors overcome these failures in implementation, we could truly ‘bend the arc of history’ and rapidly bring millions out of poverty and boost prosperity.  Citizens can help provide critical information for solving complex delivery programs.”

The World Bank has not been known for its transparency.  As a matter of fact, many critics have said the organization has a long history of not being accountable to the public.  Kim himself acknowledged that he protested the Bank 20 years ago about these issues.  Since he took over the Bank last summer, Kim has pushed hard internally with a more open agenda with many new initiatives.  The first ones being the access to Information policy, Open Data, and the Open Knowledge Repository – all of which are designed to increase access to information at the Bank and to make its research as widely available as possible.  Also, the Bank created the Global Partnership for Social Accountability last year, “which is providing knowledge and financing to civil society organizations to strengthen citizen voice in development,” Kim said.

Jay Naidoo, Chair of the Board of Directors and the Partnership Council of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), reminded the audience that while technology has created unprecedented access, it is not the total picture and these issues still need to be put into perspective.

“I haven’t seen a country run by Facebook or Twitter yet,” Naidoo said.  “The reality is that technology platforms are one part of the equation of building democracies and building deeper engagement.”

Jean-Claude Kibala N’Kolde, Minister of Public Works for the Democratic Republic of Congo, spoke on how mobile technology has supported better governance in his country.  The DRC has suffered a great deal due to the many civil wars and human rights abuses going on within the country.  Many Congolese living in poverty felt left out of the process of how their communities were financed.  Recently government officials started organizing community meetings in one area as an experiment to discuss budget issues with citizens through text messaging.  Citizens continued to interact with these officials on their mobiles about other problems in their communities.

This new open relationship has been a success for both the government and its citizens.  N’Kolde said citizens are now paying their taxes because they realize that the government can’t afford to pay for infrastructure issues on its own.  Also, the government has reassessed its budget priorities based on citizen input, such as building a bridge the citizens want instead of a school the government wanted to build.

“There was a real responsibility among the citizens, as they felt empowered,” N’Kolde said.

There were many other examples throughout the conference about Government 2.0 globally. Luis Revilla Herrero, Mayor of La Paz, Bolivia, discussed how residents in his city play a proactive part in improving their quality of life and urban improvement services through the True Neighborhoods program, also by way of mobile technology.  Ana Guerrini, a city official from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, spoke about how citizens are pressuring government officials on Facebook to do better inspections for dengue fever.

The private sector was also well represented at the conference with lessons for public officials.  Craigslist founder Craig Newmark mentioned that he created his popular site as a simple way to connect with others.  Newmark views himself as a customer service representative first and spends an hour a day just dealing with customers.

“You don’t need to do big things; just what helps others get through the day,” Newmark said.  “Listen, act, repeat forever.”

Luther Lowe, public policy director at Yelp, said that his organization spends a great deal of time thinking about how to be “transformational.”  This week, Yelp launched a service where users can view public health inspection records for restaurants in San Francisco.  To his surprise, the city’s public health department is not to pleased about this data being exposed because it might create friction between inspectors and restaurant owners.

This brings up other issues about transparency: how open is too open?  Are there certain things that just should not be available to everyone online?  Are there limits to good customer service?  Is there a threshold customers and engaged citizens must meet to get the public and private sectors to pay attention to their needs?  Is there a threshold public and private sectors must meet to be accountable to those they serve? These are questions we will continue to find answers for in the months and years to come.  Many conference attendees online are also open to this discussion as well.

“Technology is like democracy itself: deeply flawed, but the best we’ve got so far,” tweeted Frontline SMS.

Today’s correct answer is tomorrow’s wrong answer,” tweeted Edith Jibunoh of the One Campaign.  “Be flexible to the changing answer.”

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