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How to Use Technology for Citizen Participation

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The model process has citizens holding their governments accountable to deliver quality public services in a transparent and responsive manner. At the recent Salon on How Can ICT’s Support Citizen Engagement with Governments? around 30 thought leaders debated the best ways to empower citizens and governments to define what a should do, express that desire, see it enacted, and rate the result.

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While the discussion was lively and off-the-record, I did have a few takeaways that should give you a pause and have you thinking for a moment on citizen engagement and technology:

Participation Prerequisites

Before any technology can be introduced, you need to know what the existing relationship is between governments, its constituents, and civil society. Are they antagonistic, complimentary, or indifferent to each other? The answer has a huge impact on project approach.

Note that civil servants, who are usually long-time government employees looking to maintain status quo, may have competing priorities with politicians, who themselves have shifting priorities depending on the election cycle.

Interestingly, the group decided that democracy is not a prerequisite for citizen participation. All governments seek some level of legitimacy from those it governs, and that need for legitimacy increases as you go more local – “all politics is local”, holds true regardless of national government structure.

In fact, there are two main reasons why participation at the local level is the greatest across countries:

  • A name not a number: At the hyper-local level, politicians and citizens know each other intimately, often living side-by-side.
  • Direct accountability: Citizens directly feel the impact of local government actions, or inaction, which isn’t always true of national actions

Now “local” is relative and can be defined based on different needs – a school’s catchment vs. a school district catchment – but it was agreed that participation projects should always start as local as possible. Also, urban areas were easier than rural areas as you have a greater population density and population from which to start raising awareness.

4 Drivers of Participation

One of the participants defined four reasons that citizens get involved with governments and seek to create change:

  1. They care about the issue
  2. They feel they can change the issue
  3. They feel its “easy” to get involved
  4. They feel that their efforts are noticed

These sound deceptively simple, yet often once citizens feel all four and start participating, they have a challenging path to scale. Those that are most passionate about an issue are not always the ones with the resources or capacity to change that passion into action, and action into results. So how can technology help bridge those gaps?

citizen participation resources

Technology for Participation

Before the Salon, we developed three pages of resources to inform ourselves on the use of technology in citizen participation. I suggest you read those first.

Then, before you consider a technology intervention, understand the technology capacity of the citizens. Know if they are computer literate or mobile phone users, and what level of digital literacy and technology sophistication they possess. Then analyze the same technology traits in the government and civil society to find the similarities and the gaps.

Youth can be keen on using Facebook or Twitter on their mobile phone to document and coordinate, but many organizations and most governments are still paper-driven. This isn’t always a problem. Paper is still a legitimate survey tool and can be less threatening than a video camera or Google Map.

In fact, choice architecture can play a major role – the way (and device) used in presenting a choice or action can influence the outcome.

Positive Participation Example

One aspect of citizen participation is participatory budgeting, where citizens have a direct dialogue with the state to decide where to spend government resources. Brazil has used participatory budgeting for many years now, and recently experimented with an online version:

In 2006, the government dove into its first e-democracy experiment [PDF], allocating additional funds for citizens who participated online. This portion totaled about one-fourth of its regular participatory budget. Instead of face-to-face meetings, the online platform educated citizens through text and rich multimedia. Online forms permitted extended dialog between citizens, experts, and politicians, and a dedicated staff member provided timely e-mail responses to direct questions.

Among countries with e-democracy measures, none are “even close to the results of [Belo Hoizonte's] e-participatory budgeting both in terms of citizen participation and positive impacts in policy-making processes,” says Tiago Peixoto. Overall online civic engagement dwarfed traditional offline participatory budgeting and accounted for a sevenfold increase in votes cast over the prior year when no online component was present.

We also heard an additional result from this activity that should impress you: 50% of those who participated went on to social media to persuade others to take action and 60% of those that interacted with the online participatory budgeting process were previously “politically dead” – they had not participated in government activities before.

So when done right, technology can have a huge impact on citizen participation.

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