October 2006

Citizen participation in the era of digital development

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Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have revolutionised multiple facets of human life in a variety of ways. Many of the most visible types of organic impact undoubtedly take place in the domain of government, where the use of ICTs have led to the modernisation of public administration, improved governability, and the stimulation of local ICT industry development. However, this has also offered the opportunity to redefine traditional concepts and methods of citizen and democratic participation.

Many things can be said about e-Government and the new roles played by governments in the digital development. However, there is a need to concentrate on two aspects. On the one hand, the possibilities that arise as a result of e-Government strategies to broaden and strengthen democracy and facilitate the reclaiming of the public sphere by citizens. On the other hand, the role of government in addressing the unequal access, use and impact of ICTs.

In Latin America, the initiatives adopted to improve e-Government primarily focus on improving online services and state administration. However, ICT and e-Government initiatives do not generate greater participation in and of themselves

e-Government initiatives in Latin America

Most Latin American countries have begun e-Government initiatives. All of them place notable emphasis on improving state managerial and administrative processes and the quality of online services offered. Improving methods for citizen interaction has taken the back seat. This has nothing to do with transferring the movement and participation of people to the virtual realm, but rather, essentially involves improving the ability of citizens to participate in the administration of the state and make informed decisions regarding their own development. In short, it has little to do with increasing citizen participation in democratic processes.

The characteristics that stand out in this approach are access to information, transparency, accountability, increased communication channels and direct dialogue between citizens and civil servants and parliamentarians, among others.

Improving administrative processes such as electronic voting is often mistaken for electronic democracy processes, thus overlooking the components of e-Government that really generate conditions for more effective citizen participation. ICTs and e-Government initiatives do not automatically imply participation. It is first necessary to ensure democratic participation mechanisms in the real life, which will later be strengthened in the virtual realm. No e-Government initiative will be as successful as expected in a democratically deficient environment. In this sense, an electronic government can create spaces and mechanisms that would enable different social actors to debate issues – in a transparent environment and on an equal footing – that impact their conditions.

Regardless of the existence of e-Government projects that emphasise electronic democracy or the lack thereof, Ecuador has witnessed how ICTs are transforming citizen political participation. An example of this is the massive use of mobile phones and email on behalf of citizens who organised the mobilizations that deposed President Lucio Gutierrez in April 2005.

e-Government initiatives should organically and systematically open spaces for the voices of citizens to be heard and their proposals channelled into solutions that are appropriate for the majority. Instead of confronting the government’s power, effective citizen participation supported by electronic democracy initiatives can open channels to jointly build fairer development conditions as well as an environment conducive to the full enjoyment of human, social, political and economic rights.

Clearly, the promotion of access to information, transparency, accountability, and the battle against governmental and institutional corruption through the use of ICTs provides opportunities for a more active, intentional, prepared and participative citizenship. This also fosters participation in individual and state decision-making processes.

Internet and e-Government

Despite the well-known fact that the Internet is the most powerful medium to implement an e-Government, it is neither the only medium nor the most suited for all communities, groups and social sectors and their respective contexts and needs. It is important to be aware of this. It is particularly true in countries like Ecuador, where the majority of the population is still unable to benefit from Internet access, not to mention broadband, specifically).

The design and implementation of e-Government projects based solely on the Internet and cutting-edge technology can deepen inequalities, limit the quality of participation, the improvement of living conditions and increase the already existing distance between the government and the population. Furthermore, the more complex and sophisticated an initiative becomes, the greater are the costs. This neither guarantees its positive impact nor ensures its sustainability in terms of the generation of profits and interests. Many of the resources that would be wasted on complicated initiatives could be used to improve ICT infrastructure, establish capacity building programmes etc.

There is currently a broad array of technological and electronic options and alternatives that can overcome the immense structural, resource-based and usability barriers that persist in developing nations. An example worth citing is the Internal Collection Agency’s e-Broadcasting initiative in the Philippines. Taking advantage of the high level of mobile telephony penetration, a state agency implemented a system to confirm electronic tax payments using text messaging. This was done to counteract the emission of false receipts. Within 38 hours, the system provided taxpayers with a confirmation that the payment had been deposited in the banks that are authorised by the Collection Office.

Some experts maintain that developing nations that expect using ICTs to succeed in making governability progress need to choose ‘intelligent intermediaries’ during the early phases of the implementation of the e-Government. Intelligent intermediaries are nothing other than models of government – administrative and managerial – that include individuals as intermediaries between citizens and the electronic application, service or infrastructure, in order to facilitate access and its broadest and most effective use possible. The intermediaries can be both civil servants and specialised professionals or even non-governmental organisations. Interesting examples are one-stop shop offices and call centres as well as the telecentres in which members of the community have been trained to support the supply of electronic services and the use of ICTs for participation in the public sphere. Another example, in Ecuador and other countries in the region is the use of radio – community radio in particular – in rural areas to provide Internet access.

In great measure, ICTs facilitate the inclusion of populations, groups and communities that are marginalised and isolated from public life. e-Government initiatives directed towards rural and marginal urban areas, and towards groups that have been traditionally disadvantaged, such as indigenous populations and women, should aim at improving their quality of life and work. They should also be directed at reducing poverty by providing the incentive of participating in political processes, the design of effective mechanisms to attend the most pressing needs and opening-up of spaces for the insertion in the labour and productive sphere.

The government plays a fundamental role in the definition of adequate strategies targeted at reducing gaps in access to ICTs. It is also in a central position to broaden ICT infrastructure with public resources, identify the most adequate and viable options for its national and local circumstances, and to incorporate capacity and skill building as an essential component of its strategies and initiatives for the management and effective use of the electronic tools and services it puts forward.

Instead of confronting the government’s power, effective citizen participation supported by electronic democracy initiatives can open channels to jointly build fairer development conditions as well as an environment conducive to the full enjoyment of human, social, political and economic rights

Varying e-Government objectives in countries

e-Government objectives vary in each country but in all cases should transcend the mere efficiency of governmental processes towards methods that allow social, political and economic changes, thereby furthering human development and social justice. Better, more efficient, services are not enough, and neither is reducing the bureaucratic load of public institutions and designing new architecture for state administrative processes. It is imperative to change the concepts of governability, representativity, participation, and ultimately, transform the relationship between the government and its citizens. This should be done in such a way in which the state pursues its economic and social development in an environment respectful of cultural diversity and human rights.

Building a national vision of e-Government should be structured from the bottom up. In other words, it is based on the establishment of concrete multisectoral consultation and participation mechanisms, which formulate and implement a flexible strategy that is in sync with the political, economic, social and cultural realities of each country. It is a continued and slow process in which all the interested parties should join-up, drawing thus on small initiatives and lessons learned,  and fomenting innovation and creativity.

The e-Government strategies adopted will not be effective if they are not directed towards supporting human and social development. They will also need to first cater to issues relating to ICT access and the ability to use ICTs effectively in an environment in which the security and privacy of citizens are guaranteed. They will also lack the desired impact if the use of ICTs in strategic development areas (education, health, agriculture, industry, etc.) is disregarded and if the legal and regulatory framework in place is not properly adjusted.

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