More and more, governments around the world are using the internet to become more open, inclusive and responsive. They spend significant amounts of money in designing and developing new, technology-enabled systems to reach out to ordinary people and get them involved in governance processes.
The principle is that 'e-governance' is open, inclusive, available to everyone.
But does e-governance live up to the hype?
Governance in the time of the Internet
In the Philippines, residents spend an average of 6.2 hours every day on a laptop or desktop, and 2.8 hours on a mobile device, the most out of any country in the world.
Capitalising on the Filipino obsession with social media and the internet, the government is turning to the internet to engage with more people, and open up its doors and its data to citizens across the country. The Department of Budget and Management's Bottom-up Budgeting interactive website is at the forefront of this effort.
The website aims to be a comprehensive resource for citizens who want to access public budget data, and make this available to anyone, any time, any place.
Here, anyone can access, analyse and scrutinise the government data, giving ordinary people the opportunity to monitor project implementation and the budgeting process, and 92% of the country's municipalities and cities are signed up to share their data.
But there are a lot of potholes on the 'information superhighway'...
During our recent brokering event in Baguio City, a mountain town on the Philippines’ Luzon island, representatives from civil society organisations came together and shared their stories. It's clear that the road to e-governance is not smooth.
In northern Luzon, people face a two-hour commute over rough roads just to check their e-mails. When they get to a local internet cafe, they are faced with slow and unreliable connections and unexpected power outages. E-governance seems far away when reliable connection happens once a month.
Once a website or an application is built, the users will come: this is a common assumption in e-government platforms, and it was probably applied to the OpenBuB portal. But while the website was created with the citizens’ best interest in mind, one main aspect of the project seems left out of the equation. Web access remains a challenge in remote areas of the Philippines, and a significantly large amount of the population is excluded from e-governance.
Overcoming the challenges
Despite the challenges in using and accessing technology, the participants of the Baguio City event agreed that there are lessons that can be learned from their experiences, and ways to harness the huge potential of e-governance:
- Defining purpose. Technology must not be seen as an end in itself. Setting up a website or designing a mobile application is not the ultimate goal. The benefits for the end-user should be the focus.
- Cascading available technology. There are already many established portals and databases sharing government information. But the question still remains on how all these can be useful at the grassroots level.
- Face-to-face interaction matters. People in far-flung communities still prefer face-to-face communication – mainly because this is how trust is built. While online interactions may soon become the default means of communicating, trust and engagement is still being built through other means. Don't try and introduce new technology until you've explored the technology people are already comfortable with.
The meeting in Baguio City reminded me of my favorite Dr. Seuss’ quote from The Lorax, “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing's going to get better. It's not.”
You have to go to where the people are - and in the Philippines, that's not just online.
Project beginnings are not always easy. The government developed OpenBuB and looked at numbers of people connecting. But not how, and not who.
The OpenBuB platform is a start, but needs to be tailored for audiences across the Philippines if it is truly to be inclusive. Understanding how online and offline communication complement each other is key, and the more government and citizens work on solutions together, the closer they will be in achieving their shared vision of good, inclusive governance.
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