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Can citizens really engage with government actors in Ghana – and where does tech fit in?

Blog | March 20, 2015 | Monica Nthiga

What are the opportunities and challenges of citizen participation in good governance in Accra, Ghana?

That’s the question asked last month by representatives from civil society organisations, the private sector, technology enthusiasts, media, academia and government institutions who convened at the University of Ghana to explore the role of citizens in influencing policy and governance in Ghana. Programme Officer Monica Nthiga reflects on her experience facilitating some of the discussions and looks at key questions raised.

Participants engage in talks at the University of Ghana

Participants engage in talks at the University of Ghana

Ghana is currently facing a number of challenges within its service delivery sector. The country is plagued by a huge energy crisis characterized by continuous power outages, which has, among other things increased costs of operation for businesses.  The power outages are also a symbol of the lack of trust Ghanians have in their government’s ability to address the crisis.

What opportunities exist for citizens to engage with government?

Ghana signed onto the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in September 2011 with an objective of supporting innovation and research that will empower citizens to engage with government, voice their feedback and demands, and secure government responses. Through the National Information and Technology Agency (NITA), the government of Ghana is working to make data available to the public and create avenues where ordinary people can see what their government is doing, and have a forum for raising their issues around service delivery. However, many of our discussions raised questions of about whether or to what extent open data is the answer to improved citizen participation in governance and effective service delivery.

Provision of information is only half of the story. Certainly, without the right data and information flow, citizens have no base to monitor government commitments. But, without effective and interactive platforms that give citizens the opportunity to actually question, engage with and complain to leaders – and mechanisms that incentivize the leaders to respond – data goes nowhere.

There are not enough effective platforms. Citizens have not been involved and the majority is not aware of the role they need to play. 

Abigail Larbi, West African Media Institute

Now or never?

At the University of Ghana discussions, many of the group worried that the window for effecting change is closing, and that poor service delivery is slowly being accepted by societies as a norm. The resulting apathy is evident among citizens who feel that their voices are not heard, and that corruption and weak government institutions will continue to endure no matter what action they take. Corruption, wastefulness and a lack of transparency is no longer shocking. Somehow, changing the system becomes ‘the other person’s’ problem.

Speaker at the University of Ghana discussions

Speaker at the University of Ghana discussions

What can we do?

The theory is, get the data right to get development right. Ghana needs to develop mechanisms for monitoring trends such as population growth, public expenditure and household consumption on basic utilities. With the right kind of data governments are able to forecast and plan better, and citizens have a better chance of knowing what services should be available and mobilise better to hold duty bearers to account

However, this cannot only be a technical exercise. To combat apathy, and change the incentives for both citizens and government to interact on this issue, it requires a wider partnership, with a greater remit.

Citizens, civil society and the private sector, in partnership with the government, need to build understanding among themselves about how to ensure service delivery, citizen engagement, accountability and transparency at the local and national level. This needs to be a supportive relationship where possible, because governance issues are not tackled in a vacuum.

There is also a need for more avenues to exhibit success stories, to inspire and provide role models who can highlight where citizens are taking the lead in enforcing duty bearers into accountability and transparency.

Just as open data doesn’t necessarily lead to open government, so there are two sides to citizen action where the inspiration is as important as the information. As the discussions in Ghana drew to a close, it was clear that we need to think outside of our usual patterns to tackle a problem that really is becoming a norm.

The discussion was facilitated by Making All Voices Count in partnership with GhanaThink Foundation.

Representatives from diverse sectors convened at the University of Ghana to explore the role of citizens in influencing policy and governance

Representatives from diverse sectors convened at the University of Ghana to explore the role of citizens in influencing policy and governance

 

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