A few months ago, the United Nations Member States adopted the Sustainable Development Goals through which accountability and participatory democracy have been listed as key priorities among all levels of public administration — from cities to national governments — to promote peaceful, sustainable and inclusive societies.
Accountability and participatory democracy are deeply tied together. As governments are increasingly being held accountable by their citizens for their plans and the way they manage their budget, public administrations need to make sure their actions meet the needs and expectations of their constituents.
While citizen engagement is not a novelty, so far initiatives — in most cases — have been single-purpose and siloed among departments. In order to achieve sustainability, governments need to implement thorough, inclusive and effective engagement strategies.
Innovative technologies can help governments achieve the SDGs through the implementation of end-to-end civic engagement strategies fulfilling the main five phases of a participatory process cycle: information gathering, Informing and enabling dialogue, decision-making, political action, and follow-up and results dissemination.
By addressing these five phases and actions they entail, government leaders will improve citizen’s access to information and services; demonstrate efficient and effective government; increase their transparency and accountability while involving citizens in decision-making processes.
In order to make sure they meet their citizens’ expectations, governments must first understand them. Social media monitoring and analysis provides new means to discover different communities’ real interests, concerns and sentiments, turning data into actionable information.
Informing and enabling dialogue
Informing citizens on government services and performance is also key to guarantee not only transparency and accountability but also to educate citizens before involving them further in decision-making processes.
Publishing government budgets and performance data through e-democracy portals will not only allow citizens to get insights on what their governments are doing but will also enable them to comment and share opinions with one another and with their elected representatives.
The Parliament of Botswana for example, implemented an online portal that allowed citizens to get access to its project updates, highlights and achievements and to interact with their MPs, submit issues and participate in polls. By strengthening and leveraging the citizens’ voice, technology increases the efficiency of Botswana’s parliamentarians.
Enabling two-way communication between governments and citizens, however, falls short if no concrete actions are taken.
Creating channels for open discussions between citizens and their representatives via the innovative use of online debates, the sharing of opinions on government and citizen promoted projects and the organization of citizens consultations will empower public bodies to make decisions by taking into account the opinions of their constituents.
The rise of participatory budgeting initiatives carried out through online means demonstrate how powerful technology can be used to strengthen citizens’ voice in decision making processes.
In a recent survey in Brazil sponsored by the World Bank, an 8.2 percent increase in total turnout was tied to the introduction of online voting for participatory budgeting initiatives. The report also recognized that the use of online voting helped mobilize citizens who otherwise would not actively engage in these processes.
Last April, city leaders from Girona, Spain, used online voting to expand participatory budgeting. The result of adding a new voting channel resulted in unprecedented citizen engagement with an increase of over 100 percent in citizen participation. Seventy-five percent of the votes received were actually cast online, via computers, laptops, smartphones or tablets.
Political action, follow-up and results dissemination
Once a decision has been made and the resulting projects implemented, these same technology will also help government leaders keep a pulse on the population’s sentiment regarding these initiatives and to communicate on the results achieved, leading to greater transparency, accountability, and citizen experience overall.
Election periods are traditionally when citizens´ voices are heard the loudest. With innovative technology it is now possible — and crucial — for political leaders to enable the channels that will permit them to continuously listen to and maintain an ongoing dialogue and engagement with their citizens if they look to be more accountable and gear towards more peaceful, sustainable and inclusive societies. By accompanying traditional practices with the intelligent use of technology, governments will undoubtedly achieve these goals.
Democracy Matters is a global conversation hosted by Devex, in partnership with International IDEA, to discuss accountability as a central element of deepening democracy. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #DemocracyMatters.