President Obama going digital

Redesigning Institutions for the digital Era

this essay is part of my submission to the 2017 South American Business Forum. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Government institutions reminds us of bureaucracy and slowness. Maybe we can define it as being the opposite of agile. For many, dealing with government is something to avoid. They see as a nuisance in their daily lives, to no benefit of theirs at all. In other times, when we really need it, it seems that it’s impenetrable behind piles of papers and a neoclassical facade. In a decade that communication is always faster, for both people and companies, government seems to be a remnant of the slow-world. In the age of connectedness, it seems distant and isolated from the people. But that’s not what I’ve got from my last experience with a local representative.

I’m from a small city located in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. A young man elected for the first time in my City Council changed my mind on what Government-Citizens relationships should be like.

I questioned him via facebook about a problem that was happening in my city and he answered me with a detailed report about the situation. This level of helpfulness was not what I expected. After that, I thought, why not have this for all institutions? That interaction via Facebook made me rethink how we interact with Government and how our current system can be improved

Why not have a government that allows for citizens to participate in more active ways on a daily basis, and not just once every four years? We need a government that doesn’t seem impenetrable for the people, specially for those in the lower classes. We need to rethink how we organize government and bureaucracy. There has to be more channels of communication with society. We live in the age of connectedness, why not use our most powerful tool for connecting people, then internet? In what ways can we use the internet to make possible for more people to interact with government and other essential needs? In the same way, how can the government harvest the power of internet to provide more accurate, well designed services for the population? Technology paves the way to the solution of the problems, for sure. There’s no way to do this without some coding. But creating an app or a website won’t suffice. To really solve the problem, we need to go further and redesign the government’s approach to the People

Government and power structures

We can say with confidence that Power and access to knowledge and information are closely related. In today’s world, specially in the developing countries, we still have flaws in the democratic system (when there is a democratic government). Many of those flaws could be avoided if citizens had more access to government information. People must know what’s being voted in congress, or how’s the budget for the fiscal year, and how these decisions affect their lives. The lack of information eliminates the majority of people from the political process. This strategy of alienating citizens has been used by oppressive regimes for decades. The “Voices of the poor” effort by the world bank showed us that the world’s poor greatest desire do not want charity from NGO’s, but opportunities and knowledge. They want the power to dictate their own development.

Changing the paradigm through Information and Communication Technology (ICT)

ICT radically changes the social order. It changes society as it opens knowledge and information sharing highways. Anyone with a node of access to the internet can not only to know what’s happening, but can verify what others told him. ICT also creates new places to interact, inside the digital world, that ignore any bureaucracy or hierarchy that exists in the real world. It creates previously unseen interfaces that completely tramples geographical and traditional barriers. We already live in this world that is as much digital as it is real, and that transforms our way of interacting with loved ones, businesses and entertainment. It’s no different when it comes to how we interact with government and institutions of power.

The digital governance is manifesting in a variety of places throughout the world, even so in the developing countries, albeit a weaker presence. For example, in Brazil we have, an information portal that follows the “Broadcasting model”, which aims to disseminate public domain information about the Federal Government to most people as possible. In a more refined sense, we have the natural disasters warning system operating in India, that delivers crucial information as fast as possible to endangered citizens.

The problem is: even when governments go digital, we are not getting better with democracy. The trust in institutions is lower than ever, popular discontent with representatives is high and people still see government as a problem to be solved, rather than a place to build our shared future.

If people don’t feel like their voices are being heard, we cannot call it a true democracy. And that’s why the mere implementation of ICT won’t solve our problem. We need to go deeper and redesign the institutions, for the connected era.

Responsive Government

A good governance sustains itself in two pillars: Knowledge based decision making and Responsiveness to it’s citizens. ICT helps us in both challenges. It provides better tools in data collection and analysis, contributing to a more fact-based world view. It helps us move away from biased and partisan politics. In civil society, new fact-checkers and media observatories are spreading, increasing public awareness, powered by social media and the internet.

In the World’s bank research, the world poor complained about the lack of not only knowledge, but also opportunities to grow. We need to redesign government in a way that allows the people, specially those in the risk groups, to participate in the decision making-process that will affect their lives. Every person should have a voice in their own development, and in our future. And that’s not something that ICT can fix by itself. We need to embed in all power structures and institutions the notion of responsiveness.

In a responsive government citizens engage and participate comprehensively in their own development process. To be a responsive institution is to answer citizen concerns directly, to engage with them in a way that ensures they feel truly heard.

Combining this concept with the power of ICT we can have a mass-reaching responsive government.

In Brazil, 58% of the population have access to the internet, most of them being mobile users. If we go offline, we can reach even more: 77,9% of Brazilians uses mobile phones. Our world is connected.

Still, government institution makes us feel powerless. Piles of paper mediate the often time-consuming interaction between public services and people. The problem is even worse to the lower classes: they often lack the documentation and information needed.

Business, shopping and social interactions are a button away. Meanwhile, access to public services, healthcare, education and politics are locked behind an outdated system. No wonder we have public unrest spreading the globe.

Let’s implement a model that sees citizen as an equal.

Government officials must interact with the population, listen to their requests and worries, keep us informed. This practice shows that the government is not only a ruler, but a partner in our growth as society. Congressmen will be able to create quick polls to check public opinion; Public officials may deliver targeted messages to interest groups; Politicians can answer live questions, addressing population face to face; We could file taxes online; schedule an appointment in a public hospital via an app. These are only a few examples of what our new system will offer.

If done correctly, paying attention not only to the technology but also to the system, we will have a massive shift in society. Government and public services access to all citizens, no matter you are. Digital is democratic. It tramples hierarchy.

A true democracy in all senses is one of our shared purposes as humanity. We yearn for a more humane and empathetic way of leading our society. That won’t be fulfilled unless we make the effort to fortify our institutions, creating the necessary means for massive participation. Embedding responsiveness in this process allows us citizens to build together our society. Let no voice be forgotten.

Thanks for reading. Any constructive criticism is welcome, and I would be very grateful for it. If you feel like it, please leave a comment. Bye!