Where’s the ‘Civic’ in CivicTech?

Are we Building Civic Technology for Inclusive Community Participation?

The ideology of community participation and development is a crucial topic for any nation or community seeking to attain sustainable development. Here in Uganda, oftentimes when the opportunity for public participation either in local planning or in holding local politicians to account — the ‘don’t care’ attitude reigns.

Three key factors influence community participation in local governance — access to information, ability to use information effectively, and awareness of citizens’ rights, roles and responsibilities. However, we have seen that information is not readily accessible or effectively disseminated to the majority of citizens and therefore is not fully harnessed for planning, monitoring and evaluating government projects.

There are a myriad of reasons to explain this inadequate access to information and these include; limited and costly infrastructure for handling information, lack of skills in relation to how and when to use information, lack of analytical and simplification skills among those disseminating information. Information dissemination must be planned and carried out in a targeted and systematic way, if citizens’ awareness of their rights, roles and responsibilities in service delivery is to be achieved.

ICT has the potential to enhance citizen advocacy and engagement, and to increase government transparency and accountability. In many countries, ICT has been deployed to enhance communication and to improve access to important information. This has been achieved through services aimed at information provision, election monitoring, lobbying & activism, voter registration, results reporting and votes tallying and citizen policing. However, there still needs to be more focus on creating a closed feedback loop between citizens and the government. It’s true that there might be a ‘don’t care’ attitude from citizens, but it’s often caused when effective feedback loops and trust in the public services have eroded.

Community participation has increasingly become one of the most hotly debated concepts in urban planning and development. According to The Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) report on the ICT tools being used to promote transparency, accountability, and citizen participation in Uganda, it was learned that various ICT based tools were in use, with traditional print media being the most popular at 77% closely followed by radio. Social media was used by 68% of the organisations surveyed, and were thus seen as adding to the effectiveness of the internet as an enabler for civic participation and democracy monitoring.

What works?

Some of these tools include Ask Your Government Uganda, a platform built to help members of the public get the information they want about from 106 public agencies in Uganda. U-Report developed by UNICEF provides an SMS-based social monitoring tool designed to address issues affecting the youth of Uganda. Mentioned in a previous blog post, Parliament Watch brings the proceedings of the Par­lia­ment of Uganda to the citizens. The or­ga­ni­za­tion lever­ages tech­nol­ogy to share live up­dates on so­cial me­dia and pro­vides in-depth analy­sis to cre­ate a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing on the busi­ness of Par­lia­ment. Other tools used include citizen scorecards, public media campaigns and public petitions. Just recently, we have had a few calls to action to get people to sign petitions, with somewhat lackluster results.

What doesn’t work?

Although the usage of these tools have dramatically grown, there is still a lack of awareness and consequently, community participation. In order to understand the interventions which the Government of Uganda believes are necessary for sustainable urban development, it is important to examine the realities pertaining to urban areas and their planning processes. There are many challenges in deploying community participation tools based on ICT such as limited funding and support for such initiatives, low literacy levels, low technical literacy, a large digital divide, low rates of seeking input from communities in developing these tools, lack of adequate government involvement and resistance/distrust of change by both government and citizens. Furthermore, in many of these initiatives, a large marketing or sensitization push is needed to let citizens know that these services exist for their benefit.

There are great minds who have brilliant ideas to try and bring literally everyone on board though civic engagement. When you have a look at their ideas, you will agree that indeed they might make a reputable service and bring about remarkable change in different communities. However, the biggest question has always been, “How do these ideas get executed and adopted by these communities that they target”? These ideas suffer a major setback of lack of inclusivity to enhance community participation. This still remains a puzzle for most folks that have these ideas.

Slowly and surely, we have spread the civic tech gospel to the governments and their partners that the development of civic technology will enable a new way of being. Not just within a government system, but in society. However, most makers and game changers have forgotten the vital stakeholder who are the community. Civic tech aims to solve the problems facing the civitas, the people, who are still the source of the legitimacy for all the moral claims that we’re making on volunteers, on philanthropic funders, and on governments.

But civic technology can’t stand alone.

If we make these brilliant ideas with the power of civic technology, we should have the community at heart. To be used for social good, a product needs to be directed, and for its greatest, most transformative impact, it needs to be directed by those who will benefit the most from the creation of the social good that being the community.

At the many civic tech meet ups and dialogues that I have attended, there has been the aspect of sharing on the various tools that have been made. However, the aspect of community inclusivity continues to be a factor that lacks in the whole civic engagement programs.

If we set out to be Civic technologists to change our societies we need to control the narrative in either making room for “community technology” alongside “government technology” in the halls of civic tech — or we don’t. There needs to always be a provision that we follow to have the community greatly involved in civic engagement.

Dear Civic Technologists, “Let’s Build with, not for.”

If we are to make ideas that help community, we have to build and come up with ideas that help communities. Not impose something on them. Civic technologists need to prioritize the skills, wisdom, and contributions of our peers and neighbors. Our technical expertise alone is not enough to ensure that the social goods we seek to create are the right ones or that the social transformations we hope to bring about “for everyone” will indeed be distributed equally.

We’re not doing civic technology right if we are not stepping out of our own contexts and into the contexts of the communities that we work for. 
~
Laurenellen McCann

Written by Pius Enywaru