The Durban Answers Project: Connecting Citizens with Government

To the average citizen, South Africa’s government structure or “the who does what” of government is ambiguous and counterintuitive, and just doesn’t make sense. This problem isn’t special to South Africa. In fact, government structures, policies, legislations, and bureaucracy is complicated across the globe, and many citizens have a hard time navigating these structures, let alone understanding them. For example, with a rapidly globalising world and more people traveling internationally than ever, society is required to know about the legal requirements of both leaving and entering a country. Policies around international travel are constantly changing with new and increasing threats of global terrorism, changing economies and populations, and a somewhat shifting space for cross-cultural communication. For example, think about (or read) how Brexit impacted international travel policies. Further, with more shifting boundaries, war-torn countries, and refugees seeking asylum, the already complicated international traveling nuances are changing globally and quickly. In South Africa, a recent change in documentation required for children traveling in or out of South Africa without their parents proved confusing both locally and internationally and caused an unexpected backlog of requests to the Department of Home Affairs. Both the confusion and the backlog stemmed from the complicated stipulations of a traveling minor and the requirement of the elusive unabridged birth certificate.

The cause for confusion and complicated nature of the new legislation is in the varying scenarios that require different (more or less) documentation. Not only is this confusing locally to South African nationals or immigrants living in South Africa, but it is also confusing to other countries trying to interpret what is required to enter the country. Members of a French traveling agency union agreed that “the laws are very confusing to us” and don’t seem to take into account the legalities of other countries. For example, French citizens have two birth certificates and there was uncertainty about which one to carry. Locally, the confusion around the new legislation spurred frustration for South Africans and “red tape” for those wanting to travel to South Africa. However, out of this confusion came innovation to provide an easy tool for citizens to navigate the new legislation for traveling minors and get access to quick, easily understood answers for their specific scenario.

The “Child Visa Checklist App” developed by car-rental group Drive South Africa was launched to “help simplify the process by ‘cutting through the legal jargon’ and helping travelers know exactly what they need when traveling to and from the country with their children.” This app takes users through a simple 3-question step-by-step survey that allows users to describe their specific scenario. Options range from a child traveling with both parents to an unaccompanied child with adoptive parents and many others in between.

child_app

After the user follows the survey-like process, a comprehensive checklist is populated with the necessary documents for the user’s specific case.

travel_docs_child_sa

Now you may be wondering what the point of this discussion is and why Open Data Durban would be interested in an application for traveling minors. Open Data Durban’s interest is not in the application itself (although it is very cool!) but in the potential, an application like this shows for streamlining other state and government-related processes, making engagement with bureaucratic red-tape and government entities a much more intuitive and effective process.

Our interest in this isn’t random or unfounded. In fact, a new trend of government website overhauls and more citizen-oriented navigation processes is taking off worldwide. A number of local and national governments in the United States have redesigned their websites to be citizen-oriented, aimed at optimizing access to information, usage, UX design, and practicality. States such as Utah, Arkansas and Indiana have been recognized as some of the best government websites, with innovations such as Arkansas’ Gov2Go app, that aim to deliver “hyper-relevant information and services to state residents.” Some US cities are also following suit with local sites geared towards providing detailed answers and information about city services (e.g. Oakland Answers, Honolulu Answers). The logic around streamlining these websites originates from the UK.Gov website overhaul. In 2013, UK.gov set the precedent for government websites to shift from the bureaucratic maze of government structures articulated on the web to more user-oriented experience for the “modern relationship between the public and the government.” UK.Gov “creates a benchmark for which all international government websites can be judged on” and more and more governments have followed suit. So what does this mean to make a government website more user-oriented? DigitalGov recently reported on FutureGov’s review of the best government websites in the world and compiled a list of characteristics that are seemingly setting a new bar for government websites.

futuregov_egov_success

However, while this trend is taking off worldwide in other countries outside of the US, the uptake in developing countries has been less prominent with insufficient know-how, infrastructure, and resources to overhaul and redesign government websites to the same caliber of developed countries. FutureGov’s review of the best websites in the world list places like the UK, Australia, US, New Zealand, Norway and Asia, none of which is in the developing world. Our interest in this global trend is in bridging the uptake gap between developing countries and the developed world. As a small city facing civic tech lab, Open Data Durban is in a unique position to leverage internal tech resources for web development, public and urban policy knowledge, and close linkages to both our community and our City (proper) to deliver an unprecedented government website in a developing world context. The role for Durban Answers is exciting and continues to grow. From getting a driver’s license, to getting answers on property rights, Durban Answers aims to be a tool for the entire spectrum of Durban’s vast and diverse population needs. Imagine if all government services could be this good:

whatifallgovernmentwasthisgood

While Durban Answers is envisioned to be a question and answer format (for now), the potential to marry similar automated responses with citizen’s questions and queries is possible. Looking to our fellow partners for innovations and ideas, there is so much we can learn and tweak from the trend of user-centered government services. Sheba Najimi, founder of Code for Pakistan and former Code for America fellow who developed Honolulu Answers, is playing an active role in bridging the gap between tech-driven tools for service delivery and their application in developing countries by developing civic technology applications for the citizens of Pakistan.

code_for_pakistan

Durban Answers is in the early days of ideation and development, but we are very aware of the significance this tool carries in a context like South Africa. Durban Answers has the capacity to bridge gaps in knowledge and access, capacitate citizens from all walks of life, and democratise knowledge about rights, citizenship, government services and overall, make our city more inclusive and accessible to the entire citizenry. Watch this space for details to come on crowd-sourcing for questions and answers and how you can get involved in the creation of Durban Answers.

Your blogger for all things Durban and all things Urban,

- Sophie

Sophie McManus is ODD Inclusive Cities Fellow, who enjoys teaching yoga in her spare time.

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