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Talking to Your Government: Who’s Actually Listening?

What do we think of when we hear the phrase “civic participation”? Do we think of long lines at the polls to vote or sitting in on local government meetings? Technology has completely changed the dynamics of conversation over the past decade. Anyone can send a message to President Trump with a few clicks on Twitter. But, what has this done for how citizens talk about government and talk to government to improve their lived experiences?

Following the rise of civic technology globally, several platforms have emerged aimed at galvanizing citizen voices to prompt governments into action. Some notable platforms have brought about tangible change within communities whereas others tend to fail because they become a one-sided conversation with little engagement and response from government, either due to design or apathy.

Here’s our top 5 civic engagement platforms:

  1. vTaiwan
  2. CitizenLab
  3. I Change My City
  4. SEMA
  5. GovChat

vTaiwan
A proof of concept, an experiment, a success: vTaiwan is consultative process combining online and offline engagement to bring together government, elected reps, academics, private sector, civil society and citizens on significant issues facing the nation. The self-organizing participatory process combines tools such as a website (vtaiwan.tw), meetings, hackathons, and web tools such as timelines, email updates and access to vital and clear information for all parties, in turn amplifying transparency and collaboration.

According to the website, “vTaiwan is also an open space, it is a combination of time and space run by participants to work on cases brought in.” The entire consultative process is updated continuously and published in an open, structured and searchable format. Some of the most notable achievements to date include resolution of a disagreement on internet alcohol sales and ratification of items on ride-sharing (think Uber) regulations.

CitizenLab

CitizenLab is a civic engagement platform on which citizens co-create their city through collaborative decision making. The platform facilitates two-way communication between a community and its citizens. Citizens can post ideas, discuss them with each other and upvote the best ideas. On the other hand, the city uses CitizenLab to consult the opinion of its citizens via polling or to ask their creative solutions to an existing problem. Rather than a solution dedicated to one city or country, the SaaS platform can be launched in any interested town, city or country.

A significant case study is the use of the platform in Liège. More than 14% of the city’s 200,000 inhabitants used the platform by submitting over one thousand ideas and over three thousand comments. The city made an impressive effort in communicating the platform through social media campaigns, dedicated email newsletters and personal presentations by the mayor to neighbourhood committees. Eventually, 8 ideas were selected and 95,000 votes were cast!

I Change My City

Janaagraha, a non-profit organization in India, aims to strengthen democracy by working for citizen participation in urban local government. The organization runs a web platform called “I Change My City”, a social change platform that allows citizens to post complaints such as potholes or inappropriate garbage disposal. Local authorities can then review and resolve any pending issues. Additionally, together with the central government, the platform powered a mobile app and has become the official platform for Government of India’s flagship sanitation program, the Swachh Bharat Mission. Over 8000 engineers were trained to use the app to resolve complaints in real time. According to Bharath Visweswariah, Director, Investments at Omidyar Network focussed on Governance and Citizen Engagement, “since its launch in 2016, the app has logged over 26 million complaints from over 7 million citizens across 2,100 cities with an over-90% resolution rate.”

GovChat

GovChat is a civic engagement platform in South Africa which is accessible online, on any mobile handset and feature phones. The platform is available on the web, through USSD or on Whatsapp. GovChat has developed a WhatsApp bot which interacts with citizens and enables them to report issues, make enquiries, and rate services. The platform is collaboration of a number of government bodies such as Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, the South African Local Government Association (Salga), the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency and the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA) and was first introduced in 2016 as a web-only platform to enable two-way conversations between councillors and citizens in their communities. In the first 72 hours of launching, GovChat saw more than 8 000 engagements taking place. We are yet to see numbers on the number of complaints and resolutions.

SEMA

A feedback delivery tool, SEMA uses five emoji buttons ranked from angry to happy to allow users to rate government service delivery in Uganda. The team hopes that the data analyzed from these responses will, in turn, lead to increased accountability and lowered corruption. Most of SEMA’s clients are government institutions, such as the Police and the Kampala Capital City Authority. SEMA also utilizes two other feedback tools: an Interactive Voice Response phone line that records citizen’s opinions, and face-to-face interviews at the offices, to further supplement the feedback data. Since March 2018, SEMA has gathered feedback from over 15.000 citizens in Kampala making use of different public services.

Some of the biggest challenges with citizen engagement platforms?
- Difficult ensuring data security and trust in the platform
- Securing technology expertise to build a robust platform
- Sustaining Customer Support and Satisfaction over time
- Platform usability and user experience
- Prior experience working in citizen engagement

In a report prepared by Accenture, most citizens were interested in feedback to know that their issues that had been resolved while a large proportion wanted a one-stop centre related to non-emergency government services.

Do we need more governmental portals and platforms? Can we have too many societal platforms? Yes and no. We need platforms that allow citizens to come together to engage, self-organize and make collective decisions for the betterment of their communities. We do not need more platforms without interoperability, or those that frustrate citizens further due to inaction by government or lack of appropriate communication on resolutions.

Do you have a success story platform you’d like to share with us? Comment below!

Written by Neema Iyer, Founder at Pollicy

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Re-designing Government for Citizens

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