ICTs and Governance: Learning Through Interactions

Understanding precisely what role Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) play in governance, and how, is very important to our work. Over the past 18 months, we have interacted with organizations at country, regional, and international levels that utilize and promote the use of ICTs in governance. These interactions have served as a learning opportunity for us, since the use of new technologies in governance processes in developing countries is not one with a long (recorded) history. But while these interactions have helped us to understand better how ICTs can have a good chance of delivering positive outcomes in –governance—and in many other areas—they have also helped us to share knowledge and resources with diverse actors.

And while our own understanding of the role of ICTs in service delivery, in encouraging participation, and in promoting governance is steadily changing, we have noticed that the way different stakeholders view this role differs rather widely. There are various facets to the matter. Some look at it from the access and affordability angle; others from the utility side (value and functions of ICTs). There are also cultural issues, which in some instances hinder the use of ICTs by women, and which many—particularly at the grassroots level – are eager to point out. A related one is the low level of literacy generally and in particular about using ICTs.

Not forgotten are social issues, such as who influences use of a technology in a community, or the use of technology for personal benefit versus use for community benefit. Here, from various interactions, it seems that where individuals will have direct, tangible, personal benefits from using a technology, they will be more likely to use it – which explains why in Uganda there are 8.9 million mobile money users, or ardent Facebookers, as well as thousands that read newspapers online, and many others that do online sports betting, but then the numbers for those engaging in online civic/ political actions remain low.

In many countries, ICTs are presenting a number of opportunities and alternatives in the delivery of services from both public and private sectors. The value delivered over these technologies is growing, especially in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. Because of these capabilities, the demand for transparency and accountability through the use of ICTs is increasing.

As part of its iParticipate Uganda project, CIPESA has conducted a series of citizen journalism trainings to empower communities in the use of ICT, especially social media, to report on governance issues. Based on a citizen journalism training manual we developed, CIPESA has equipped community members in three districts with skills for seeking and disseminating information related to reporting and monitoring of service delivery concerns. The trainings were conducted at grassroots-based partner centers, the Northern Uganda Media Club (NUMEC), Busoga Rural Open Source and Development Initiatives (BROSDI) and the e-resource center in Kasese.

These trainings also help to clarify what community workers understand about ICTs and governance, and what they see as possible areas where ICTs can promote governance. But beyond the trainings, many obstacles – sociocultural, political, and economic – stand in the way, and in our region there are few success cases that can be used to promote the uptake of ICTs in governance. And so we have realized, again, the need to promote access and awareness. We have also realized that government has a big role to play in this regard, itself being a champion of the use of ICTs, and having in place policies and practices that encourage citizens to use ICTs.

Additional difficulties include low awareness of the benefits of digital communications, high costs of accessing ICT tools, the low spread of access centers such as Internet cafes and telecenters, and misunderstandings about the intentions of initiatives that seek to hold leaders accountable and transparent. These are not minor problems. They are big problems, and they are well recognized by CIPESA itself, but even more so by our grassroots partners and the communities they serve. We have discussed some possible remedies – sensitization of citizens on the benefits of using ICT, trainings on the use of ICT for citizen reporting, lobbying leaders to become role models by adopting active use of ICT in their work – but all these take time and money. CIPESA will continue to advocate for use of ICT in enhancing citizen participation and also act as a center of expertise on the same.

The interactions and learning that we have done during 2011 and 2012 are a fulfillment of one of the objectives of iParticipate Uganda, namely network development among groups and institutions involved in the ICTs for citizen empowerment/ democracy work.

CIPESA has shared experiences and had the opportunity to voice collective concerns and advocate for the use of ICTs in governance not only at a regional level, but on the global stage too.

As we recognize the power of the Internet and its contributions to society, it is equally important to promote online safety, online freedoms and the free flow of information as well as freedom of expression. Research remains crucial in informing ICTs in governance interventions.

This article was published as part of the Swedish Program for ICTs in Developing Regions (Spider) Stories 2012. The full publication can be downloaded here.