Democratic governance and mobile phones

“Don’t get grandma hear it” was what US soldier Stephen Philips was reported in the Newsweek as saying when his cell phone redialled home during a fire-fight in Afghanistan and broadcast the chaos into his parent’s answering machine . Though it would have been traumatic for the parents of Stephen Philips, yet this is an example of how mobile phones connect us all to far-flung yet vital realities. From Zimbabwe and Kenya to China and Kuwait , from electoral processes and women’s suffrage to the voicing dissent against oppression, mobiles are already revolutionising our approach to and understanding of public participation in governance. Mobiles have already demonstrated in many countries around the world that in the hands of a vibrant civil society they are powerful tools that hold government and public institutions accountable, their interactions transparent and their transactions efficient. Conversations inspired, produced, stored and disseminated through mobiles are rapidly changing the manner in which we imagine the State, interact with government and participate in the mechanisms and institutions of democratic governance.

Read my full paper here

UPDATE – 13th June 2008

This essay is published in the i4D magazine June 2008 issue. Download and read the PDF as it appears in print and online here.

E-Government vs. E-Governance in Sri Lanka – A place for Web 2.0 and mobiles?

An article on the future of e-government from the US proclaims that Web 2.0 will “transform service delivery, make smarter policies, flatten silos and, most importantly, reinvigorate democracy” and facilitate a shift “from monolithic government agencies to pluralistic, networked governance Webs that fuse the knowledge, skills and resources of the masses.”

Phew!

There are undoubtably great examples of e-government working meaningfully to empower citizens (and even non citizens). Two diverse examples are the British Government e-petition service and the US Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) blog, Evolution of Security. The British Government’s e-petition service statistics are interesting:

  • Over 29,000 petitions have been submitted, of which over 8,500 are currently live and available for signing, over 6,000 have finished and 14,601 have been rejected outright.
  • There have been over 5.8 million signatures, originating from over 3.9 million different email addresses.

In Sri Lanka however, e-gov remains just a great idea.

The only e-gov website I’ve personally used is that of the Department of Immigration and Emigration to renew my passport. Of the others, the less said the better. The Government of Sri Lanka Official Web Portal is a rather sad affair. The standard of English across the site is atrocious – but I’ll let that pass (try reading their “Descliamer” (sic)). E-Gov in Sri Lanka should after all be tailored first to the needs of those who speak Sinhala and Tamil. But tellingly, the site is only available in Sinhala and English – so much for constitutionally guaranteed language rights!

Worse, the site is replete with bad links and erroneous information. Try for example clicking on Disasters and Emergencies. . The NGO link has a hilarious misspelling (or maybe it was deliberate). The Health and Nutrition section has a link to yet another portal (a portal linking to a portal – and I thought e-gov was about efficiency?) which does not work. And just check out the link to Traditional Medicines of Sri Lanka (even though there actually is a Department of Ayurveda that the portal is blissfully unaware of). The list goes on. Sadly, the most useful website of them all – that of the Government Information Centre – is hidden behind a button called GIC – 1919, which makes sense only after you know what 1919 and GIC stands for. You know there’s something seriously wrong with e-gov when the humanitarian section of official website of the President of Sri Lanka has only a single mention of a human (though one wonders whether the person mentioned also fell into the animal welfare directives of the Mahinda Chintana).

In sum, e-gov in Sri Lanka is a mirror image of government – it simply does not work as it should. The problem here is one that Anthony Williams points to as well. “Single-window services constitute one-way information flows to the citizen. In today’s social-media environment, these one-way conversations fail to build credibility and trust in government. More importantly, they fail to harness the knowledge, skills and resources that could be tapped by government by using a more collaborative approach to service delivery and policy-making.”

The question then arises as to whether governments are really interested in this kind of two-way conversation with its citizens or indeed have the capacity (human, technical and financial) to moderate and fuel such discussions all the official languages of a country. Sri Lanka’s regime certainly isn’t. There’s simply no political will to create, to sustain and act upon any information that embarrass the incumbent regime. Forget about “G-Webs” as Anthony calls them – in Sri Lanka e-gov will only ever be a one way, top down, static website driven monologue. It’s always about “delivery” but never about feedback, participatory decision making, transparency or accountability – never mind what ICTA and the World Bank would have us believe.

Why for example is it that the monumental corruption in government as brought out by the COPE Reports fail to register on the Official Website of the Government of Sri Lanka? Try searching for “Cope Reports” and the answer is revealing. (Confusingly, Official Website of the Government of Sri Lanka is not the same as the Government of Sri Lanka Official Web Portal – so much for non-duplication of services).

I guess over 2 billion rupees lost to corruption in Government is really outside the remit of e-gov, save for the website of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption (which also does not operate in Tamil). Mind you, this is the same government that then has the gall to accuse of NGOs of non-transparency and financial mismanagement.

From the non-functional and dysfunctional to the blatantly racist, Sri Lanka’s so called e-gov framework is a mess that does not in any way hold government more responsive, accountable and transparent to citizens.

As Anthony points out, “You can’t expect radical change too fast. Governments are large, complex beasts subject to a number of constraints. In fact, the institutions of democratic government were deliberately designed to induce stability and prevent radical change. Stability can be quite healthy, but implementing change is difficult and onerous when deep and resilient traditions combine to frustrate progress.”   

While I agree, what’s missing here is an emphasis on governance and how ICTs can help strengthen it in contra-distinction to e-government. Citizens can now use a range of methods – from mobile phones to digital cameras – to document the litany of grievances with regards to illiberal governance. From capturing the many aspects of corruption to the lackadaisical attitudes of local government authorities that for example result in garbage that’s uncollected for days on end, ICTs allow civil society hold government and non-governmental bodies accountable even when they are themselves unable and unwilling to do so.

Key ideas in this regard could be:

The elephant in the room however is the political will necessary to support and act upon information generated by these mechanisms. Governments, not NGOs, are primarily responsible for the well-being of citizens. As Anthony notes, “It’s about political will and a willingness to be open and to incorporate feedback and put it into practice. At the same time, digital communications make geography less relevant and reinforce the need to open up the policy-making process to global participation. Governments that choose not to open up or those that fail to foster active participation in governance will eventually lose legitimacy and authority.”

Has e-gov in Sri Lanka made government or governance better? Is it not the case that most of the strategies employed by ICTA for e-gov are doomed to failure, even if no one in it, for obvious reasons can or will acknowledge it? Can e-gov mechanisms really succeed or stand any chance of success when you have thugs in government running amok, a culture of impunity, the breakdown in the rule of law and massive levels of corruption with absolutely nothing citizens can do through current e-gov mechanisms to address these issues?

More effective, meaningful and sustainable solutions to our growing democratic deficit lie in exploring ways through which ICTs, including mobile phones, can help empower citizen centric governance mechanisms. It’s possibly the case that government and governmental agencies will be deeply suspicious of or even actively hostile to such measures. But as Anthony succinctly notes, “Governments can either be active participants in this process or unwilling bystanders.”

Watch this space.

UPDATED – 14th April 2008

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) confirms that South Asia remains far below the world average and is the lowest ranking region in Asia when it comes to e-government. Sri Lanka in fact has slipped in the UN DESA e-gov rankings, from 94 in 2005 to 101 in 2008 amongst the countries surveyed.

Download the report here.

Cloud computing and ICT4Peace

Nicholas Carr’s video, and his book, compel us to think about what computing will look like a few years hence when the slew of new online services from the likes of Adobe, Google, Microsoft and others will to a greater or lesser degree shape the way we create, store, disseminate and archive most of what we usually now have on our PC hard drives, USB sticks or mobile phones.

Even in Sri Lanka, the cloud is growing. Having bought Mobitel’s HSPA modem + connection, I can now work anywhere I Colombo and in many other places around the country with speeds that rival my wired SLT ADSL Business Connection.

WiFi in and around Colombo is growing (even if those who provide wifi access don’t exactly know they are doing it!). Wimax, though hyped, is the wrong technology to use in Colombo but may have an impact in rural areas where large swathes of land can be covered with less of the problems associated with Line of Sight in urban / built up areas.

Mobile phone coverage with GPRS Edge, from Dialog and Mobitel, already covers a great deal of land, with 3G service coverage growing apace.

A lot of this (wireless) connectivity would have been unimaginable a few years ago. What it means is that using PCs and mobile phones, the possibility of connecting to the web and Internet and more importantly, producing content that can be distributed via web media channels, is increasingly open for citizens outside of Colombo and the Western Province.

A few years ago I wrote Mediation from the palm of your hand: Forgining the next generation ODR systems that along with several other papers explored the potential offered for conflict resolution through the increasing footprint of wireless internet access and the growth of mobile devices.

I’m not entirely convinced however by Carr’s assertion that we will find less use for our local hard drives. Local hard drives will only disappear once I can transfer, at the same rate as I can today with my PC’s local storage, information to and from the internet. Broadband internet speeds today even in developed countries don’t even come close. As someone who works with digital media where average file sizes range in hundreds of megabytes, my hourly data transfer (upload + download) needs would outstrip any wired or wireless internet access that I have encountered and know about (that’s commercially available and affordable) in Sri Lanka.

The cloud, seen here as ubiquitous (and hopefully free or very cheap) internet and web access, will certainly complement my work. It already does. Today, for some of the work I do with large Word or PowerPoint docs, I just create an online collaboration space with www.box.net. All the org’s I work with are on Google Apps, which allows for easy exchange of documents amongst colleagues without having to email them around all the time (why the hell doesn’t Google Apps support PDFs?!) I use Flickr and YouTube in my work a lot, and it’s great that I can now access these services from my mobile phone or laptop in most places I go in Sri Lanka and even on the road, along with Gmail and my office mail on my mobile wherever I have a signal.

I’m primarily a web publisher – the stuff I throw up to the web requires high bandwidth to upload, lesser bandwidth to consume, little bandwidth to engage with via comments and emails. I’m still unable to really use services like Yahoo’s new video streaming service, or U.Stream, still unable to do, reliably, things like Skypecasts and still unable to do anything that Apple says I can do with iChat video and screen sharing on my Mac – because the sustained bandwidth I need, just ain’t there.

That’s the problem with Carr’s thesis.

He assumes that the growth in broadband access speeds, that underpins his vision reminiscent of Sun’s assertion that the network is the computer, will take place around the world at more or less the same pace and in the same manner. Even a cursory glance at broadband services in the US tells us that this is very far removed from reality (though I suspect things may be different in Nordic countries).

For us in Sri Lanka, the growth of hyped up wireless broadband access holds much promise, but it will take years to mature. That said, as a peacebuilder, I’m excited today by the potential such technologies hold to get communities and individuals that rarely participate in democratic debates and produce digital content of their own to enter into the world of the Internet and web we take for granted. From oral histories to digital diaries (an SMS a day with a photo telling the life of an IDP in a camp), from podcasts in the vernacular (e.g. VOR Radio) to citizen journalism (e.g. Vikalpa), from mobile phone videos uploaded from the field itself (e.g. Vikalpa Video) to text messages that inform and alert (e.g. JNW), the cloud holds tremendous potential for those of us interested in interrogating war and peace.

It is in fact a shift (a necessary and long over due one at that) from an emphasis on e-government (all too often seen as and constructed as a one way street that really doesn’t offer citizens the potential to communicate with Government) to e-governance – holding government and public bodies, including NGOs, accountable and transparent.

I think Carr will eventually be proved right – we will all end up storing more and more of our lives online. But until such time this is possible and prevalent, local storage will still be hugely important and will only continue to grow in size – as our own digital content creation grows exponentially.

Put the two together – higher density data storage on smaller media and higher speed connectivity over larger footprints, and you have the recipe for a communications architecture that can be leveraged for peacebuilding in any number of ways.