When info becomes action

2013-04-11 00:00

HAVING returned from speaking at a conference hosted by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim on the issue of constituency feedback, I have relearnt that important lesson: citizens always know better than the government or the market what works for them.

The question is whether our political elites are prepared to listen. Watching public debates about various topics — from our escapades in the Central African Republic to the continuing saga of shame in the Marikana Commission, and further shocking examples of continuing police brutality — we see all too often these genuine grievances of citizens reduced to the neoliberal forces, a hostile white media and even stranger, counterrevolutionary forces masquerading as NGOs.

So how should the government respond to what is a growing barrage of criticism, some obviously with deep competing political undertones? The history of the anti-apartheid movement, led by the ANC and marshalled within the country by Cosatu and the UDF, was premised on transparency and openness. I recognised, as the Cosatu general secretary, that our activities and conversations were being monitored by the security agencies. Our protection was making sure that union members, from leaders down to the shop floor, were always connected to our national discussions. In fact, it was suicidal for us to make decisions without the support of the grass-roots structures. As we came under heavy attack, which saw our headquarters and regional offices bombed by state agencies and thousands of activists detained, it was imperative for our survival to close any gap between us and our members and supporters.

So why don’t we follow the same principle today? Why don’t our state officials and Ministers take us, the citizens, into their confidence? No one expects that miracles can happen to reverse overnight the impact of 350 years of racism and colonialism, but as Trevor Manuel said last week at a government leadership summit: “It’s time to stop blaming the state’s failures on apartheid. We cannot plead ignorance or inexperience. For almost two decades, the public has been patient in the face of mediocre services. There is no [PW] Botha regime looking over our shoulder — we are responsible ourselves.”

Can we begin to see our citizens as the greatest ally for good governance? This is a truism that is largely ignored by bureaucracies, corporates, the public sector or even civil society. Governance, at the end of the day, is about delivery of the “better life” we promised our people in 1994. If the government is committed to eradicating corruption, maladministration and inefficiency, then we must organise ourselves to back those in the government who want to do the right thing. The pledge by Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu to set up an anti-corruption bureau and take decisive action against state officials who do business with the government, either directly or through their families, should be embraced.

So how do we pursue a partnership between the government and us, the citizens? There is a great degree of freely available government data. Our national budget rates number two in the world for its transparency. Statistics SA has the most comprehensive data sets in Africa.

Imagine if we could take the education budget at R230 billion for 2013/2014 and break that down into the budget per school. Parents, pupils and teachers would be empowered to demand to see the accounts of expenditure. We would be decentralising governance and ensuring that parents have the tools to demand action in the constitutional right of their children to quality education.

On a trip to Kenya recently, I spoke at the launch of the Code4Kenya initiative backed by the government, the African Media Initiative, media companies, NGOs and the ICT sector as one of the first sustained attempts in Africa focused on making open data relevant to and used by citizens.

Using exam and school location data, the NGO Twaweza has developed an education application, “Find My School”, that citizens can use to check the relative performances of primary schools in the country. A fascinating portal provides parents with information on how individual schools in Kenya perform in national examinations. The underlying data is presented in a simplified way, visualised to be easily understood and shared. Now imagine what is possible if the government, Section27, Equal Education and other NGOs in the education sector could build a smart partnership here? Quality education and teacher performance would be visibly transformed in the interests of the pupils and our country.

South Africa has nearly 60 million cellphones. I have seen many examples of cost-effective software applications that empower citizens to give their feedback and use digital innovation to improve their lives. Using mobile technology, we could avoid costly software applications and improve the performance of education.

We only have to look at the way Africa, the fastest growing mobile market in the world, with over 600 million users, has adapted to technology. It is estimated that up to 20% of the Kenyan GDP is circulating on the back of mobile platforms like M-pesa, putting effective financial services into the hands of the previously unbanked.

Another example, from Uganda, is U-report, a free SMS service launched in 2011 with the support of Unicef, which gives young Ugandans a voice on issues they care about. The system has over 145 000 active U-reporters, and is growing through partnership with the government, NGOs, youth organisations, faith-based organisations and private companies.

Another example is the New York City Mayor’s Office, which created an idea marketplace, seeded it with 25 ideas (e.g. “open schoolyards across the city as public playgrounds” and “increase targeted tree plantings in neighbourhoods with high asthma rates”), and asked visitors: “Which do you think is better for creating a greener, greater New York City?” New Yorkers responded by casting about 25 000 votes and uploading more than 400 new ideas. Critically, eight of the top 10 ideas were uploaded by citizens.

Across the world, citizens are demanding a greater say in decisions that affect their lives. In SA, citizens are demanding the right to quality education and health, jobs, houses, water, electricity and municipal services. And there is a smouldering cauldron of discontent brewing that would be foolish for any of us to ignore. We have the ability to restore the social contract and rebuild the trust and confidence of our people in democracy.

Technology has changed the way we live, organise our lives, work, and play. But technology is just an enabler; we need to develop the applications that make our society more efficient and customer-orientated.

In discussion with Chris Finch of the World Bank in Kenya, I learnt the following lessons:

• Citizen engagement is essential for effective development, strengthening the quality of policymaking and the “science” of service delivery with improved social accountability.

• The key stakeholders involved in citizen engagement are the government, civil society, academics, the private sector, tech community and other development specialists — to share information and experience in enhancing citizen feedback and participation for development.

• It is time to move from the rich experience and knowledge generated by the various stakeholders to concrete action on citizen engagement.

New models are needed to increase sustainability. Open data is not just government data — it can come from many sources. Several host organisations have begun to set up their own data desks, to convert and reorganise hard-copy information into digital, downloadable formats that can inform and deepen their reporting and analysis. Partnerships with media and info-mediaries can help make open data benefit citizens. Translating data into action requires many steps, with “info-mediaries” playing a key role — to analyse and turn data into visualisations and applications that citizens use and want. But making open data work depends on culture change. And this takes time and a lot of work.

What we need is the political will to create the tools with citizens and civil society, and to harness the expertise and technology of the marketplace to deliver the services to which our citizens have a right.

— www.thedailymaverick.co.za and iMaverick

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