The successful implementation of ICT in governmental operations can help to bridge a gap between citizens and governments by promoting transparency and a more citizen-friendly style of government. When used effectively, eGovernment can act as a catalyst toward sustainable development and help to build and stabilise economies. However, technology is not the solution in itself, and governments need to think about exactly how to use ICT in a way that will help to improve the dialogue between people and leaders.
By Claire Adamson
According to a 2012 United Nations survey, Africa is falling behind the rest of the world in eGovernment initiatives. There are no African countries represented in the survey’s top 20, which is made up of mostly European and North American countries. Connectivity issues and lower rates of literacy have been cited as major barriers to the implementation of eGovernment strategies in Africa, but as economies grow and infrastructure improves, it is imperative that governments explore innovative methods of communication and team up with the private sector to explore new ways of reaching and engaging citizens.
The recent Kenyan elections offered an interesting case study of the utilisation – both successful and unsuccessful – of technology in government. The deployment of a biometric voter registration system, imported from Canada, was decided upon at great cost and at the last minute, meaning that the government had no time to test it on a large scale. This system caused a huge delay in the tallying of the votes and the government had to resort to manual counting systems. The use and ultimate failure of this biometric system in Kenya shows that technology cannot magically fix problems in governments. Technology itself does not immediately deliver transparency – it can be a great tool but it requires careful analysis of local contexts, systematic planning and the right attitudes from all involved parties in order for it to work.
However, there were some technological successes during the Kenyan election. Social media played a big part in keeping the population calm during the registration and voting period, despite an atmosphere of tension and the underlying threat of violence and civil unrest that had plagued the previous election in 2007. Kenyan open-source platform Ushahidi promoted transparency and participation by allowing citizens to report on incidences during the election. Twitter also serves as an important source of information in Kenya, and possibly as something of a democratising force: democracy indices for African countries have been shown to correlate roughly with the number of tweets per capita in those countries, and the Kenyans are some of the most frequent tweeters in the Continent.
The Arab Spring of 2011 showed that social media, despite its democratising effect, is an extremely volatile medium: the revolutions in North Africa now inform many governments’ policies towards the Internet and social networking – Kenya’s, in the shadow of recent history, not least. Of particular concern was the volume of hate-speech promulgated in the fierce cyber-war between supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta, now sworn in as president, and his rival Raila Odinga. According to the research of the Nairobi-based dangerous speech monitor Umati, exhortations to evict, steal from or butcher members of other tribes became commonplace online. These were taken very seriously by the government, which in the run-up to the elections took several measures to curb the rise of inflammatory tweeting, including banning media outlets from reprinting hate-speech in full and taking legal action against its authors. Whether such harsh measures were necessary is unclear; psychologist Patrick Obel, of Pan Africa Christian University in Nairobi, has suggested that social media, far from aggravating existing tensions, in fact acted as a safer avenue for people to express their grievances. It could be that the vitriol poured out on twitter actually helped to defuse the potential for civil unrest; that the ability to express any opinion online, however abhorrent, acted as a more harmless replacement for actual physical violence.
Cloud services, social media and biometrics are all providing interesting new methods for communication and efficiency across the Continent, and mobile technology has already become a vital tool for governments in Africa. As mobile phone usage far outstrips the number of PCs in use, governments are looking at ways to provide health services, education initiatives and other governmental services via mobile phones. As the cost of handsets falls and more and more private businesses team up with governments to provide innovative services to citizens, mobile has the potential to be the number one way to achieve an effective, two-way dialogue between governments and people, allowing citizens to engage more fully with their government and in turn allowing policymakers to see exactly what people need.
The Botswana Speaks initiative is using mobile technologies to link local tribal meetings with national government, essentially letting local tribe leaders voice their concerns and needs at a national level. This is particularly useful in a country where smartphones and mobile broadband hugely outnumber computers and Internet access, and where rural communities are geographically isolated from the government. The scheme represents a meeting of tradition and innovation, and is a great example of technology that perfectly fits both the government and the citizenry, offering benefits for both.
The broad trends in eGovernment in Africa seem to be toward mobile government initiatives and social media strategies. The danger now for governments is the temptation to utilise technology for technology’s sake – implementing schemes that serve no useful purpose or are not geared toward the people using them. It is also important for policymakers to explore eGovernment on a more fundamental level – adjusting legislation and strategy to encompass developments in technology and welcoming new ideas and ways of connecting with citizens.
eLearning Africa 2013 will delve further into the possibilities suggested by existing eGovernment strategies, while exploring what could be the right fit for African countries. For more information and up-to-date conference news, please visit www.elearning-africa.com.