Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Can Technology Help Quell Citizens’ Anger?

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Q: As government funding for public services comes under strain amid slower economic growth in numerous countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, public officials and disgruntled citizens alike are increasingly looking to new technologies as ways to both deliver services and express priorities and demands. Mexico's Yo Soy 132 movement and Brazil's local participatory budgeting models, now in place in 70 communities, are two examples in the headlines. What are the best practices for engaging citizens in the region through new technologies? Why have some e-government initiatives failed in the past, and what is needed to make them succeed today?

A: Juan Rada, senior vice president for the public sector and education global business unit at Oracle: "Throughout Latin America, there is a significant opportunity for improved communication between governments and citizens. The effective use of technology, and social media in particular, can help enable governments to be more responsive to their citizens. Social media has completely transformed the way we engage, connect, inform, report and access information. From a political perspective, it's a game changer. And yet there is a substantial gap between social media connectivity and activism and actual collaborative public policy formulation. To date, it's been seen that social media can be leveraged to campaign, but to what extent is it being used as a mature resource for governing? Social relationship management (SRM) tools are essential platforms that allow governments to listen to the needs of its citizens, capture raw data and then deliver actionable results to millions of people. The key to an effective SRM strategy is data. It must be properly collected, managed, integrated, analyzed and shared. Relying on new SRM technologies empowers governments to introduce models of participatory budgeting, establish community priorities and design relevant public services without the cost and complexity of traditional, less inclusive methods. Also critical to an effective technology strategy is growth in broadband accessibility throughout Latin America. Social media and effective SRM tools create an opportunity for governments in Latin America to listen, communicate directly with constituents and drive a culture of transparent public engagement that citizens will value."

A: Miguel A. Porrúa, e-government lead specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank: "In Latin America and the Caribbean, most of the past failures of e-government initiatives have occurred for three main reasons. The first is weak political support for the projects. The second element is a lack of focus on citizens from inception to deployment. This has often meant governments implement initiatives citizens didn't want or understand. The third reason is the limited broadband connectivity that made e-government available to just a small part of the population. Fortunately, government leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean are awakening to the emergence of better informed, more participatory and increasingly demanding citizens. Along with the challenges associated with attending to these increasing demands come the opportunities that information and communication technologies open. Uruguay's efforts on open data policies, Chile's on the participatory initiative 'Yopropongo' and several of the Colombian initiatives under ViveDigital show us that governments with advanced e-government plans are trying to reach citizens and serve their needs more efficiently. However, the most remarkable efforts in this regard are probably occurring at the municipal level. The experience of the city of Junín in Argentina on how to engage citizens in providing assistance to seniors, or that of the Brazilian city of Canoas on how make collective budget decisions, merit special attention. The list of pioneer municipalities in Latin America taking advantage of the new technologies to better serve their citizens includes Peñalolen, Chile; Miraflores, Peru and Patzun, Guatemala. It also includes several cities that received the Digital Cities award from the Ibero-American Association of Research Centers and Telecommunications Companies over the past 10 years. Also, the Inter-American Development Bank, in collaboration with the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica and Uruguay, has recently launched, where citizens can describe their experiences with governments and provide ideas to improve them."

A: Mike Mora, electronic government section chief in the department for effective public management at the Organization of American States: "We are facing a paradigm shift, where thanks to information and communications technologies, citizens have become drivers of change. Some of the good examples of citizen engagement in the region are those that have arisen from open-data initiatives, which invites citizens to generate applications that respond to societies' changing needs. That is the case of Colombia's open-data initiatives through its Ministry of ICTs, which by June 2012 already had 46 applications in its 'apps store.' Other good examples are found in the incorporation of technology regarding participatory budgeting such as in Belo Horizonte in Brazil, and the immersion of technology principles and values in schools and communities, such as the case of Plan Vive Digital in Colombia. Likewise, in Chile through the State Modernization Unit, citizen participation has opened the debate on broadening the number of online government services, thus improving the interaction among government agencies. However, the most concrete example of citizen engagement is brought about by Brazil, linking civil society to open government in a variety of ways. Despite progress, one of the biggest challenges in the region has been the lack of citizen embracement and adoption of electronic government strategies. Better country and regional efforts for citizen engagement could contribute greatly to the improvement of democratic governance, development, and security. Electronic government initiatives were primarily developed from the perspective and convenience of public officials. On the other hand, the current situation is more effective because it focuses on beneficiaries' needs, interests and expectations. Efforts are needed to widely educate today's citizens on the strategic use and significance of technology and to develop initiatives that situate citizens at the core of governance by placing their needs, challenges and potential ahead of the implementation of technology."

A: Beatrice Rangel, member of the Advisor board and director of AMLA Consulting in Miami Beach: "There indeed is a dangerous difference in development degrees between citizens and states concerning usage of cyberspace. While most citizens increase their online presence on daily basis, governments remain tied to physical reality. Accordingly, citizens build their perceptions, opinions and militancy through interactions among themselves. This leads them to cluster and coalesce around interests, issues and grievances. Meanwhile, governments produce public policies that lack such interaction or even the proper recording of impact through pilot programs. In economic terms, this situation can best be described as market dislocation because supply and demand do not match. Citizens demand public policies that are consumer friendly; governments produce public policies that are incomprehensible for consumers and thus taken as hostile. And while countries like Chile have made great inroads into e-government by delivering all services through the Internet, little headway has been made in changing the locus of public policy production from government offices to cyberspace. As more cyber savvy generations enter the work force, the disconnect between supply and demand for public policies will increasingly trigger protests and noncompliant attitudes toward public policies."

A: Andres Maz, executive director of advanced technology policy at Cisco Systems: "Latin America's emerging and vibrant middle class has rising expectations for government services including education, health, justice and the interaction with their own officials and administrators. The expectations are not just in quantity, but also in quality. Parents in Latin America demand the same education for their children as the education their peers are receiving in Europe, the United States and Asia. The challenge for governments is enormous. Adding to available resources for their citizens when budgets are constrained and economic growth is slowing down is unfeasible. One way for governments to meet these demands is to embrace technology as a supporting and enabling tool. Governments that have understood this challenge have adopted new technologies and automated processes. But the opportunities go beyond the use of a particular new technology. The wide adoption of technology represents a unique opportunity to look holistically at the health, education and justice systems and drive reforms across the value chain. In the field of health, the adoption of new technologies could, for example, eliminate the need to keep low-risk patients in hospital beds when they can stay at home and be monitored remotely with sensors connected to the network. Digitalizing medical records could prevent errors and expedite attention in emergency rooms. However, to make technology adoption successful it is critical that governments think holistically. Citizens will be the first to reap the benefits of new technologies. What are governments waiting for?"

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