A few weeks ago, I hosted a discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations with Boris Weber, a senior governance specialist with the World Bank Institute, on how technology can improve governance in developing countries. Weber is the team leader of the World Bank Institute’s Information and Communication Technology for Governance project (ICT4Gov), which aims to increase civic participation and improve government service delivery through technology.
The philosophy behind ICT4Gov is that increased civic participation leads to better governance. For instance, if citizens can provide feedback to government about service delivery, and even rate the quality of specific programs, then government will have more information to prioritize service delivery and should be more accountable to citizens. Technology, especially increasingly ubiquitous cell phones, but also the Internet, makes it easier for ordinary people to engage directly with government; citizens become better advocates for getting the services that they most need, and governments can deliver those services more effectively.
One primary focus of the World Bank’s ICT4Gov initiative has been participatory budgeting—a process that allows citizens to vote on how a certain percentage of a government’s budget will be put to use. Participatory budgeting began in Brazil in the city of Porto Alegre in 1989, and is linked to what one researcher describes as “an incredible, noticeable improvement in the quality of life in the city,” particularly in terms of extending key municipal services such as the sewage systems to marginalized citizens who did not have access before.
One of the World Bank Institute’s participatory budgeting projects is in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country known more for conflict than innovative governance. As Weber explained, participatory budgeting in South Kivu has given communities the chance to voice their development needs, and the government has responded. In one round of participatory budgeting, most communities voted to fund much-needed classroom renovations. One community, however, chose to build a bridge, knowing that its need for increased mobility was even greater than its need for better classrooms. (The residents’ choice to build a bridge reminds me of the philosophy behind direct cash transfers, which I wrote about in May–that ordinary citizens, including the poorest of the poor, usually understand their development needs better than anyone else.)
One positive impact of participatory budgeting is that it seems to strengthen the relationship between a government and its citizens. In South Kivu, levels of local tax collection increased after the process, suggesting that citizens became more willing to pay their taxes as they increasingly believed that government would actually use their tax dollars to deliver services.
The spread of cell phone technology in a place like the DRC, where physical infrastructure such as roads is weak and citizens often live isolated from one another in rural communities, is critical for the successful implementation of participatory budgeting. Cell phones make it possible for citizens to receive information about participatory budgeting meetings; to vote on their budget priorities via text; to receive updates about how the budget was allocated; and perhaps most importantly, give feedback about the projects’ implementation through text messages.
Participatory budgeting is spreading not only to developing countries like the DRC, but also to developed countries, including the United States. In New York City this year, residents of four city council districts proposed and then voted for projects that they identified as important to their communities, ranging from transportation for senior citizens to new technology for public schools. The city of Chicago has also experimented with participatory budgeting.
Of course, ICT4Gov is part of an even broader trend of e-governance that uses technology to deliver services (for example, forms online), to capture citizen feedback (for example, through surveys), and to increase transparency (for example, through easily accessible online databases). E-governance also has the potential to become an important tool in combating corruption. Participatory budgeting is a step in the right direction. By involving citizens in the process from the start, they know what to expect and are better able to agitate if and when the promised project fails to materialize. Other e-initiatives are trying to tackle corruption more directly. For example, in 2010, two concerned citizens in India started ipaidabribe.com, a website where citizens can anonymously report instances when government officials ask them to pay bribes. The NGO that runs the website has received questions from some 17 countries around the world about getting their own websites started; ipaidabribe-style websites now exist in Kenya and Pakistan, among other places. The hope is that the spread of citizen activism, enabled through new technologies like cell phones and the Internet, might be able to improve public service delivery and fight back against corruption far more effectively than countless watchdog organizations.