Sunday, September 28, 2014

Are we living on a new era of citizen participation?

Internet, cell phones, social networking, messaging, WiFi hotspots - never before in history, we had experienced such a degree of connectivity. The information and communications technologies (ICTs) have triggered the development of a wide range of products and services that increase productivity and amplify our ability to interact. With an estimated 30% of smartphones on a base of 5.2 billion mobile phones, today ICT are an integral part of life for many of us, and in a non-distant future, we can anticipate that there will not be a person who is not part of this global network.

Social networks (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, WhatsApp) and mobile technology (smart phones) are expanding and redefining interaction we have in our social circles. Those people, whom we can share stories, feelings, news and information with; are no longer limited to an event, geography or moment in time. Today, information comes and flows instantly from our global friend network, tracing our history on the "canvas" of social networks.

In the last 10 years we have seen how ICTs have transformed industries like entertainment, commerce, telephony, transportation, health and education; however, there is an area that is just beginning the transformation: the government and citizen participation.

In our role as citizens, we must be vigilant and drive evolution of citizen participation model and interaction with the government using ICT. Responsibility is on us to re-imagine the ways and mechanisms, in which we can build citizenship, promote participation and strengthen opportunities for collaboration and coordination between citizens and government.

Equipped with a data connection, all citizens are able to act in the comfort of our cell phone. People nowadays are sensor and nodes of a communication network with the ability to transmit, receive and process information in real time very nimbly.  This is a paradigm change. Technological advances are challenging traditional organizational structures to change from being independent 'silos' with little interaction within each other, to be organizations with multidisciplinary teams and cross-responsibility in the organization.  ICT are the enabler in this paradigm change.

Learning how innovative companies have evolved their work patterns and interaction with customers taking advantage of ICT, we must seek to renew the interaction model of the public sector to citizens to a more fluid and dynamic one.

Imagine the following situations in a context of digital citizen participation - What would we do differently,
  • If we could know the views, problems and challenges of each neighborhood of our community through performing a survey easily accessible from a mobile?
  • If citizens could be aware in real time of events that occur around us (e.g., emergencies, crime, poor public services)?
  • If we had a direct link and immediate answer to whom we report events that occur around us (e.g., emergencies, crime, poor public services)?
  • If we had a transparent collaborative space to express opinions regarding bills in Congress or vote in what areas executing local budget?
  • If we had the ability to quantitatively analyze the feeling and perceptions of citizens, and present them as info graphics?

In the purest sense, the transformer reach of ICT applied in this new technological age, is to complement the traditional system of "representative democracy" - where the voice of the citizen is limited to their vote during an election - to evolve into a system of "direct democracy" - where the daily expressions of citizen participation are manifested in a space of continuous, fluid and dynamic collaboration.

Statistics derived from Mary Meeker, Internet Trends 2014