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Keynote on e democracy at 13th Nepal ICT Conference

The Minister of Science, Technology and Environment, Dr Keshav Man Shakya, who inaugurated the conference said that he kept thinking e governance though he was asked to speak on e democracy. In my talk, I decided to explore the interface between the two. I did not think it very useful to talk in broad generalities but wanted to bring up specific things that Nepal could do within a year or two.

What is e democracy? Is it the broadest meaning of replacing representative democracy with direct democracy enabled by the ability of citizens to ostensibly vote on all matters requiring collective decisions? Or it is more mundane: the use of ICTs in elections and/or the conduct of legislative business? In this talk, I used a different approach that gives value to what happens between elections: the delivery of government services, including elections and public consultation services and the equipping of citizens with the knowledge and data to effectively participate in governance.

For one to claim that any activity is about e democracy, it is necessary that the coverage be near universal; that most, if not all, citizens can participate. Thus we come to the precondition for e democracy: what forms of e connectivity are enjoyed by most, if not all, Nepali citizens. Various connectivity and related indicators are examined, leading to the conclusion that voice interfaces must have a central role in any e democracy solution.

To say that citizens can obtain e government services using voice interfaces or that they can participate in governance process using such interfaces does not reduce in any way the importance of IT. The most critical element of e government is the backend. This requires process reengineering and extensive IT applications. Once the databases are in place, they should be accessible over multiple interfaces, web as well as mobile, data as well as voice. The solution was explained in relation to the 311 service in New York City.

Another critical action government may take is to open up government information in easy to process form along with APIs, so that mobile applications developers can make citizen friendly apps. If government information is made easily accessible, citizen participation will become substantive.

True democracy is not limited to periodic elections. It means that the public, at least the informed and interested citizens, are consulted on important policy and regulatory decisions (good governance). It permits informed participation in governance, for which Right to Information, including easy access to government information at granular level and in easy-to-use forms (i.e., apps), is critical.

Consultation and an informed citizenry were very costly in the past. But ICTs can reduce those costs for government as well as citizens.

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