Last week, I attended a presentation on Strengthening Good Local Governance in Indonesia: Lessons from a Demand-Driven Approach. The $62 million 5-year USAID-funded program  focused on both the supply (strengthening core competencies of local administration) and demand (strengthening institutions to ‘lobby’ for good governance) in the context of the recent “big bang” decentralization in Indonesia. The presentation featured various tools and instruments for good governance. I was particularly struck by ‘SMS gateways’ - a new e-governance tool that has been used to strengthen public accountability mechanisms in local governance.
The electronic citizen information service designed for the Local Government Support Program (LGSP)  entails SMS gateway which allows the public to submit both emails and Short Message Service (SMS) on information, queries and complaints related to local government services. A system administrator manages all the incoming information and refers them to the appropriate local government departments, where responses are expected to be delivered within 24 hours. The system is set up in a way that the responses, along with initial inquiries through SMS and emails, are automatically registered and publicized on the local government’s website, thereby, allowing the facility to be used as a public oversight tool by both the government and civil society organizations (USAID Good Governance Brief). 
The questions then arise on the accessibility and applicability of such a technology in developing countries and the incentives for the government to initiate such a project. In the case of Indonesia, in the aftermath of the tsunami, the majority of the population had started using mobile phones instead of waiting for landlines to be restored, and, by the time the project was launched, most of the local governments were already connected to the internet. In such a scenario, going electronic made better sense for the government to track citizen information and grievances from the resettlement, rehabilitation and reconstruction work post-tsunami.
Like the Citizen Charter (described in an earlier post ), the SMS-based e-government has features such as response targets, response time tracking and reports compilation. This is expected to raise new standards by which citizens measure public service management. Similarly, the government can use the information not only in tracking and monitoring performance at the local level, but also in managing larger scale development programs at the regional or national level. USAID Brief reports that the provincial government of Aceh (where the project was first launched) is preparing to replicate the SMS-based e-government to all cities and districts in the region and is considering a version that will cover rehabilitation and reconstruction issues at the regional level as well. The effort in Aceh is said to contribute to its increased political image at the national scene and among donor partners.
In terms of accessibility and the use of mobile phones among citizens beyond Indonesia and in other developing countries, statistics show that the number of mobile phones in use in both China and India is greater than any developed country (Wiki ). This doesn’t discount the gap between the urban and rural users. Nevertheless, mobile phone services are decreasing in cost. They are easy to use and can have extensive coverage. The growing appeal of mobile phone users among both the rural and urban population in the developing world makes it a potential commodity for public services and accountability. Moreover, SMS services are cheaper than the phone and more accessible than the internet. But what distinguishes SMS-based e-government from web-based e-government is that it can be used from anywhere and at anytime. In the Philippines, for example, people prefer to contact their government using the SMS-based channel (87%) rather than Internet - 11% (Susanto et al). 
Research shows that although SMS based e-government service is very popular, some SMS based e-government applications have failed to engage people due to poor response and management issues. This has led to lack of public trust of the services. The Susanto paper  on the topic mentions experiences in Philippines, Sweden and Denmark in this regard.
For better and more effective use of SMS based e-governance, it is important to evaluate the existing services and understand factors that influence citizen’s engagement in such services. Simple and easy to use services, reliability of information, quickness in response, relevancy of the information as well as the cost and quality of network coverage have been identified as some of these factors. In most cases, lack of awareness of the services has been explained as the major problem. For this, intensive advertising campaigns through media channels are recommended to make citizens aware of and provide detailed knowledge on e-government services.
Photo Credit: Flikr User kiwanja 
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