Published on Voices

Digital Engagement: What Should the Future Look Like?

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The  relationship between citizens and their governments is constantly changing, and we are at a time where this relationship could change to become more inclusive and collaborative. In order to find the right solutions to pressing development challenges, governments need to ask their citizens what they need and tailor their services and approaches accordingly. Citizen feedback needs to be at the heart of what governments and development actors do, serving as the basis for policy-making, as well as the design, implementation, and monitoring of development solutions.
Governments, the international development community, and  other stakeholders recognized this need to reform citizen engagement when they signed the Busan Declaration at the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation and also to the Open Government Partnership whose central tenet is greater civic engagement.  Other initiatives such as “Making all Voices Count” are also at the forefront of pushing this agenda.
Following Busan, the first order of business was to make government and development data open and available to civil society. However, collecting and sharing data for transparency does not mean  accountability. There lies then the equally, if not more important task of ensuring that citizens are empowered and have the capacity to not only react to existing information but proactively engage with the government  on issues that matter the most.
Technology has allowed this process to become easier, faster, cheaper, and more effective in various cases and contexts. Though technology is not a panacea and its use must complement offline approaches, we increasingly have access to more and better technologies to engage with citizens, gather their feedback, map development issues, and share the resulting data so it can be used in many  applications. The World Bank, with its knowledge and expertise, is in the unique position to serve as a bridge between citizens and service providers, and to help leverage technology to close the feedback loop and improve  citizen satisfaction.
Sharing information including data  and collecting feedback are important first steps to engaging citizens, making sure their voices are heard  and that citizen voice results in increased government responsiveness and effectiveness. However, citizen engagement should not be about compliance or  feel-good exercises, but actually about taking action to make the engagement  meaningful and transformative.
This entails two things. First, when local context matters so much and affects the demand and supply of accountability, building the capacity of civil society, media and others to act as  information  intermediaries , or ‘infomediaries,’ , is  very  important. Feedback needs to come from an informed public and be constructive to prevent the signal-to-noise ratio from getting out of hand. As in a two-way street, informed feedback is necessary for effective action, and it is not enough to build the capacity of governments to better incorporate feedback, but also of citizens and civil society to provide this feedback. In  doing so, we will nurture the relationship of trust so crucial to ensuring that we can change the way citizens interact with their governments for better development outcomes. .
Second, the development community and its partners should find a way to better mainstream  successful methodologies on citizen engagement. There are certain strides being made in this direction, such as the World Bank’s commitment to achieve 100% beneficiary feedback in projects with clearly identifiable beneficiaries. This enormous task requires the effective use of tools and practices that have been shown to work including  better tailoring these approaches to local contexts. .
 How we can facilitate  effectiv e engagement between with citizens and their governments and how technology can enhance that process remains the focus of the Digital Engagement Unit of the World Bank’s Open Government Practice. We want   to explore strategies around the use of internet-based tools and mobile phones to enhance citizen participation and encourage project implementers and governments to acknowledge and respond to feedback. This will help strengthen the quality of services and development solutions.
We want to ask, How will technology-enhanced solutions inform current and future development interventions? What is the evidence base supporting their viability? How can they complement offline approaches? What should collaboration between the stakeholders in the Open Government agenda look like, and how can their efforts best be coordinated for improved development impact?


Robert Hunja

Director, Public Integrity and Openness

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