The citizenry of Uganda doesn’t really ask for much. But perhaps, we could ask for a small step towards better services in our communities, by the leaders we have chosen. Just to keep us optimistic.

Civic engagement can take many forms, from individual volunteerism to organizational involvement to electoral participation. Here, in Uganda, individual and collective actions have been put forth to address issues of public concern. Citizens have incorporated call to action campaigns on social media, trended hashtags, written blogs on social justice and poor service delivery but somewhat, this has all ‘gone to waste’ with minimal or no action from the policy makers or legislators. We have taken to the streets and we have tackled our grievances digitally. Have the governments down here denied us citizens our rights?

To add insult to injury, the platforms that are made available to the public such as government websites are usually poorly done, with little input from the end-users (us, the citizens) and were last updated years ago. Meanwhile, someone is out here, taking home a fat pay check every month and they had only one job – to update these portals regularly. A task long given up on.

For a long time now, scholars, activists, writers, organizations, citizens, whistleblowers have called upon governments not only here, but throughout Africa, to embrace civic technology if we are to achieve a certain level of civic engagement and development. Giving crediting where it’s due, a few government institutions in Uganda have begun to make strides in pursuing these improvements in communications, service delivery and information provision.

Why only a few institutions though?
If you ask me why aren’t all governments and all sectors embracing the power of civic technology, I may not give you an accurate answer for you to take home. But, one thing for sure is that they have either deliberately ignored it or have an insurmountable amount of red tape to circumnavigate.

Governments that want to engage their citizens via technology have many choices; the challenge for most communities is determining which tools are right for them. This choice is often based on a number of factors including the availability of resources, the community’s appetite for engagement, and the impetus of government leadership. However, with an angry community that is always seeking answers and accountability for promises unfulfilled such as incomplete roadworks or recurring flooding of drains, surely the community has to have an appetite for improved engagement.

While the factors influencing which tools a community should select often vary, the benefits that can be realized from new methods of civic engagement are clear, cheap and implementable at all levels of governance.

How can they go about this?

Don’t block Social Media, rather integrate it!
Twice in 2016, the Ugandan government blocked social media access during important historical and national events, the presidential elections and presidential inauguration, citing security issues. However, just imagine, instead of denying citizens access to a tool this important, the government uses it to their advantage?

When the governments want to pass on vital information and promote civic engagement, social media is the quickest means that they could use and realize a great amount of feedback from the citizenry. Just recently during the reading of the national budget FY 2017/18, there was a great response on social media with the citizens sharing their thoughts and ideas. Look here, this is progress. The steady progress you always sing about. The participation was unprecedented. It was inspiring to witness and be a part of this very important civic process.

Citizen engagement generally requires going where the people are, rather than asking them to come to you. Integrating with social media enables governments to engage their citizens in a way they are familiar with, while maintaining a consistent brand identity across multiple social media platforms.

Organize your Websites. In fact, invest heavily in them!
Imagine how much time and money a government will save when someone simply visits a particular portal and accesses the data they want without having to go through a cumbersome process. Think about the time and resources wasted in traveling to a government office to access the same information. Administrators can often use a vendor-provided dashboard or portal to review and analyze information. Some vendors are more heavily involved in the actual engagement project than others — vendor involvement can take the form of low-impact activities such as generating reports, performing analysis, and monitoring discussion boards, to more holistic facilitation and consulting. Engagement tools that offer this added support are typically more beneficial for smaller communities that lack the time, resources, or expertise to manage citizen engagement projects.

Embrace Mobile Solutions
Many of the innovation mobile solutions that have sprung up over the past years, have failed to scale successfully. They never get any funding from any government body or institution because of bureaucracy and yet mobile device compatibility is becoming a common requirement for digital citizen engagement tools. These tools serve a big and better deal in improving civic engagement. This is primarily because mobile applications can enable better access to particular demographic groups — young people and less affluent citizens — in addition to the convenience mobile device compatibility affords.

Embrace Innovation, there is a solution for everything!
Year in year out, there are millions of brilliant programmers, idealists that have over time come out with software programs that have evidently helped on some known problems in community using data for the common good. Where are they? You would wonder. The ideas that are produced have the capacity to meet a community’s unique needs through inventions like scenario-based programs such as budget simulations. These virtual citizen engagement tools allow the community to brand the engagement effort for marketing purposes, making it unique and memorable, and thereby increasing its effectiveness. Why don’t governments support such initiatives?

The goal of connecting communities with their government can be achieved in many different ways. Before governments jump to use any tool to grow civic engagement, they need to clearly define their motivation for the citizen engagement initiative — a point that may seem self-evident but is nevertheless frequently overlooked. Thinking about incorporating technology into existing systems may seem daunting at first, but through active collaboration with citizens, academics and technologists, we can create simple solutions for complex problems. Small changes that create better life experiences and cost savings all the way.

Written by Enywaru Pius.

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