Redefining citizen engagement using technology

By Anne
iHub Research
  Published 23rd October 2013
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Redefining citizen engagement using technology

Have you ever wondered how people in authority communicate with citizens? For instance, the Governor/MP is visiting their home area--ever wonder how people are mobilized to attend the rally?

Away from the city, technology use to receive information is very limited. Citizens rely more on traditional media such as radio, TV, newspapers and word of mouth to get the latest updates or news. When the governor is visiting a ward, he sends word to the officials at ward level, who then go into the villages to inform the residents of the governor’s visits. On the contrary, in the cities, there is more widespread use of technology to receive information by citizens. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Internet use are quite popular, especially on mobile.

A month ago, iHub Research, together with representatives from other technology hubs, travelled to Busia County to find technology needs in rural areas. It was not surprising to find that use of technology to quickly access information on public services is not as popular as in Nairobi. When a citizen wants to make an inquiry on a particular issue to a government office, they are often required to physically visit the offices to get their issues resolved. This process often involves transport costs, time wastage and other limitations.In the cities and urban areas, with reliable Internet connection, one can easily get access to breaking news. This can be from social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, from email etc. Outside the city, it’s a completely different story.

Depending on the network coverage in the area you are visiting, access to Internet varies. It was interesting to note that it takes extra effort to receive news in rural areas. Short of watching TV or listening to the radio/reading the newspaper, majority of the time, news was spread by a local person in the area.

If we conducted a poll today, how would you rate citizen engagement across the country? Do you think Kenyans have a say in effecting change to issues that affect them? How do they say it? Can you pinpoint some examples?This year has seen politicians pass controversial bills and one particular bill that resulted in the cost of living going up is the Value Added Tax Bill 2013. To the ordinary mwananchi, the bill meant well to standardize taxation - streamline the tax administration process as well as enable the government raise income for the bloated expenditure budget. Some of the decisions that led to deciding which items were zero rated and those that were not can be found in this article, however, majority of the citizens probably received limited information on the bill as it went through the different stages in parliament till it was passed. This information was relayed in newspapers, news bulletins in TV stations and radio.

Citizen engagement is premised on the belief that people should have and want to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. Citizen engagement provides a vision for a way forward – a way of reinvigorating current democratic practices and institutions, bringing meaning to people’s participation and fostering a two way dialogue between citizens and governments (Amanda Sheedy, 2008)[1].

In Uganda, some organizations are using a mixture of traditional and new media to get more citizens engaged in keeping their leaders accountable. An example is found in one of Torodev’s projects where they train journalists on how to extract news from social media and have them highlight the stories on mainstream radio. So far this method is proving to be quite successful and has resulted in a community forum being setup where citizens post their issues, which are then aired, on the station.

There is need to rethink the whole process of citizen engagement. Several articles in the Kenyan constitution continuously affirm the right of the citizen to information as well as participation in public matters. Increasing citizen engagement in the democratic space has high potential in impacting service delivery and the way things are run in the country. It is time to rethink the way this process is done and utilize ICT to increase the engagement.


[1] Handbook on citizen engagement, beyond Consultation, Amanda Sheedy In collaboration with Mary Pat MacKinnon, Sonia Pitre and Judy Watling. 2008

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