Participation, Transparency and Efficiency: the True Indicators of Modernization in the 21st Century

As technology advances and governance becomes virtual, citizens are becoming better equipped to individually hold officials accountable, and governments are becoming increasingly efficient. (Photo: Maryland GovPics/ Flickr)

When I was a kid growing up in Brazil, all governments in Latin America were right-wing military dictatorships. Today they are all center-left wing democracies—seemingly representing extraordinary progress. However, socio-economic indicators and trust in government have hardly improved.

In the most advanced democracies, discussion on whether a Government is right-wing or left-wing has become outdated.  Instead, the actual indicators of modernization and societal trust in government are participation, transparency and efficiency of public administration, which have been heightened thanks to advancements in technology.

Accountability and Efficiency in a New Age of Connectivity

A few weeks ago (September 3, 2015), President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala resigned, was formally charged and jailed in one day. He now awaits the conclusion of a trial on suspicion of participating in a multi-million dollar customs fraud scheme. All of this was the result of widespread protests that started in April and shook the country through massive use of social media.

Similarly, China reduced customs’ clearance time using technology from 22 days in 2001 to 22 seconds in 2010, promoting foreign trade at a time when businesses were gaining the ability to communicate on a global scale. Consequently, the customs revenue doubled during this time, while the number of employees increased by only 6 percent.

This extensive use of online communication to demand the trial of a President or to improve efficiency within government signals a major shift both in the way citizens are holding officials accountable and how public-private relationships are unfolding. Indeed, under increasing pressure from civil society and the private sector, governments are coming to realize that their popularity is increasingly dependent on their effectiveness and efficiency. I am convinced that the investigation of corruption scandals in Brazil is not an isolated phenomenon. It is part of a new global system in which participation, transparency and efficiency in public administration are demanded by citizens in most cities and countries worldwide.

The Shift to Online Governance

For the first time in its history, humankind possesses the technological and social means to consolidate communication between the public sector, the private sector and civil society in unprecedented ways.  This process, originally called governance, is rapidly changing due to the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).  I prefer to call our emerging new system post-governance or electronic governance.

Also for the first time in its history, since 2014, all 193 UN member countries have official portals—a national website to communicate and provide digital services to their citizens.  In France alone, for example, 11,000 services are offered online.

Chile, Uruguay and Mexico have portals for e-procurement and public purchases in a process that has become routine in many countries. The European Union, on the other hand, promotes an online platform dedicated to creating smart cities. Portugal has a national portal that integrates identification, electronic authentication and e-signatures allowing citizens to make transactions with the government without leaving home. In Finland, public transactions—such as the payment of taxes and fines and applications for birth certificates or a driver’s license—are routinely done digitally. In Estonia, citizens have voted in seven national elections by using their laptops and mobile phones. They do not desire voting machines as they find it important to balance efficiency with transparency.

Electronic governance is not limited to the so-called developed countries. In South Africa a platform for electronic democracy allows citizens to track the budgets and expenses of their governments at various levels. In Tanzania 70 percent of citizens own a mobile device, while only 40 percent have bank accounts. To address this gap, they created a platform called Smart Money which allows farmers to receive electronic banking transfers through their mobile phones.

For more than a century the world has discussed how to balance economic growth, social justice, and more recently, environmental protection. We must move beyond the political-ideological debate between left and right and instead focus on how states can move forward.  There is no other way: the State in the 21st century should incorporate participation, transparency and efficiency in their routine when committing to address sustainable development. As technology advances hand in hand with governance, there is little excuse not to.

Jonas Rabinovitch is United Nations Senior Advisor for State Modernization and Electronic Governance, writing in his personal capacity.  Rabinovitch attended the Cities & Transport International Congress, organized by WRI, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Learn more:

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