ICTs, Decentralization and Local Governance: Exploring the Potential (dot-ORG)

From January 30th to February 3rd, 2005, USAID’s Bureau for Asia and the Near East, Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Affairs, and Bureau for Economic Growth, Agriculture and Trade, organized a workshop in Cairo on Supporting Decentralization and Local Governance in the ANE Region: Fostering Multi-Sectoral Approaches.

dot-ORG participated in the workshop and presented in a panel on IT and the media, focusing on the role of modern ICT in supporting local governance (see the presentation). As a follow up to this workshop, this article provides an overview of the range of ICT interventions that can have critical pay-offs for local governments and when applicable, highlight dot-ORG’s ongoing projects in this field.

e-Government has received a lot of attention by governments around the world. Applying modern information and communication technologies to the delivery of government services has a great deal of potential in developing countries. What has received less attention, though, is the potential of modern and traditional ICTs to support decentralization and local governance.

In a context of decentralization, local authorities face increased responsibilities, limited resources, and at times, limited human resource capacity. In such environments, strategic investments in ICTs can really pay off.

Facilitating community participation in decision-making
ICTs can facilitate access to information critical to the local population’s understanding of how locally available resources are spent. Citizen access to the local government’s budget information can help. Budgets can be easily published on web sites or disseminated through other means to ensure that citizens are equipped with information to participate in decision-making processes even if these processes are still primarily face-to-face.

ICTs can facilitate community participation in decision-making by giving citizens a voice. This may be done through a telephone hotline to report abuse or complaints, combined with radio dissemination of such reports of abuses and complaints.

Increased efficiency of revenue collection and delivery services using ICTs
ICTs can help to computerize and network local government units to facilitate faster delivery of services and improved capabilities for analysis of data and decision-making. In Romania, dot-ORG has worked with a number of county level governments in this area.

In Sibiu County, dot-ORG has helped to improve the delivery of social services assistance (SSA) to local residents. In the past, communication between the local towns and the County’s administrative center in Sibiu were difficult and the process of applying for and receiving social services assistance was slow. Social services assistance employees handwrote most of the information provided by applicants, and the same employees were required to make time-consuming trips to the Social Services Center at the County level, in Sibiu. With the help of computers, Internet connections between local towns and the County’s administrative center, as well as additional training for local government employees, the efficiency of the SSA application process has greatly improved in the past few months. As a result, the low-income residents of Sibiu County are able to apply for and receive assistance much faster than in the past, at a time when they need it most.

In the City of Giurgiu, dot-ORG implemented a tax and document management system. The previous paper-based system was laborious and time consuming. The new system improves efficiency in processing the payment of taxes owed to the city. The new system also emphasizes process transparency to ensure that taxpayers only pay what they owe and are able to request tax information quickly and easily. Other benefits from implementing an electronic solution include increased understanding in computer literacy for administrators working in the tax department.

Reducing local administrative corruption and improving transparency using ICTs
ICTs facilitate access to reliable and consistent information for citizens to make it less likely that they will be taken advantage of or that simple processes will take longer than necessary. For example, if you are required to obtain a permit or license, it is important to know exactly what is required, to know that everyone is required to provide the same information and to know exactly what the process is. If that information is not widely available, applicants have to rely on local officials to tell them what to do and where to go and what to pay. When such information is widely disseminated via a range of ICTs, the chances of delays and abuse are reduced.

Supporting local economic development
Local governments hoping to increase their revenue base and to supply quality services to their constituencies will also want to pay attention to how attractive they can make themselves to local businesses and how they can provide the necessary local infrastructure for businesses to flourish. This may involve promoting the locality with a web site highlighting its strengths and the availability of services. On the other hand, it may involve ensuring that the locality has sufficient access to ICT and related services to be attractive to businesses.

Networking & knowledge sharing across local governments
ICT can facilitate communications and networking across local government entities and facilitate the development of local associations of municipalities that can in turn increase knowledge sharing and coalition building among local government units. In Central America, dot-ORG worked with the local municipalities to create such a network in the Connecta Project.

ICTs to support decentralization in education and health
Decentralization is a cross-sectoral issue and ICTs are cross-sectoral tools. ICTs can play an important role in facilitating decentralization processes in education and health for example. This may involve facilitating communications, data collection and data transfers between local governments department responsible for health and/or education to their respective central government ministries.

Lessons and challenges to be aware of
Based on dot-ORG's experiences in this field, a number of key lessons emerge:
  • Moving beyond the pilot stage and replicating activities across local government entities is difficult because the same local governments often fail to communicate among themselves and are wary of investing money;
  • Training and capacity building can become complex as it often involves multiple layers of decision-makers;
  • Lack of telecommunication infrastructure and the cost of connectivity often remain key obstacles;
  • Inter-operability needs to be addressed as proprietary systems that don't "talk to each other" can hinder necessary linkages between local and national level government units.

In short, ICTs have great potential to support decentralization process and local governance and any effort to help this potential materialize will likely have to tackle some or all of the key challenges listed just above.

For More Information, Contact:
Michael Tetelman
Acting Director, dot-ORG
Academy for Educational Development
Tel: 202 884 8856

Related DOT-COM Activity
Central America - Promoting CONnEctivity among Local Governments in CenTral America (CONNECTA)

Romania Information Technology Initiative - Access
Related DOT-COMments Newsletter Articles
Related Links
Click on USAID's logo to visit USAID
Click on Internews Network logo, to visit Internews
Click on Academy for Educational Development (AED) logo to visit AED
Click on Educational Development Center (EDC) logo to visit EDC
Core funding for the DOT-COM Alliance is provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Bureau for Economic Growth, Agriculture & Trade, Office of Infrastructure and Engineering (EGAT/OI&E), Office of Education (EGAT/ED), and Office of Women in Development (EGAT/WID), under the terms of Award numbers: GDG-A-00-01-00009-00, dot-GOV; GDG-A-00-01-00014-00, dot-ORG; GDG-A-00-01-00011-00, dot-EDU.
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