It was interesting to see e-Participation is incorporated as a measure in the United Nations e-Government Readiness Survey 2010 released recently. The UN defines e-Participation in the context of e-Government as “online services that opens up channels for online participation in public affairs” and it is composed of three sub-components:

  • Does the national government publish information on items under consideration?
  • Are there ways for the public to engage in consultations with policy makers, government officials and one another?
  • Can citizens directly influence decisions, for example by voting online or using a mobile telephone?

You can notice that the three components look for actions taken by the “governments” to allow “citizens” to e-Participate. This is not only because the UN survey by nature focuses on measuring the performance of the government  but mainly because the UN itself is still struggling in the “e-government” box instead of moving ahead towards the wider “e-governance” sphere!

However I’ve my concerns that governments and global institutions like UN are repeating the same mistake we witnessed more than a decade ago when the term “e-government” started to spread: to be led by technology and forget about the concepts behind it and the goals we are trying to achieve!

Among many promises made by e-government champions years ago, transparency was one of the most attractive ones; especially in developing countries where people used to look for any help in the struggle against corruption and bad governance. Years later, no much success has been made in these countries and we can’t blame e-government!

Fascinated by the power of the web and internet applications in mid and late 90s, governments in these countries  rushed to invest in e-government projects and waited to see their rankings moving up in Transparency International  lists and… still waiting! What went wrong? why didn’t e-government initiative make the promise of transparency and good governance?

As I said, it’s not the e-government’ s fault, it is the “government” responsibility! Governments has forgotten that “e” is just an enabler while transparency and good governance need requirements that we knew long time ago before the invent of the first computer chip: political willingness, institutions, culture, just to mention a few.

Thanks to social media and web 2.0, we are now facing a similar situation, this time it’s about e-Participation! social media has granted citizens unprecedented opportunity to participate in public affairs, and granted a similar opportunity to governments that are “ready” to engage their citizens in the “governance” process. But the world is not “flat” (sorry Thomas Friedman!) in this context. Although these tools are available and at a very low cost, but governments in developing countries have much more work to do than just opening more accounts in Facebook for government officials!

The good news this time is that and unlike the first wave, it’s not the sole privilege of the governments to decide, the social media empower citizens to positively support the motion of change they want. Still, in my humble opinion, governments have to do their homework.

Before or at least in parallel with their efforts to adopt social media tools to encourage e-Participation, governments in developing countries should find answers to some basic yet tough questions:

  • Are we ready to move from “government” to “governance”? do we have the required political willingness and commitment?
  • Do we really need the citizen to participate?
  • Are we ready? do we have the needed institutions to handle this?
  • Have we established the needed processes to  make the needed cultural changes?

By overlooking these facts, we will continue enjoying social media tools and the UN will continue publishing its annual reports but I’m afraid that no much difference will be made!