A US$45 million pot to fund innovative projects that aim to increase government transparency and accountability using web and mobile technology has been unveiled by the UK, US and Swedish governments.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) launched the Making All Voices Count (MAVC) initiative this month (5 December) to support Internet-based technologies that increase interaction between citizens and governments.
MAVC will focus on reducing corruption and improving citizen engagement with governments in developing countries. As well as USAID and the Swedish government, the initiative involves the UK government's Department for International Development and the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic firm that invests in innovation to help drive economic and social change.
There's a very large movement towards open government right now, Victoria Ayes, senior advisor on anti-corruption and good governance at the USAID's Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance, tells SciDev.Net. There are also a lot of citizen initiatives that are taking advantage of new technology to articulate citizens' concerns on corruption, service delivery and crime.
Sometimes these two movements don't work in parallel, or they operate unevenly. Either the government can't engage with their technologically empowered citizens, or the reverse, where governments are open and transparent and the citizens don't know what to do with the data. This initiative hopes to address that gap.
MAVC was inspired by several existing initiatives.
One is an Indian website called 'I Paid a Bribe' that aims to tackle corruption by harnessing the collective energy of citizens, according to its website. It allows people to anonymously post details of bribes that they had to pay to officials. Any patterns of systemic corruption are passed on by Janaagraha, the non-profit organisation that runs the site, to the Indian government.
An example of government and local communities using technology to improve public services is Satu Layanan, a website set up by Open Government Indonesia. The site provides information on local government services and citizens can add comments about their experiences with, or concerns about, them.
USAID hopes the new fund will empower citizens by providing access to useful information and improve governments' engagement with citizens.
We hope to help citizens understand the information that governments are now publishing and making more transparent. A budget is a long and complex document. How does it become meaningful for the average person? That's certainly an innovation that we would expect to see, says Ayes.
On the other side, some countries solicit citizen engagement on legislation that is under consideration. We also want to see government opening up to analysis enabled by citizens.
As well as supporting technology-based initiatives and evaluating their outcomes, MAVC will also carry out research to create a solid evidence base in governance, driven by social science methodologies, says Ayes.
She believes that community links can also be strengthened through improved communication.
Mobile phones enable someone to text in about violence at a polling station and experiences of crime or bribery, as in the 'I Paid a Bribe' model. Citizens can tell their community what's going on, says Ayes.
The launch of MAVC was welcomed by the World Bank, which also supports using citizen feedback in its projects, according to Caroline Anstey, managing director for the World Bank Group. We need to support innovative ideas and technology solutions, share knowledge on what works and why, and scale that up, she says.
Applications for MAVC support are due to open in the first half of 2013, and the initiative is expected to run for four years, according to USAID.