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LEVERAGING INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGIES IN GOVERNANCE

Monday, April 24th, 2017 

3rd annual International Youth to Youth (Y2Y) Summit

General Authority of Youth and Sports Welfare, Dubai, UAE 

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Today, it is virtually impossible to speak about governance without the mention of information and communication technologies (ICTs). They are often the vehicle of innovation, the reason behind progress, and the generators of efficiency. Many governments have been working with software engineers and IT experts on improving the way they deliver services to their citizens and communicate with the electorate.

With academic background in political science and experience in non-profit and public governance, Y2Y gave me a wonderful opportunity to speak about my slightly unconventional and seemingly unexciting passion in the context of the Summit’s overarching theme of ICTs in social innovation.

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Perhaps I underestimated the level of interestingness that the workshop would resonate with the conference’s participants because it was surprisingly well-attended. This gives me hope that more people out there realize how important and crucial governance is to carrying out the mission and vision of any organization, be it corporate, non-profit or public.

And because if there is anything I enjoy more than talking about governance it is writing about it, here is a recap for those who attended and an overview for those who missed it.

history

The first mention of governance as a concept or a coined term dates back to the 15th century Latin work The Difference between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy of John Fortescue, the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in England. However, governance as we comprehend it today is only around 20 years old and stems from the context of institutions like the United Nations or World Bank.

Information and communication technologies as a term have been used in academia since the 1980s. It hasn’t caught on in its abbreviated form, ICTs, until 1997 in Dennis Stevenson’s – Baron Stevenson of Coddenham – report to the UK government and further on in the revised National Curriculum for England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2000.

Strictly looking at the facts above, one is almost tempted to say that democracy originated in ancient Greece while governance in modern England; however, that conclusion would be flawed (for more than one reason) since the term governance itself comes from the Greek word ‘kubernao’ which means ‘to steer.’

GOV DEFdefinedef

GOOD GOB

  • Ensures sustainability
  • Is contextual
  • Articulates what the organization is accountable for
  • Makes it clear who the organization is accountable to
  • Aligns and prioritizes diverse and sometimes conflicting interests in order to avoid mission drift
  • Asks all the right questions
    • Who do we serve?
    • How do we ensure we deliver?

VS

It is important to understand the distinction between ICT governance (governance of ICTs) and ICTs in governance (use of ICTs in governance). The former is a corporate term and it is around 20 years old. The focus here is on business strategies, on setting out the framework for the behaviour and on regulations around the use of IT in a corporation or institution. The latter (the topic of the workshop) has been widely applied in the last decade and represents the variety of ways in which ICTs are used to enhance governance mechanisms and improve government services. 

The goal of my workshop was to get the audience to look at governance as something evolving and constantly developing and to think about how ICTs can enhance and positively contribute to this growth. Governance is naturally contextual, it differs from from one institutional context to the next and it depends largely on the goals and mission of the organization. To ensure one’s governance framework is up to date and conducive to goal achievement, it needs to accept change, adapt and most importantly innovate.

digit

DIGITIZATION has inevitably made our society more fluid and penetrated virtually (pun intended) every aspect of our lives, from education to security and healthcare. The world of work, for instance, has forever been transformed by the phenomenon of non-localization (enabled by digitalization) whereby working from one country for a company based in another country is becoming the new norm. Collaborating on online platforms and in online marketplaces is becoming a strain on national taxation policies and the relationship between corporations and governments has blurred significantly.

There is a logical tendency to consider the interconnectedness of people, workplaces, people and ideas as a phenomenon with a positive connotation. People can communicate more easily, ideas can spread faster, work-life balance is (or should be) easier to attain as working remotely is no longer an obstacle, etc. But does digitized interconnectedness necessarily mean increased efficiency, improved effectiveness, enhanced communication, positive impact, wider openness, more transparency and accountability, and ultimately better governance of people, resources, and services?

open data

One of government’s most straightforward ways to communicate with its citizens is making information openly accessible. In this digitized day and age there really is no obstacle to free release of data from public institutions, corporations, international organizations, civil society and NGOs. What’s often missing, however, is the willingness and desire to do so because opening one’s data inevitably means opening itself to greater scrutiny. A joint report by Transparency International and World Without Borders Foundation summed it up well: “Open data is an ingredient in accountability interventions.”

op gov

In a nutshell, open government is transparent, accountable, participative, and accessible. It is a government that makes all information and data publicly visible but most importantly comprehensible to a versatile and wide audience so that it enhances and improves the interaction and communication with the citizens. It is important to realize that an embrace of technology and of innovative ways in which information can be presented to the public does not necessarily equate government openness. The use of ICTs does not ensure but rather facilitate public engagement. Moreover, it is crucial to establish an information governance framework which will aim to present the data to the citizenry in a way that will lead and inform, not mislead and misinform.

Andrew Stott of the UK Transparency Board pointed out the importance of blending techniques with technologies, meaning to express that new technologies alone do not necessarily advance open government. Taryn Roch of the US Open Government 4 Us believes that it is all about citizen engagement and that while technology is a powerful facilitator, it is the mere beginning of open government.

Innovation plays an important role during and after the launch of open government efforts. If applied correctly and successfully, it has transformative effects on the system and citizens’ trust towards it. Similarly to any other sector or field, innovation in the government and public sector is about implementing a new idea, product or method; it needs to be considered carefully, it must be concrete, and it cannot be too broad. Vowing to make government more open is not sufficient; the team in place must outline specific ways in which this can be achieved. Innovation isn’t linear and while learning from successes as well as mistakes of other contexts is crucial, one will also soon recognize that one size won’t fit all.

Keeping up with the spirit of Microleaders, less is more and when it comes to public sector enhancements and progress, incremental steps are usually more viable and impactful than breakthrough innovations. In the end, as Frank Hebbert of Open Tools advises, it is all about building “tools that transform the experience of being an engaged citizen.”

In conclusion, let’s remember a few fundamental rules:

  • Applying ICTs in governance is not the end game; it is merely the beginning.
  • Technology facilitates.
  • Identify a need.
  • Innovate with impact in mind.
  • Fill a gap.
  • Observe and listen. Open government is citizen-centric.
  • Build a collective voice. Make citizens want to participate.
  • Less conversation (information), more action.
  • Accessibility + Awareness + Capacity + Interest + Usability = Impact 

Escape from Tibet: A journey of determination and search for freedom

The screen above the stage showed the audience a picture of a little eleven-year old boy dressed modestly, crying tears of exhaustion, hopelessness and fear. Sitting in a comfortable chair on the stage in a suit and tie was Tenzin, a student of translation and political studies at the University of Westminster in London, England remembering the moment depicted in the photograph when his and his older brother Pasang’s quest for freedom had run into a cruel impasse. “Look at Tenzin, [only] 11 on the screen and he is now [here with us]; he’s wonderful,” said Nick Gray, an award-winning documentary-maker and now first-time author of A True Story: Escape from Tibet,  encouraging a warm round of applause echoing through Knox Presbyterian Church on a soggy Saturday afternoon.

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Prompted by the host, his sister Charlotte Gray , Nick read a short passage from the book which he wrote several years after the documentary had been made as it is “the only book of its kind,” taking the reader on a long tiring journey through the most daunting escape route in the world, the Himalayas. The passage Nick shared described an encounter of Tenzin and Pasang with the Chinese guards. Soaked, beaten, distressed, hungry and frightened, Tenzin was losing every hope of ever achieving freedom. At that moment he wished to go back to their village to live with their mother and work in the fields but Pasang offered an alternative: they were going to persist and pursue studies in a monastery in Lhasa. Thus, the treacherous journey continued.

Nick met them on the top of a mountain pass after the boys had already spent over three months climbing through an extremely difficult terrain struggling to reach safety and freedom. Sadly, this was nothing unusual; in fact, one third of Tibetan escapees are children who set out on a hike across the mountains wearing pathetic shoes, suffering from snow blindness, and often perishing during their brave flight from Chinese oppression. Having listened to the story from both Nick and Tenzin’s perspectives, it became hard to believe that the well-educated multilingual young man sitting before us had endured so much in his childhood. It took Tenzin and Pasang months to get to India only to find out Tenzin was going to have to return and face all the embarrassment and abuse on Chinese hands again due to inadequate paperwork. Finally, an audience with Dalai Lama allowed both brothers to stay in India as refugees. Tenzin wiped the tears of despair for “the sun came out, our mood suddenly lifted and we saw a new frontier.”

 The production of this documentary was unlike any other. In order to be able to show people’s faces without shading them and exposing them to the possibility and danger of execution, abuse or exile, the filming took place outside of Tibet. Tenzin and Pasang, while sensing the involvement of some Westerners in their journey, were not aware of being showcased in a documentary. As a matter of fact, when they first came across Nick, they didn’t recognize the video camera; they did, however, notice a ‘weapon’ on a tripod. It wasn’t until a copy of the video was sent to the monastery through Pasang’s friend in 1996 that Tenzin watched himself on TV for the very first time. The powerful message of the film was spreading through the UK as well as the United States; the documentary was shown repeatedly, including at the State Department and the White House where Hillary Clinton had watched it before her visit to Nepal. Suddenly, the boys began receiving letters, money and even chocolates. Eventually, they were sponsored to come live in England and arrived to London on one cold November afternoon.

 The brothers still live there, Pasang working and Tenzin studying, and have visited their mother in Tibet many times since their escape. “She is an amazing, remarkably resilient woman,” says Nick who fondly recalls their first encounter. He smuggled a photograph of him and the Dalai Lama into Tibet. When she saw the picture, she grabbed it and “put it on her head as a blessing.”

What impressed me the most about Tenzin is how sincere, humble and grateful he is – for the crowded subway he has to take to school every day, for the enriching experience the University of Westminster has provided him with, for the opportunities that have been presented to him. While it is important his communication with Tibetan support groups remains limited, I am so glad that he and Nick came to speak to us openly about the difficult destiny of the Tibetan refugees and let us be part of this incredibly touching story of courage, resilience, hope, and friendship.

Note: Originally written for The Ottawa International Writers Festival 2014 at http://www.writersfestival.org/blog/escape-from-tibet-a-journey-of-determination-and-search-for-freedom