August 10th, 2019 To digital participate or not to participate
A year ago, Tunisia elected its first ‘real’ municipal councils. Councils have now been freed from ministry of interior and have their own new ministry of local affaires and the environment. The councils are final real representations of their community, and its members do not all belong to THE unique political party, with a dictated central decisions; now municipal councils could happily disagree and argue about every decision in the city, and each can make sure corruption attempts of the other are well shared on social media.
The councils operate following a well drafted very long local governance legislation, which was only approved by the parliament 9/5/2018, about a week before all 350 municipal councils got sworn in all over the country! The governing philosophy of this new long legislation, which probably most councillors have not finished reading yet, is participatory governance and decentralization of local decision, to grant a successful local democratic and ensure power to the people… as was the slogan in the revolution!
So how do you make people participate in their city’s decisions to ensure the success of local democratic governance? Well the ‘participation approach’ has been outlined by a clear methodology, whereby inhabitants attend municipal meetings and community development projects get voted by counting the number of hands up during the pre-announced meeting, as per the methodology. But, how can you ensure that everyone actually comes to those meetings!
Most municipality meetings take place at the municipality building; most are the most boring meetings one could attend, and you can consider yourself very lucky if you attend one without council members getting into an argument, that push meetings till late and important topics gets rushed through! Not all inhabitants have the time and can afford to come; in fact, you would probably only attend if you have a personal desperate request …
So how could we make participatory governance a success??
After a few months sitting on my city’s council, it was obvious that most city decisions, do not include women who hardly attend municipality meeting; rural area inhabitants have transportation difficulties, and it is far too boring for youth to attend…
I found the solution… let’s use digital solutions, so people can vote on their phones wherever they are, and city matters become inclusive of all city inhabitants… how cool would that be… women will then be able to voice their opinion on matters impacting their city, so will connected youth.
With all the IT engineers in the country, such an app. is certainly doable!
Ok, let’s contact a friend who could develop the right solution and make my city smart, inclusive, democratic and most important, regain inhabitant’s confidence in their local government! To start the project, we need to write an MOU, sign the MOU and take the hand shaking photos and post them on Facebook… and all the needed tralala to show the world our achievement before achieving… Voila… it’s signed… we are now ready for democracy!
After a few modest attempts, we faced several challenges:
An important percentage of inhabitants don’t have smart phones or PC at home and even struggled to register their children for school via the on-line registration system of ministry of education. Also, some rural areas that were most in need of development projects to vote for, do not have a reliable phone network to connect to!
Majority of inhabitants that have a smart phone, charge their phone with 1 TND of internet a week; which means the little time they spend on the internet, will definitely prioritise checking friends profiles on Facebook rather than selecting which pavement should be maintained, or whether the Saturday Souk should be moved outside the city centre or remain.
There was also some interesting debates with sceptical people from both sides; on one hand the municipality administration who are not comfortable with the new participatory approach, after years of working in peace implementing dictated central decision; on the other hand inhabitants who are not used to being citizens… in fact with all my strong will to make city decision participation a success, I am still shocked when an inhabitant asks me ‘but you were elected, you are the politician, so you should know what to do, why are you asking us?’
Another interesting challenge was legislation itself! Our city council had to vote on a subject of major importance to the city; the meeting date was during a week day, and since all of us council members are volunteers, some were not able to attend due to work obligations, but they voted on the subject matter via the digital voting system. During the meeting, I mentioned that absent council members have voted digitally and we need to include their votes, but then I was informed that according to the participatory regulations, only votes with attendees that raise their hands could be counted! Can we change internal policy of city councils to include digital votes? Question seems to be unwelcomed!
Voila, local democracy is work in progress, in the meantime, we will celebrate achievements before achieving and post them on Facebook, and work on citizenship before digital inclusion!