Both local governments and citizens are now equipped with digital technology. Governments are more capable of addressing daily public services. Women and marginalized groups now have better access to public resources and the confidence to talk about their rights and entitlements.
Problems and Purpose
The lack of access to and use of digital technologies in Nepal is one of the main constraints to promoting a better governance system. It is still difficult to encourage people’s meaningful participation, voice their interests, and act collectively to influence the government to engage in governance processes so they can enjoy and exercise their human rights and basic entitlements. The technologies developed for e-governance systems are either one-way or only usable for digitally literate people. The majority of women and marginalized groups (WMGs) are unable to use such technologies. The reasons are a lack of financial capacity, digital literacy, and education.
In this context, this Sustainable Use of Technology for Public Sector Accountability in Nepal, or, in short, the Susasan (good governance) project, was designed to fill existing gaps between the demand side of citizens and the supply side of governments. Members from selected community-based civil society organizations (CSOs), i.e., youth clubs, women's cooperatives, mother groups, user groups, etc., have been selected from the citizens' side as the main beneficiaries. Similarly, elected representatives and officials from municipalities have been made participants in the project's execution. It was implemented by the Center for International Studies and Cooperation (CECI) Nepal from March 2017 to May 2021, aiming to leverage mainstream digital technologies to promote good governance and accountability. The project worked with two local structures, i.e., rural municipalities and municipalities in six districts of Nepal.
Background history and context
In the 1990s, the people's movement introduced a multi-party democratic system with ceremonial kingship in Nepal. The 10-year-long Maoist armed conflict (1996-2006) ended with the restoration of democracy in Nepal—from monarchism to federalism. However, in a post-conflict situation, the prolonged transitional phase has negatively impacted the overall development and democratic processes of Nepal. The adoption of the seventh Constitution of Nepal in 2015 was the first Constitution made and adopted by the Constituent Assembly (CA), which was specifically selected for this purpose. This federal system divided the country into seven federal provinces and 753 local government structures (municipalities and rural municipalities).
The important and prolonged political transition based on the implementation of the 2015 Constitution has resulted in an evolving national legal framework for governance and development in the country. Local elections had not been held for the past 18 years, and the government at the local level was being managed by civil servants. Governance remained very fragile at both the national and local levels, creating significant opportunities for corruption. citizens, especially WMGs, and the rural population’s lack of knowledge and an enabling environment to participate in decision-making processes.
The local governments were set up with three kinds of rights, i.e., legislative, executive, and quasi-judicial. They became more independent in the formulation and execution of local policies and laws to improve governance and accountability. They are free to make decisions and exercise their rights, respecting the constitutional provisions. Nepal's government has been implementing a holistic governance program that aims to provide better services to citizens, improve transparency, advance socio-economic development, reduce poverty, and promote a knowledge-based society, including supporting good governance. Nepal’s 2006 Information Technology (IT) Policy has provided a broad framework for promoting e-governance. The Susasan Project has aligned with the Framework.
The latest restructuring of Nepal into a governmental structure of federal, provincial, and local units has not only devolved power and functions but also duties and responsibilities to ensure respective accountability. While this structure has complications, it has also opened doors to conceptualizing, piloting, and testing innovative mechanisms, tools, and practices at all three levels of government.
Therefore, the project team worked in close coordination with local governments during the project period. Besides, for the effective and smooth implementation of the project, it partnered with a national organization—Freedom Forum; Young Innovations, an IT company; and six district-level CSOs—one in each project district. To enhance the awareness and participation level of women, especially marginalized groups, in democratic processes, increase access to the use of technology, and hold the government accountable for the delivery of quality public services, techno-hubs were established in the local structures and their adjoining communities. The integrated technologies (online and offline) were linked with techno-hubs to promote citizen-state engagement, and platforms of accountability tools and mechanisms were developed to increase the responsiveness of the government.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The project, Susasan, was designed and implemented to close existing gaps between demand from citizens and the supply of government services using integrated technologies, with a focus on WMG's for the promotion of transparency and accountability in the public sector in six districts of Nepal. The project was implemented by CECI Nepal with financial grant support from Global Affairs Canada (GAC). CECI has implemented the project with Freedom Forum, a national NGO, and Young Innovations, a technology company, as national partners, and a local NGO implementing partner in each project district.
CECI and its partner organizations worked with municipalities, i.e., local governments, in order to help them acquire and become familiar with integrated technologies. These technologies allow for data to be made openly available to citizens and civil society, so as to increase transparency at the local level. By using both a supply-side and demand-side approach, the project aimed to increase the empowerment of women and men, girls and boys, and marginalized groups to increase their engagement in the democratic process and enjoy and exercise their human rights.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The Susasan Project utilized dynamic and complementary strategies, including capacity building through training, coaching, and technical support. The development of specific technological mechanisms and tools, infrastructural technological facilities for access and use, support to develop or adopt local government strategies, and policy documents were the major methodologies of the project implementation. Besides the abovementioned methods, awareness campaigns were carried out through the project's intervention on the importance of civic participation, the socio-economic impacts of public service delivery, citizen-state engagement, and other events of knowledge transfer through the project.
WMGs were chosen as the primary project implementation participants. In each district, 20 primary local CSOs and an additional 10 secondary CSOs were selected from each working municipality by coordinating with these respective municipalities. The selected CSOs were local mother groups such as women-led cooperatives, farmers’ groups, youth clubs, forest user groups, water supply, and sanitation consumer committees, settlement improvement committees, etc. After selecting these CSOs, they were endorsed by their respective municipalities to work with them throughout the project period. In each process of the project implementation, the members of CSOs were taken as participants. The members were capacitated on the issues related to open data, budget transparency, and grievance reporting, which were the main themes of the project intervention.
Methods and tools used
The Susasan project leveraged integrated digital technologies to improve the transparency and responsiveness of government services at the local level and to enable community groups, previously reluctant to speak out and act collectively, to become involved in the decision-making processes of their respective local governments. The project worked both with municipalities and CSOs (both demand and supply sides) to help them acquire and use technologies to disseminate information about the management of public affairs and with community organizations to support them in analyzing and using e-governance systems to better defend the interests of the groups they represent.
The project’s main method was co-creating tools and technologies. The tools and technologies developed for the local government were co-created with the joint effort of the respective local government and technology partner of the project. Another method was conducting Susasan School (Governance School). The School is the capacity-building approach of the Susasan Project to enhance skills, knowledge, and capacities in thematic areas. It was done through collaborative action amongst the project teams, local governments, citizens, and other key stakeholders.
The participation of WMGs is crucial in terms of citizen-state engagement in order to address their needs in decision-making, policies, and guidelines. The project adopted a multi-faceted approach that collaborates with the CSOs, commonly referred to as the demand side, and the local government, usually articulated as the supply side. The project team worked rigorously with the CSOs and the local government to develop Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) policies. The key goals of the policies were to assist in increasing the representation of marginalized groups, escalating the government's responsiveness to their needs, and ultimately spurring their involvement in exercising their democratic rights.
What Went On: Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
The project utilized dynamic and complementary strategies, including capacity building through training, coaching, and technical support; the development and/or adaptation of specific technological mechanisms and tools; infrastructural technological facilities for access and use; support to develop or adopt local government strategy and policy documents; an awareness campaign on the importance of civic participation, especially for WMG; the socio-economic impacts of public delivery service monitoring and citizen-State engagement; and sharing events for knowledge transfer.
GESI Policy: Supporting the formulation or revising of the GESI policies of the selected and endorsed CSOs was one of the deliverable mandates of the project. Therefore, at the beginning of the project, the staff of the local implementing partner NGOs were provided with a three-day-long intensive Training of Trainers (ToTs) on gender and social inclusion (GESI). After receiving the TOTs, the implementing partners conducted a one-day training session for the members of the CSOs on formulating the GESI policy in their respective organizations. Simultaneously, line agency local governments were also supported in the identification of policy needs, strategies, and guidelines. The local governments were provided technical support in the formulation of policies, strategies, and guidelines by the project teams in a participatory approach.
Another main intervention of the project was supporting digital tools and technologies for local governments to promote transparency, accountability, and citizen-state engagement. For this, the project applied a co-creation process and carried out a preliminary scoping of the information, communication, and technology (ICT) needs of local government. In the initial phase, the local government was newly constituted and lacked skilled personnel in the domain of effective and efficient public service delivery. A preliminary scoping visit to all the twelve working local governments was carried out by CECI and its technology partner, Young Innovations. This resulted in a clear commitment articulated by the locally elected representatives towards the development of ICT tools to strengthen efficiency, responsiveness, accountability, and openness at the municipality level.
Co-Creation: This preliminary scoping visit clearly indicated the local need for disseminating key information to the general public by leveraging technological platforms. The majority of the local government representatives strongly expressed their desire to share key information like decisions made by the local government, budgets and programs, profiles of the local government, and a robust system to communicate with the general public. Based on these needs, the project supported the local governments in digitizing the documents that were traditionally managed on paper. As a result, the first technological intervention in the ICT development process was digitization.
The digitation of the documents created a strong foundation for developing accurate technological solutions by combining the expectations of the local level government with the key thematic areas of the project, like open data, budget transparency, citizen reporting, and grievance reporting. Then all the local governments supported the development of a municipal data portal. For example, see https://barhabise.susasan.org. These portals supported the local governments with their transparency and work efficiency. Citizens also benefited from the portals. Likewise, the other tools were co-created as per the needs of the governments. Except for the municipal data portals, the other co-created tools were municipal mobile applications, point of interest maps, group SMS, audio messaging systems, grievance redressal management systems (GRMS), judicial management systems (JMS), infrastructure management systems (IMS), electronic citizen charters, and e-recommendation formats. To use the developed tools, IT officers of the local governments were repeatedly capacitated by coordinating with the respective mayor and deputy mayor. Similarly, citizens were also informed and oriented about the tools and technologies through selected CSOs. CSOs worked as intermediaries.
Susasan School: Susasan, or Governance School, is the capacity-building approach of the Susasan Project to enhance skills, knowledge, and capacities in thematic areas. It is done through collaborative action amongst the project teams, local governments, citizens, and other key stakeholders. This approach enables CECI to reach the grassroots level through district project implementing partners who have direct links with beneficiaries. With this approach, training and capacity-building activities were delivered to reach the broader population, with special emphasis on women and marginalized groups, both effectively and efficiently.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The project has been found relevant in addressing the needs of the citizens, especially for the WMGs, in better understanding their local government’s processes and enhancing effective participation. Likewise, it has also contributed to the needs of local governments to provide effective service delivery to their citizens. Local government representatives, especially the candidates for mayors and deputy mayors, have included making smart municipalities with the development of ICT in their election campaigns. Therefore, the project has become a mechanism for fulfilling one of the promised agendas of the representatives.
The project has supported citizens by increasing their knowledge of the use of technology, especially having information about their respective local governments. The target citizens/WMGs have been taught through a series of orientations how to use municipal mobile apps, data portals, online citizen charters, and other useful technology. The target citizens then began to assert their rights and maintain demands for development projects in their community. The achievement seems satisfactory, as was anticipated.
Due to having information from mobile apps and other information systems, the project beneficiaries have been involved in the local-level planning processes of their respective municipalities. WMGs representing different groups have participated in the municipal budget distribution process. Some of them have received funds from their wards to carry out mini-projects in their community. Additionally, most of the WMGs have become able to speak in front of the local government officers and representatives. Participation in decision-making, mainly in the planning process of annual budgeting, is one of the impacts of the project intervention. This has increased transparency in budget utilization and prioritized community-based needs.
According to the end-line survey report of the project, 78.14 percent of beneficiaries who were involved in the different phases of the projects have participated in local-level policies, plans, and budget formulation processes. (End-line Survey, 2021). The project has improved trust between citizens and local government due to the provision of transparent information like budget allocation, utilization, and different services that are available. The project intervention increased more informed interaction between local government and community organizations. The local governments have extensively used the group text messaging systems and audio messaging systems supported by the project. Likewise, the infrastructure management system (IMS) is one of the most useful tools used by Dhangadhi Metropolitan City, one of the working local governments on the project. Due to its use of the IMS and other digital technology, the metropolitan city was awarded by the Town Development Fund as one of the best municipalities in Nepal (Open Contracting Partnership, 2020).
The IMS, JMS, e-recommendation systems, and a few other tools have been replicated by nine other adjoining local governments outside of the project’s working areas. The project claims that the beneficiaries who frequently participated in the project activities have better access to public resources and have gained the confidence to process and engage in public forums and speak for their rights and entitlements. WMGs and members of different civil society organizations have strengthened their technological capacity to engage in local-level governance processes.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The Susasan Project specifically targeted women and marginalized groups, strengthening their capacities in digital technology and including some conventional activities to participate in the democratic process at the local level. However, the capacity enhancement processes also included other women and men, as well as girls and boys. The project has been implemented with a balance of both demand and supply-side perspectives. With limited resources and experience in governing local governments, they have tried to address the diverse demands of citizens.
The technology tools, including data portals, have been developed with the involvement of local governments. The tools were prepared based on the demand from the local community and local government, which has supported the enhancement of ownership by the local government and sustainability. Both local government representatives and citizens, especially WMGs, have become aware of the digital technologies that promote the e-governance system at the local level. However, many of them are still not digitally friendly. Therefore, the community techno-hubs have not functioned as the project expected in terms of increasing access to information and data from the local government (End-line Survey, 2021). Techno-hubs are centers established in communities with digitally equipped infrastructure and tools and technologies for community members to have access to information from the local government. Using integrated technology and tech hubs are new concepts in local government. So it took time to institutionalize, with limited time to reach and be aware of its importance and usage.
More specifically, the local governments have improved their efficiency due to the use of technology supported throughout the project, but a continuation of the technology used at the same strength has become questionable after the phased out of the project. The improvement in performance appraisal and the positive perception of citizens towards the work of local governments were commendable. The tools and technologies were requested by 13 adjoining local governments for replication. Though there was a high volume of demand for replication of the tools and technologies, the project could technically support replication by working with local governments. The Susasan School was also a highly recommended program series for replication by other local governments.
Thus linking the achievement of the project: Prior to the project interventions, the community members, especially women, were fully engaged in their household chores, and they rarely participated in the community development initiatives. They were neither aware of their rights nor of the initiatives undertaken by their local governments. Now the WMGs have become more aware of the programs under the mandate of their local governments. Moreover, they are fully aware of their right to ask questions related to social and infrastructural development to their local representatives, either directly in the public forums or online. The achievement of the project is not large, but selected people have fully benefited from the intervention. Digital technology supports empowering people and ultimately promotes transparency, accountability, and human rights. It would be preferable if such an intervention could be extended and replicated for a larger number of people.
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