M-governance: promises for the future?

Democratic governance and political accountability are defined by the very nature of information and communication. Transparency in any organisation, state or enterprise, is often obscured by bureaucracies that still rely on hierarchical structures to control the access and delivery of information.

ICT's and mobile technologies are increasingly challenging this outdated paradigm. Opening the horizontal flow of information and ideas across previously rigid institutional boundaries enables the creation of new, democratic and more adaptable networks and the ability for citizens to organise effectively.

An exploratory survey conducted by the iHub in Nairobi, Kenya aims to assess the viability of using mobile technologies to improve government service delivery and citizen-government interactions. Exploring the potential application of M-governance services has been quite the buzz in ICT4D spaces and this has been spurred by the increasing ubiquity and affordability of mobile phones and services.

As of September 2011, Kenya has a 25.27 million mobile subscribers. More than any other technology, mobile phones are affordable, cheap to operate and maintain, use a wide range of applications and create flexible and adaptable networks to suit the needs of geographically diverse populations. The surveys main findings reflect how urban Kenyan respondents still equate governance with government; something that is done from the top with relatively little input from below. 

The iHub survey rightly acknowledges that the first generation of E-governance initiatives had limited success. This was because they resulted in a computerization of already prevalent systems and practices in government without taking into account the structural changes that are the result of the democratisation of information and communication. So how does M-governance provide an alternative model? 

Mobility, flexibility and inform-ability are no longer ideals but are becoming realities with the spread and creative use of mobile networks by platforms like Freedom Fone, FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi or Souktel. One major difference in M-governance is the mobile nature of information sharing, reporting and advocacy. When information can be made available on-demand and shared widely at relatively low costs, when and where necessary, then that information can impact the decision making process. 

Increased mobility also means that issues are no longer bound to traditional constituencies and parties. In the same way that the printing press was seminal in creating national identities in Europe during the 19th century, mobile communications are today providing completely new possibilities for awareness, organisation and action. Mobile information can inspire to action and create solidarity across sectors of society that have remained traditionally or geographically divided. 

However, we also see a growing responsiveness of politicians and institutions to new media technologies. We only have to look at how autocratic regimes in the Middle East are beginning to use such technologies to enhance their propaganda machines and hold on to power. So we must be careful in equating a governments willingness to use ICT and new media tools with "good" governance when such tools can be easily used for opposite purposes.

Yochai Benkler, in his seminal book the Wealth of Networks talks about the emergence of a new mode of production he calls the networked information economy. Benkler explains how: "...the diversity of ways of organising information production and use opens a range of possibilities for pursuing the core political values of liberal societies - individual freedom, a more genuinely participatory political system, a critical culture and social justice." (2006, pg13)

The point being that the traditional trade off between political freedom for social welfare, the main rationale for concentrating power in an elite that has the monopoly on information production and distribution, no longer holds true in a network information economy. Can this new reality promise to expand the horizon of political imagination?