A local democratic deficit – SMS polling to the rescue?

Mobile phone penetration in Armenia is at 116 percent

Armenian public decision-making has typically been marked by distrust and low engagement, despite having access to the necessary legal framework and institutions.

Recently, though, there have been signs of greater civic activism and trust in local authorities.

According to data from the Caucasus Barometer, local governments had the third highest public trust rating in 2012 (after religious institutions and the army), whereas they were rated 14th in 2011.

Through the Women in Local Democracy project, UNDP supports women’s participation in local decision-making and helps communities foster inclusive, gender-sensitive governance. One of the issues observed is that female members of the community councils (also called Avagani) often have a hard time making their voices heard in a male-dominated space.

With this in mind, the project team aims to offer communities quick and affordable ways to engage people in decision-making – appealing especially to those who don’t have internet access or the ability to engage through offline channels.

The idea…

…is to develop an easy-to-use micro-referendum tool – an SMS polling application – that can help local authorities reach the vast majority of their constituents and provide them with a safe environment to express their opinions.

Mobile-based engagement requires very little effort and will allow fast responses from a broad constituency (considering that the mobile penetration in Armenia is 116 percent).

In addition to the immediate feedback the tool is designed for, it might encourage respondents to get more involved in community issues in general.

With the tool, members of local government (municipalities and local councils) will be able to reach constituents directly and then publicize the community’s opinions on major issues, using graphics or charts on their websites.

Council members would be able to refer to advance polling data when making decisions at council meetings, and the tool could also be used to spread information about upcoming Avagani meetings, security alerts, and other issues.

What’s next?

The project team wants to engage users in the tool’s development. The plan is to choose two communities (one urban and one rural) where Government representatives and community residents will be randomly selected to give feedback on the project.

At the same time, the team will look to similar platforms and initiatives (frontlinesmsureporttextizen,Macedonia experiencenowsmsElva platform and others) for inspiration and to see how challenges have been addressed in the past.

The prototype will be tested and refined based on user feedback and expert consultations, then piloted in five or six communities. Local media have also agreed to cover the story, helping to get the word out about the new micro-referendum tool.

Women in Local Democracy and its partners (the Ministry of Territorial Administration and partnerNGOs) are well-positioned to support this small initiative in implementation, promotion and expansion across the country. Once the tool is up and running a broad communications campaign will promote it country-wide.

Initial feedback…

“I receive lots of spam SMS messages every day, and if it is not from someone I know, I immediately delete it,” says a young resident of Hankavan community, “besides, how would I know that my voice was heard and counted, even if I do respond?”

While reactions like the one above and other challenges are to be expected, I’m happy to note that the feedback so far has been generally positive.

If you’ve worked on a similar project, what were some unexpected challenges you faced?

What were the most important features you included?

I’ll be back with more news as the project progresses… and would be grateful to hear from colleagues about any other similar initiatives and practices!

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