Armenia: Communities have their say via SMS polling
Last November we discussed the development of an easy-to-use micro-referendum tool – an SMS polling application – to encourage citizen engagement in communities throughout Armenia.
We wanted to help local authorities reach their constituents by providing them with a safe and open forum to express their opinions.
We interviewed a bunch of potential users – both ordinary citizens and government representatives – and the results were promising. People expressed interest in participating in the poll if it dealt with issues relevant to their community.
We also learned that local self-government bodies already have techniques to collect information on community problems and priorities, but those efforts are mostly fragmented and non-systematized.
On the ground
In December 2013, we went ahead and completed the first round of SMS polling in five communities in Armenia.
Two outreach missions to each community preceded the polling. First our UNDP Project team provided promotional and planning support. Then Mobbis, an Armenian mobile communication company and partner in the project, trained local self government representatives on how to conduct SMS polls and residents on how to respond to them.
We were on the ground, going door-to-door. We used local news and social media, met with people working in the municipalities, and we mobilized schools, health centres, and post offices to get the word out and invite citizens to participate.
With the data collected and aggregated by gender and age, local government representatives will be able to use mobile technology to perform inquiries or micro-referendums among their constituents and then make better decisions for the community based on their feedback.
“Worried whether people would respond or not, I could hardly sleep the night before the SMS-poll,” said S. Sukiasyan, the Mayor of Areni, one of the participating villages. “After the poll, when I saw the response, I am even more encouraged to continue this activity and will allocate funds in the Areni community budget for further polls.”
Here are some of our initial impressions and insights:
- Strong interest from our national partners. The Republic of Armenia’s Ministry of Territorial Administration is our main partner and has been involved at every stage. We also saw a lot of collaboration between local government and citizens – with 2,656 people now registered in the database.
- Active engagement of the local government representatives is essential throughout all phases of the project. Immediate communication with residents is also essential. Where community activists and local governments actively promoted the tool, the response rates were higher.
- We received a lower than predicted response from the communities. Given that we conducted the SMS-poll among residents who agreed to participate, we expected more of them to respond. However, we were pleased to note that 612 community members in the five pilot communities responded to the poll.
- More resources must be invested in outreach and public awareness/promotional campaigns especially in areas with no television station.
- Polling questions were defined by the head of the community and the local council. In some communities, the selected questions caused heated debate. However this also led to robust discussions and consensus over the questions in a truly democratic way.
Based on the initial findings and level of interest, we believe this project should continue and be expanded beyond the original pilot.
- Commence a second round of polling. The timing of this round will vary from community to community based on their priorities and plans.
- Operationalize the web interface for the micro-referendum tool. This will enable local government to conduct SMS-polls on their own.
- Conduct follow-up interviews with the local government representatives on the process, results of the SMS- poll and its potential impact on their decision-making.
- Develop a user-friendly knowledge product that will integrate community profiles, approaches, the process and results of the SMS-polling experience, as well as selective feedback and other relevant information.
- Continue resource mobilization and promotion efforts for expanding the project beyond the pilot villages.
We’d like to hear from you too! Have you ever worked on a similar project?
If so, what promotion techniques did you use and what worked well in motivating and engaging the community?
How can we quickly and effectively collect feedback from residents on usefulness of the SMS-polling?