About ICT Programming & Democracy
Information and communication technologies present benefits and challenges to democratic development. The Internet provides a voice for all people and groups - democratic and undemocratic. Undemocratic forces are employing powerful technologies with equal, if not greater, efficiency and scope, which further highlights the importance of empowering democrats and institutions in emerging democracies to use ICTs as a tool to enhance the information sharing, efficiency and transparency that are crucial to building and sustaining democracy.
Providing access to all citizens, particularly those in less developed socioeconomic areas in developing and developed nations, presents a related developmental challenge. Lack of access to technologies such as telephones, television, radio and others have frustrated development efforts for decades. This access is currently limited to a small segment of the world's population, and the technological divide between those with access and those without is significant and growing. At first glance this appears to pose a serious challenge to exploiting the potential of the Internet for democratic development and citizen participation in democratic governance. NDI's experience suggests, however, that pragmatic strategies for using the Internet and related technologies notwithstanding the technological divide are critical in beginning to narrow the gap and enhancing participation by those currently disconnected.
The primary factors that hinder access to Internet and related technologies for the global, and especially rural, populations are: 1) level of technology and infrastructure; 2) cost; 3) cultural, linguistic or other social barriers; and/or 4) low political will to address these issues. Yet there are thousands of important organizations, and millions of people, who do not necessarily face these issues and who reside in emerging democracies. In many countries these are civil servants, members of Parliament and parliamentary staff, NGO and civil-society organization staff and members, teachers and students, leadership and staff in various institutions inside and outside the governmental sphere, political party members and/or staff, employees in all spheres of the private sector, and more. These people almost certainly come from disconnected communities, but work or are involved with organizations that could and should be connected.
Many of these organizations are disconnected not because they lack telecommunications infrastructure or providers of equipment and training, nor because they lack a recognition of the importance of getting connected and communicating or sharing information. They remain disconnected because they lack either the moderate financial resources required, or the technical and managerial expertise to adequately plan for and procure the needed equipment, systems and services. These are areas where NDI provides assistance.
As a democracy practitioner, NDI’s developmental assistance must deal with the task at hand: providing useful support to enhance democratic development through Internet and related technologies, where appropriate, within those sectors of society where such support is currently practical. In doing so, we inevitably bridge people within these societies from one side of the divide to the other.
NDI has learned to apply both an in-depth knowledge of the democratic workings of its partners gained over time, and the technical and project management expertise needed to work with information technology (IT) vendors -- providing a crucial middle layer necessary for a successful IT initiative. In addition, NDI's success is linked to that of the project and the partner, with the ultimate goal being the development of sustainable systems using local staff, equipment and service providers which support the democratic process. NDI's ICT and democracy programs are designed to support democratic principles such as good governance, accountability, transparency, efficiency, communication and outreach. ICTs are used in a crosscutting manner, strengthening initiatives in governance, political parties, election processes, citizen participation, and gender programs.
Introduction to our ICT Programs
NDI has conducted successful ICT programs for over a decade in all regions of the world. Project Vote, an NDI voter education program supporting the 1994 South African local government elections, had an early and impactful ICT component. After the elections, NDI was the only organization in the country that could gather information on elected councilors from all 768 of South Africa's newly created municipalities (then called “transitional local authorities”), and that could compile that information in a database. The database was printed in a volume, widely distributed, and then handed over to the Department of Local Government and Housing and the South African Local Government Association for ongoing maintenance. Since that time, NDI has conducted a wide variety of programs with ICT components around the world.
Over time as technological changes have accelerated and Internet use has become more prevalent, more NDI partners and program managers have asked for ICT-related assistance. Donors have also become more interested in this type of democracy programming. NDI has participated and presented its work in several international forums, such as the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Workshop on the Internet and Democracy Building in Wilton Park, U.K., in May 2001, and the International IDEA Democracy Forum in Stockholm. Since 2003, further collaboration opportunities on the World Bank's Development Gateway project, with Steven Clift of e-democracy.org, and with the National Academy of Engineering on Technology and Peacebuilding, has characterized NDI’s participation in a broad range of ICT initiatives. In 2007, NDI was recognized as one of the “Top 10 Who Are Changing the World of the Internet and Politics” by PoliticsOnline and the World E-Gov Forum.
As the field of technology and democracy becomes more visible, NDI will continue its leading work, having worked in emerging democracies for over 14 years and gained considerable experience. Throughout its experiences in ICT, NDI has also come to recognize and realize the potential that technology holds for democracy support, and continues to include technology components in its democratic development programs where beneficial, feasible and sustainable.
NDI is optimally positioned to succeed with technology-and-democracy related programs not only because it can bridge the gap in developing IT systems with its partners, but also because of its existing field offices, relationships and contacts in dozens of countries.
An effective ICT project requires a strong relationship with a partner, with crucial support and buy-in from the partner’s senior leadership and an excellent understanding by NDI of the partner’s business processes and objectives. NDI has program staff around the world that have established these relationships, and who are involved in various forms of institutional support. Such relationships build awareness of core needs within a partner organization, positioning NDI as uniquely qualified to provide the assistance an organization needs.
NDI’s network of program staff members gives the institute a unique ability to assess its partners’ proposed technology systems, and to assist in developing estimates of initial and ongoing budgets for building such systems. NDI can then support proposed projects by sharing the skills needed to implement sustainable ICT programs.
Sustainability through Organizational Capacity Building
While in many aspects of NDI programming, value comes through sharing knowledge and experience among democratic leaders or documenting and sharing democracy-building experience, building sustainable ICT systems requires a slightly different strategy.
Technology programming typically involves building systems (websites, databases, communication networks, etc.) and thus requires organizational changes within our partner institutions in order to maintain these systems. These changes drive planning, assessment, implementation and program evaluation.
Sustainability means that development of an Internet or other IT system must happen in parallel with a process of building capacity within the partner organization to support and maintain the system. The partner must form the necessary relationships within its country to meet its ongoing needs for equipment, support and services. This approach may result in a higher initial investment, and requires a longer-term engagement (several months to several years) with the partner organization as it aligns its staffing and budgeting to meet the long-term commitment of supporting the systems. Over that longer term, however, this approach has proven effective at allowing NDI and its donors' funds to continue to bring value to its partners, and to support democratic development long after the Institute’s initial program has terminated.
Areas of Expertise
To strengthen the broadest range of democracy and governance programs, NDI strives to pioneer new applications of technology through inventive and inclusive techniques and apply them to the unique challenges within developing democracies. Program areas in emerging democratic countries with significant ICT components include: governance, elections and political processes, political parties, women’s empowerment and citizen participation.
NDI's governance work tends to emphasize the political dimension of democratic governance within four main practice areas: constitutional reform, legislative development, local government, and public integrity. NDI has assisted partners in developing legislative tracking systems and building websites for parliaments in countries throughout the world, including sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. This support has included assistance for parliaments and executive branch offices in technology planning and training, development of technical support units, provision of computers and networking resources to institutions, and building of voting and translation systems. In September 2005 NDI conducted its largest legislative technology program to date, providing substantial technology assistance to the Iraqi National Assembly to help it improve management of legislative information.
Macedonia Casework Tracking Database
NDI's work with the National Assembly and political parties in Macedonia on a constituency outreach program resulted in the establishment of 45 new constituency offices in 2004. The success of this program led to difficulties in managing the offices’ case loads, and made it evident that the offices needed to replace paper filing methods for tracking constituent casework with electronic tools.
In response, NDI assisted the Macedonian political parties in developing a casework tracking database in 2005, and deploying it to the 45 constituency offices. The database facilitates reporting and record keeping, and allows office assistants to enter cases they received over the phone, by letter, or by email. The database is trilingual; its operators can switch between Macedonian, Albanian and English.
Elections and Political Processes
The most prominent of NDI’s recent technology innovations have been in the elections area, where NDI has pioneered sophisticated uses of cell phones for domestic election observation. Combining an SMS (text message) based reporting system with NDI's rigorous observation methodology, NDI partners can enhance the integrity of elections by alerting authorities to problems early enough to allow remedies. The speed of SMS-based reporting also allows the Institute’s partners to publicize an assessment of the quality of polling and tabulation, exposing problematic elections and increasing public confidence in credible elections. Further technology programs in this field include building of databases and tracking software for international observation missions, and designing of data analysis software for domestic groups who monitor election irregularities and conduct parallel vote counts.
In Sierra Leone's most recent national election and runoff, in 2007, 500 election observers at polling stations around the country sent text messages through mobile phones to report on polling irregularities. Led by the National Election Watch (NEW), a coalition of over 200 domestic and international NGOs in the country, monitors used this rapid reporting system to help stabilize the political environment and support the peaceful transfer of power after a long civil war.
Political Party Development
NDI assists political parties around the world to improve various aspects of their work through employing technology. NDI has worked with global experts in online campaigning and advocacy to help political parties throughout the world take advantage of advances in online campaigning and member tracking. Online campaigning support often consists of assistance in the development of party websites -- including functions such as online polling and member registration and subscription lists -- as well as assistance with organizing, administrative functions and financial management. Party member tracking databases and internal communication strategies help parties to improve communication, organize activities and be more internally democratic.
The bilingual PPN web portal facilitates NDI political party training programs in Latin America. The site offers political parties across Latin America and the Caribbean access to comparative information, tools for party building, and techniques on political party reform; in the process, it strengthens the existing network of reform-minded leaders and provides opportunities for the exchange of ideas and expertise, while facilitating the administration and delivery of future NDI political party training programs. An online training feature enables NDI trainers to expand the reach of the Institute’s training program, transforming one to two weeks of face-to-face training to eight to ten months of online and in-person training and mentoring. The web site -- a combination of a resource portal, community-building portal, and interactive training-program management system -- primarily addresses NDI's two flagship programs in Latin America: PREPA, a party renewal program focused on training of trainers, and the Leadership Program, which encourages modernization and renewal by strengthening the skills of emerging leaders.
NDI’s most significant technological contribution to its women’s programs has been the online extension of partner networks. The Win with Women Global Initiative typifies this outreach by helping women around the world share resources, experiences and ideas, with the goal of overcoming barriers and challenges to women’s full participation in politics.
An innovative, multilingual global platform, the iKNOW Politics web site is designed to promote gender-sensitive governance and expand the role and participation of women in political and public life. iKNOW Politics connects parliamentarians, representatives, candidates, political party leaders and members, researchers, academics, and practitioners across borders, generations and faiths. The network equips them with the materials, expertise and best practices to make their political mark.
The Institute has assisted NGO partners and civic groups with development of databases and tracking software for members, trainers and volunteers, enabling NDI’s partners and groups to coordinate training activities, organize focus groups, distribute materials and generate statistical reports. NDI’s technological support in developing civil society has also included consulting on websites for public outreach, assisting with online discussion groups to help sustain networks of activists, and developing secure intranets that incorporate collaboration tools so groups can work together in confidence on policy or planning documents.
Improving Civic Data Collection in Angola
Through a coordinating body, the National Platform, NDI has assisted Angolan civic networks with standardization of trainings, forms and press statements around election and civic education programs since 2006. This assistance included technical guidance on development of new tools for data collection and reporting. The Platform used a computerized data collection system, with scannable observation forms, to record and sort observation information on the election registration process ahead of the 2008 national poll. The new technology uses scanners with “intelligent character recognition” software, which reads handwritten data on observation forms and uploads that information to a centralized computer database. The database processes scanned observer reports from around the country, reducing data collection time and the potential for human error.
For more information about these programs, use our contact form or contact VJ Rao, Deputy Chief Technology Officer, at (202) 728-5417.