Local governments are on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis globally, not only in managing the public health response, but also with regard to educating and communicating with citizens. Officials are continuing to develop and implement measures to address complex citizen needs today, while also looking ahead to prepare their communities for the new realities of a post-COVID world. Concurrent with the pandemic are challenges such as disinformation, citizen skepticism, and the need for greater transparency and accountability across all functions of government.
Many of these challenges are not new, nor are they unique to any region. But, this pandemic requires local governments to be more creative, more nimble, more inclusive, and more trustworthy, and the need for peer collaboration, adaptation, and mutual support continues to grow.
On July 29, 2020, NDI brought together local government officials and civil society representatives from across Latin America for a virtual exchange to speak openly about the governance challenges posed by COVID-19 and respective experiences innovating to promote government transparency through the use of technology and digital adaptations. Designed as an interactive webinar, the event highlighted speakers from the municipal governments of Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and São Paulo and the civic tech group Codeando Mexico, and included presentations, panel discussion, and small group workshops on innovative mechanisms to combat disinformation and increase transparency during COVID-19.
From this dialogue, common threads emerged among the participants’ varied perspectives and experiences, leading to a set of shared opportunities and learning regarding local governments’ use of technology and innovation for a more effective COVID-19 response:
Technology as a tool for two-way dialogue
In addition to providing clear and consistent messaging regarding health and safety measures, local governments need to listen. Through feedback loops such as DialogandoBA, officials build trust by facilitating and incorporating citizen input that enables identification of the most effective solutions to citizen needs.
Greater transparency through public sector-civic tech partnerships
As the rise of disinformation has increasingly undermined government communication channels, local governments must innovate to promote credibility and the integrity of official information. In addition to governments’ proactive measures to establish transparency and trust, civil society has a role to play in advocating for the openness and accessibility of information. For instance, the civic tech DirectorioCovidMX.org web platform for local government transparency during COVID-19 is an innovative, open source example of public sector-civil society collaboration to increase information integrity and accessibility.
Inclusive innovation as a tool for protecting marginalized communities
Building citizen confidence in government requires deliberate efforts to ensure the inclusion of more voices, especially in developing policies for marginalized citizens, such as the RentaBásicaBogotá system and in responding to increased violence against women during COVID-19. Ongoing dialogue between local government and civil society expands the channels of communication and collaboration, and allows knowledge to be shared more widely across local, regional, and international communities.
Trust and transparency as long-term institutional goals
COVID-19 may be resolved in the medium-term, but the need to build trust in government is perpetual. The tech-enabled trust measures that local governments are innovating today have applications beyond COVID-19 and potential to improve public service delivery more generally. For example, COVID-19 emergency contracting and transparency measures in São Paulo and Mexico City have relevance to enhance open government and transparency mechanisms across a wide range of sectors in emergency and non-emergency contexts.
These takeaways also reflect NDI’s growing collection of best practices in subnational governance, and the Institute’s commitment to creating and maintaining space for continued dialogue, collaboration, and exchange.
For over five years, NDI has explored the theme of democratic innovation in local government, through programming with partners around the world and by collecting and sharing information about how to effectively engage citizens in governance in the 21st century. Under the Big Bold Cities project, in partnership with 12 global cities, NDI developed 59 case studies about how urban governments can innovate to become more inclusive, accessible, and effective in delivering services to their citizens.
NDI continues to support efforts to bring government closer to citizens, and to foster global connections and knowledge-sharing among democratic innovators in local government. There is already a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be shared among innovators in municipalities around the world, but greater exchange opportunities are needed to continue sourcing and iterating on the best practices highlighted. With tools, resources, collaboration and support, local governments can innovate to address dynamic community environments and meet citizen needs.
Today, the Institute is investing in programming to encourage the development and international exchange of good practices in local government transparency, accountability, and service delivery in the wake of COVID-19, supporting government leaders working toward greater government openness and citizen trust at the local level. Through upcoming collaborations with OGP Local and municipalities in Morocco and Georgia, NDI will be harnessing these takeaways to advance local, regional, and global knowledge-sharing, promoting government openness and adaptable service delivery in communities facing the challenges of today and tomorrow.
Authored by: Alyson Beermann, Program Officer, Democratic Governance