It is not often that you hear of digital technology developed in one Afrikan country being adopted and implemented in another country on the continent. Often, most technology solutions used both in the private and public sector are developed outside the continent.
This is even more so in the civic technology sector where oft times the international donors have a say in what digital technology solutions should be used as part of them funding a specific cause or NGO (Non-Governmental Organization).
Using technology to connect citizens to government
This is why it was with cautious interest that I wanted to find out more about a South African digital platorm that wants to help governments address service delivery issues by trying to make it easier for citizens to interact with government officials and representatives at all levels, especially at the operational level. The platform, called GovChat, is not exactly an app as it tries to let citizens use the apps and technologies already familiar to them to engage with government.
The Founder and CEO of GovChat, Eldrid Jordaan, is no stranger to the technology sector as well as conversational platforms as he was previously part of the team at the popular South African chat and instant messaging platform, MXit. At MXit, Jordaan was the Advisory Board Member responsible for government relations and that's where he got the idea for GovChat.
"Born out of the clear need for citizens and government to connect - the primary question that GovChat answers is that 80% of South Africans don’t know who their ward councillor is. Any effective society requires governance to be responsibility of all, government, communities & citizens," explained Jordaan.
It is not enough, however, to develop a civic technology platform and hope that it will be used. As we have quite often observed, although well intended, most civic technology solutions in across Afrika end up not gaining traction and not being used. It can be attributed to different factrs, among them their complexity, the chosen language, and how they require citizens to download a new app - presenting new costs (data) among citizens who are already financially stretched.
The other factor, is how some of these solutions offer very little value to citizens in terms of addressing their problems. Specifically, addressing service delivery issues. This is one area which Jordaan believes GovChat can be useful in as it addresses issues relating to government services directly.
"Citizens inputs, concerns and experiences should be channeled appropriately to the right areas and most importantly to the right officials - Government needs help from all parties to play their role in governance, it’s all our responsibility. A more engaged and connected citizen-community-government relationship leads to societal prosperity. Government wants to be held accountable, while systematically addressing challenges, opportunities and most importantly a a way to surface the many areas where there is excellence," said Jordaan.
How it works
To try and ensure that GovChat is not just another white elephant civic technology solution, Jordaan and his team have not developed a separate app that citizens must download but have rolled it out via different channels that citizens are already familiar with. In South Africa, where the platform has been first rolled out and is the government's official citizen engagement platform, it is available through USSD (*120*9191#), WhatsApp (+27 060 078 6613), and a mobile friendly website.
Added to the three different methods that citizens can access the platform, the relevant government officials along with the GovChat team have a backend system that gives them access to dashboards on service delivery issues that have been reported, service ratings, and more.
The platform allows citizens to perform three types of activities.
Rating and reporting
By providing their location, citizens are able to rate and report the quality of their experience with public services and facilities across 30,000 public spaces including:
- Police Stations,
- Post Offices,
- Early Childhood Development Centres (ECD),
- Special Needs Schools.
Similarly, using citizend provided location, public service requests can be submitted directly to the appropriate unit in their local municipality. These requests for public services and maintenance range from water & electricity disruptions and cover a number of council services such as potholes, refuse removal and sewage.
Give to your community
Citizens are also able to donate items such as food, blankets and donations by simply providing their location. These items are then aggregated with local government representatives and partner Non-Profits (NPO) and Community Based Organisations (CBO) who are able to track, collect and collate local giving in communities for the benefit of the community.
Challenges of building a civic technology platform
To build a platform that has the current capabilities of what GovChat can do and promises is definetly not an overnight feat. Not only would you need citizens to actually use it once it is available, the other key issue is actually building and testing it while not earning any income from it.
"Funding was a significant challenge over the 4 year period. Building GovChat came at [a] huge personal cost as technology companies often need to spend significantly to find the right product-market fit. Understanding the large institutions that we partnered with, their plans, needs and areas of synergy. While also attending to that, we had the challenge of finding the right technical partner. We struggled significantly to find appropriately skilled black young people with multi-platform and data system skillsets who where production and work-place/process trained." said Jordaan.
Jordaan explained that they overcame the funding challengesby not giving up and continuously working on the platform for 3 years with no income, until in 2017, they received angel investment of $1.2 million.
"We quietly raised and went back to work. The skill and technical challenges that we faced got us thinking about our own contribution and possibly building the very skilled capacity that we urgently need in different roles."
GovChat is definetly not the first civic technology platform to try and address service delivery issues especially in South Africa. Where others have failed seems to be where GovChat has managed to succeed by fostering ties with government in order to ensure that whatever citizens are reporting, rating, or donating, reaches the correct government officials at different levels so as to ensure that the issue is acted on.
Going forward, GovChat has its work cut out as it has to ensure that citizens across South Africa, including rural areas, are not only aware of it but see value in using it. This task, can also be made slightly easier as the first few users who use the platform can report back positively to their friends and family that they got whatever request they submitted via GovChat, resolved, because nothing markets a service than the value it gives its users.
GovChat has ambitions of spreading across Afrika and has already started engaging with the governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, and Nigeria.
"Civic Tech should be about local community building and citizens solving their community problems - Technology is not the end in itself, but rather the tool that facilitates the action. Across the world, more citizen based local communities are acting to resolve their social issues around their communities. The new era demands for new business models should be innovative - government’s don’t have the resources that they had 10 -15 years ago. Anyone entering the Civic Tech space should be driven by purpose first and foremost," concluded Jordaan.
Cover image credit: Eldrid Jordaan, Founder and CEO, GovChat