BTOB: Mission to Tunis 2 – 4 April

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Back in Tunis

This was my first time back in Tunis since 2005 when I attended the second and final meeting of WSIS. Back then, we could all see and feel the authoritarian character of the regime in the midst of a UN meeting promoting open access to information and louder voice to non-state actors. A paradox, to say the least. Many of those who attended the summit wondered loudly why the final leg of WSIS was being held in such location.

But maybe what took place back then had some sort of influence on the recent events that led to last year’s revolution and regime change. Although I do not have any real evidence, it is not difficult to imagine that some of today’s activists benefited back them from networking with the 10 thousand plus people who were at WSIS. In the end , we are also in the business of planting seeds wherever we go, seeds that can become trees of change in the medium to long term.

This time around, walking down Avenue Bourguiba, where many of the 2011 demonstrations took place and where the Ministry of Interior is located, was not that different from 2005 when we spent most WSIS evenings doing so. The Avenue is as alive as it was back then, if no more. The main difference is that in 2005 we saw mostly tourists, ourselves included. Today we see mostly Tunisians and just a few tourists. By the way, the sharp drop in tourism has hurt the national economy.

My mission was focused on open data and e-participation, topics which are closely related.  The meeting, organized by the office of the Prime Minister in partnership with UNDP Tunisia, included  several international experts (see http://www.tap.info.tn/en/en/component/content/article/369-national-news-/12785-conference-in-tunis-on-qopen-data-and-e-participationq.html which BTW does not mention at all the intervention of the UN RC/UNDP RR).
Meeting CSO Reps

The day before the official meeting started, I met with several representatives (and activists) from civil society who are deeply engaged on open government and open data among other things. In their view, there is a tremendous opening of political space and power which is up for grabs. The current government is sort of weak and has no capacity or political expertise to properly lead the country. They  thus need to rely on civil society  organizations (and the private sector) to do its job effectively. And a good example here is open government and open data. As they see it, government institutions do not have the capacity to adequately implement open data, nor should they. Instead they should outsource all this and in doing empower civil society, foster entrepreneurship and generate lots of jobs.

When I inquire about the role of civil society in shaping the political and development agenda they were much more skeptical than what I certainly expected. In their view, the country is not ready to make any serious commitments in terms of having a short to medium term agendas. The current government lacks the capacity of doing so and many of the current ministers, previously in jail, lack the political and administrative experience to make a real dent in the country’s future. So there is not much to do in the short run in their view. However, they still see open data as a great opportunity to empower CSOs -and their own organizations, including the local private sector..

CSOs are also very supportive of Open Source software and have strong views on government’s continued procuring of proprietary software. I also learned in the conversations that the government is spending at least 12 million USD on MS software and has also acquired an MS-based interoperability platform which was yet to be deployed.
Open data and e-participation workshop

Over 200 people attended the workshop which also brought together selected several multi-lateral organizations. The first day focused on open data, a subject that can easily become technical if not addressed at the appropriate level. The sessions were well balanced combining pragmatical approaches with policy and conceptual discussions that touched on governance and democracy.

In many of the presentations, the assumption that data is somehow ready to be shared by governments and that the only thing that is really needed is to make it “open” was taken for granted. This is a strong assumption as even in Tunisia key data sources are still not available in machine readable form or, perhaps even worse, existing data is not accurate and has been heavily manipulated. This is also related to capacity issues within the institutions who have the mandate to gather, maintain and disseminate data. The fact that “opening” data itself can be outsourced does not solve the issue of data gathering and maintenance within the public institutions required to do so by law.

Another second critical issue which I briefly raised in a session I chaired is the role of stakeholders and people in general in today’s world where they have become, via social networks and crowdsourcing for example, the main providers of data (and most other content). How does this change the now traditional open data approach? Who owns this data? This is also related to a point raised by an expert from France who invited us to think about the regulation of open data and its political economy implications.

The second day focused on e-participation and included the presentation of both national and international experiences. As I saw it, most of them seem to ignore the fact that participation in decision making process needs to be institutionalized to become effective. It should not be left to the whim of “nice” politicians or elected representatives to allow for people to be part of the process. It should be built into the decision making process itself by creating specific mechanisms and rules of engagement that mandate public participation.

In addition, I was a bit surprised that most examples only use Internet based mechanisms to foster e-participation processes. In Tunisia for example, only 35% of the population have access to the Internet. The number is Brazil are even lower. But that is certainly not the case when it comes to mobile penetration. So why not expand the tools to use mobiles too? There seems to be a “techie” bias here, at least that is how I see it.

Finally, there as a bit of a debate around the concepts of open, government, governance and democracy. To many in the audience open and democratic seems to be the same. I expressed the view that they key difference here is that between government and governance. We should have, if anything, “open” governance.

The meeting closed with a series of recommendations that both participants and experts provided. Calls for increased collaboration, better interoperability, stronger political will and more involvement of the civil society and the private sector were suggested. In the end, the meeting demonstrated that Tunisians have a strong interest on Open Government and are ready to be part and parcel of the process, in addition to the government. However, from what I gathered while in the country, ICTs – nor Open Government for that matter are high on the current political and development agendas.

We need to once again bear in mind that Open Government is a means to an end and should be presented as such to high-level decision makers. It should not be a new item in an already competitive and very crowded national agenda of the country; rather, it is a set of solutions that can effectively address concrete problems (unemployment, youth expectations, empowering non-state actors, building a more democratic society, etc.) which at the moment seem way out of reach.
Next Steps and Recommendations

The last few working hours of my short mission were dedicated to meet with the Director General of the of the e-government unit (la unite de l’administration electronique, http://www.pm.gov.tn/pm/article/article.php?id=73&lang=fr ) of the Presidency of the Government (formerly known as the Office of the Prime Minister).

This is a rather small unit with about 5 staff in total and with almost no financial resources to implement e-government policies or programmes. Although very close, at least on paper, to the office of the Prime Minister, e-government does not seem be riding high in the current development agenda of the country. Perhaps introducing open government and/or open data can help change the situation and the e-goverment unit seems to be betting on it. There is also the idea, which seems to be gaining some steam, of creating the position of CIO for the whole government which could then help propel the use of ICTs in public administration.

In a nutshell, e-government seems to be seriously lagging behind in the country (although the UN gave Tunisia an award for its advances in the area back in 2010; see http://www.i-policy.org/2010/06/tunisia-wins-united-nations-e-government-award.html) according to the DG.

In this light we have short term quick wins and long term activities that can perhaps only be seriously considered after elections take place in mid-2013.

In the short term, there are several activities that are ongoing to some extent and can be supported with small cash infusions. They are:

  • Open data portal and platform
  • e-participation platform
  • License definition and use for open data
  • Collaborative site for government institutions

There is already a basic e-participation platform which is currently being use to consult with both civil servants and the public the idea or reducing the number of working days for public officials from 6 days to 5. Public servants only have one day a off a week, Sunday’s and they will surely support adopting the international standard of a 5 working-day week. The public on the other hand might support this as long as it does not mean that customer service will suffer. If anything, this is the perfect window to introduce ICTs into public administration more systematically as both sides will benefit. Being that as it may, current platforms do not use mobile apps nor any sort of crowdsourcing technology.

For the medium and long term, we have the following:

  • Interoperability framework
  • Review of legal infrastructure for e-government
  • Use of current government backbone (which exists and is underutilized)
  • Development of shared services (related to interoperability)
  • Inventory of existing information in public institutions
  • Lining to local and provincial governments
  • Development of a national ID card/system

I suggested to the DG to prepare a vision paper on the medium and long term priorities which can become handy once the electoral process is over. It will show if anything that the unit is thinking ahead and is ready to undertake implementation when the time comes. In addition, a detail proposal and work plan for the short term quick wins should also be prepared and share with UNDP and other international organizations.
As I see it, we could provide support to the e-participation platform with crowdsourcing included with a small grant from the e-governance global programme -and as long as the e-government unit can secure medium to long term support from other sources to guarantee its sustainability. I also informed the DG that we have done plenty of work on interoperability and that we could also help here with policy advise and sharing of experiences.

Raúl Zambrano
Policy Advisor
ICTD and e-governance
Democratic Governance Group
Bureau for Development Policy
UNDP New York
8 April 2012

 

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