Using Data to Make Government More Responsive

(State Dept./Doug Thompson)

Elections in the city of Kitwe have been peaceful and fair since Zambia became a multiparty democracy in 1991. But YALI Network member Moses Mwansa thinks his hometown of Kitwe can do better than peaceful and fair.

Mwansa noted a lack of communication between the leaders of Kitwe and the half million citizens who elect them. What do the people want from their leaders, and how can that be communicated? If potential voters don’t think candidates know what’s important to them, they may be more likely to stay home. Opening a more active dialogue between leaders and voters, Mwansa felt, could result in better voter turnout and more responsive government.

Through the YALI Network, Mwansa became aware of the potential of data to illuminate and energize voting practices. Mwansa met with Tomáš Rákos, a former journalist from the Czech Republic who now works with Democracy 2.1 (D21), a project that uses polling and data in an effort to “strengthen democracy through more informed and effective decisionmaking worldwide.”

What Mwansa developed with Rákos was a two-year plan to survey Kitwe’s population and provide that data to nongovernmental organizations, the mayor and city council with the idea that they will use the results to push resources back into the community and use the data to guide their decisionmaking.

Moses Mwansa with arm raised (State Dept.)
Moses Mwansa (State Dept.)

As ambitious as this sounds, Rákos explained to Mwansa ways in which similar polling projects have successfully raised funds from stakeholders such as nongovernmental organizations and local government.

The most expensive part of the project? Executing the survey, which requires trained information gatherers conducting surveys face to face. The hardest part of the project? Designing the survey itself. “Ninety percent of the overall endeavor is in the research planning,” Rákos explained.

Kitwe is a city of 500,000 with two large, high-density low-income areas as well as smaller middle-income and high-income areas with lower density. Like most cities, its population is diverse in terms of age, income, education and religion. Mwansa extensively mapped out each of these with an eye to developing the most efficient ways to reach the most members of Kitwe’s citizenry.

In the second year, Mwansa’s plan would introduce participatory budgeting projects to demonstrate the effect civic engagement can have on everyday lives. Participatory budgeting has been successfully employed in cities all over the world. It allows citizens to have a direct say in how funds will be allocated for anything from school sports to a large city’s operating costs.

While the project is designed with Kitwe in mind, its underlying principles are scalable for cities larger or smaller than Kitwe. Mwansa is currently working with other YALI Network members and Rákos’ team at D21 for the first phase of Kitwe’s experiment in data-driven participatory government.

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