Utilise civic tech to enhance citizen engagement in Malaysia

By emphasising the importance of the Civil Tech, the Government would empower more citizens engaging in societal change.

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Published by Focus Malaysia, The Sun Daily & New Straits Times, image from Focus Malaysia.

THE on-and-off country lockdown measures and travel restrictions have provided the opportunity for people, organisations and government to transform the way they interact with each other.

As many were forced to postpone their social gatherings, meetings and learnings online, the recent E-conomy SEA 2020 report by Google, Temasek and Bain & Company shows that one out of three Malaysians starts using digital services due to COVID-19.

And with the rising usage of online advocacy platforms, civic technology or Civil Tech for short, can be utilised for informing, engaging and connecting citizens with the Government, and also for them to connect with one another to advance civic outcomes that have the potential for Malaysia to better inform and encourage citizen engagement through technology.

Civic tech enhances the relationship between the people and the Government with software for communications, decision-making, service delivery, and political process.

It also includes information and communications technology supporting government with software built by community-led teams of volunteers, non-profits, consultants, and private companies as well as embedded tech teams working within the Government.

There are four different types of e-government services and civic tech falls within the category of government-to-citizen (or G2C), the other categories include government-to-business (G2B), government-to-government (G2G), and government-to-employees (G2E).

The continuous challenges in conducting parliament sittings during the pandemic, for instance, has led several Malaysian youth organisations such as Challenger Malaysia, Undi 18, Liga Rakyat Demokratik and United Nations Association Malaysia (UNAM) Youth to jointly organise Parlimen Digital, a virtual mock parliament between July 4 to 5 last year.

This event won plaudits from various parties who witnessed 222 young Malaysians representing respective parliamentary constituencies, debating issues ranging from economic challenges to the state of the nation’s education system.

It could also be used help to simplify voter registration, host virtual dialogues and launch crowdfunding campaigns supporting civic causes.

Although civic tech empowers citizens in taking action and transforming the democracy landscape of the country, there are several challenges to consider.

Sinar Project, a Malaysian-based civic tech initiative, could not register as non-profit. Due to the ongoing struggles with funding and sustainability, Sinar Project could not improve governance and encourage greater citizen involvement in public affairs as anticipated.

As a result, the progress of creating a more open, transparent and accountable Parliament has been slow.

To truly foster social change, civic tech also needs to reach a large number of users. However, the lack of rigorous and consistent outcome measurement and compelling evidence of impact have prevented civic tech organisations from attracting a relevant audience.

As urban poor and rural citizens have limited access to digital devices or unstable Internet connection, civic tech could not reach them. It limits the potential of civic tech to reach every segment of the society to create a substantial community impact.

Furthermore, the funding for civic tech organisations only caters for short-term implementation of specific projects and programmes. Often, civic tech had to fundraise regularly to meet the associated operational expenses such as remuneration and utilities related expenses.

Therefore, for the Civil Tech to enhance citizen engagement in Malaysia, EMIR Research has several policy recommendations for the Government to consider:

  1. Integrate the initiatives created by the private sector and NGOs into one streamlined website. For instance, the Ministry of Youth and Sports (MOYS) could combine all initiatives from the private sector and NGOs into MOYS’s official website for Malaysian youths to access relevant information easily;
  2. Take a lead in organising dialogues with different industries such as manufacturing, hospitality and retail sectors in Malaysia, enabling different voices to be heard in all levels of Government, on company boards and in multilateral organisations. This, in turn, would foster an intergenerational transfer of experience, knowledge and skills besides forming people-centric public policies;
  3. Work on data collection, analysis and visualisation with relevant ministries, agencies and representatives from the private sector to bring better-understanding information to the people.

With current, updated, trustworthy, accurate, reliable and complete data, the industry players would be able to benchmark business performances based on their understanding of the current state of the industry and adopt the most appropriate business approaches to address the citizen issues; and

4. Focus on citizen autonomy in taking decisions and direct democracy empowerment tools. The Government could acknowledge Civil Tech by providing necessary funding for them, further advancing Malaysia’s democracy system.

By emphasising the importance of the Civil Tech, the Government would empower more citizens engaging in societal change, besides having a better understanding of what their citizens want and need.

Amanda Yeo is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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