Tech innovation a strong tool for civic engagement


“Innovate, engage and deliver,” this is the attractive and inspirational motto of Philadelphia Municipality, America’s fifth largest city, whose population is over 1.5 million citizens residing in hundreds of neighbourhoods.

This week I had the great pleasure of visiting Philly, as this “mother of all cities” is affectionately known in Pennsylvania. I should categorically state that I am still struck in a moment of awe!

What intrigued me most is how the municipality has dedicated itself to ‘INNOVATION, MODERNISATION, CIVIC ENGAGEMENT & CUSTOMER SERVICE as fundamental stratagems for upscaling civic interface between ordinary citizens (rights holders) and public officials (duty bearers) for effective service delivery.

To fulfil it’s motto, “innovate, engage and deliver”, the municipality has a high tech functional innovation lab which focuses mainly on developing ICT programmes that help various city departments to connect with citizens in an amazing way.

One of the mobile applications 311 designed as part of the city’s efforts to give citizens a platform to raise issues regards service delivery and other relevant issues epitomizes one of the finest interventions aimed at creating trust based relations between local authorities and their citizens.

“We don’t necessarily think of technology as the (only) driver of innovation. In fact, it’s really just thought of as a means to an end, with the end being the social outcomes, the community based outcomes that we are aiming for across the city government as a whole,” said Ashley Del Bainco one of the innovators in the division of technology.

It boggles my mind how municipalities back home, in Zimbabwe, are failing or declining to embrace technology as a means to cultivate trust based relations with citizens. Anyway, maybe I am rasing an issue which is uncommon in my country. (Do really public officials want to interact with citizens anyhow?). I will not delve on this, as I may write a complete thesis on the issue.

Well, notwithstanding the fact that Zimbabwe is still backward regards information and communication technologies (ICTs), it further boggles the mind that there are still some local authorities in Zimbabwe who can’t operate a simple free domain email account.

While we certainly can’t match America in terms of tech innovations I believe that social media presents an opportunity for our local authorities to upscale their engagement with citizens especially through narrow band applications such as Facebook & Twitter.

These are just simple applications which are used by the generality of citizens in Zimbabwe especially Facebook which is now common even to rural folks.

For a local authority to simply have a Facebook page where it interacts with citizens on locally relevant issues of concern, I believe would be a great start for ICT novices like our local authorities.

I strongly believe that there is urgent need for our local authorities to invest in mobile communication tools offered by new media to try and build trust based relations with citizens who still perceive most local authorities as their worst foes for reasons that are already in the public domain -one of them being good “governance failure”.

Cash strapped as they are, I am convinced that local authorities who seek to model themselves in line with modern standards must establish and strengthen innovation desks if they are committed to fulfilling the core obligations of delivering excellent and pro poor services.

If there is something which I learnt from Philadelphia’s Deputy Mayor, Rich Negrin who is also the City’s Managing Director today,  here are his inspirational words below to ponder if you are a serious modern civic leader in today’s dynamic world:

“Today’s leaders must make sure innovation is baked into their (teams’) DNA. They must not only create the conditions for innovation, they must bodly demonstrate the behaviours that make innovation possible.”

The author, Divine Dube is an MCZ trainee and currently a Mandela-Washington Fellow. He is studying Civic Leadership & Engagement @ Wagner College, School of Liberal Arts in New York. 

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