Ever wished you could more easily find out and verify details about elected representatives and their policy positions? A number of websites have popped up over the past few years to try and collate information on public officials, monitor the behavior of power-holders and provide online mediums through which decision-makers can interact with citizens. Through Excelencias in Brazil, for example, Brazilians can use a database to access public information at various levels of the political system- from parliament (Senate and Chamber of Deputies) to state legislatures and municipal governance bodies. Information available includes budgets and costs for each of these bodies; the spending of parliamentary funds; donations to campaigns of elected officials; absences of decision-makers from assemblies; and linkages of elected officials with businesses. It is a brilliant tool, often used by journalists in efforts to increase accountability through their investigations and reporting.
In discussions with Kyrgyz colleagues recently, we also heard more about a useful website to monitor promises made by politicians in the Kyrgyz Republic. Politmer (supported by Internews and the Soros Foundation, among other organizations) began in the run-up to the Presidential elections in October 2011 as a means through which to consolidate information on candidates and their policy positions on specific issues. It used helpful and user-friendly info-graphics, maps and visualization tools to make the information accessible and understandable. Since then, it has evolved to act as a useful platform to track the promises made by politicians during the election now they are in office. Citizens can submit promises online that they heard elected officials make in public, and these commitments are then verified, categorized and monitored by the Politmer team through the site.
Beyond providing information on voting records, policy positions and incomes of elected officials, or measuring progress against promises, Parliament Watch in Germany takes the online accountability approach one-step further by allowing citizens to interact directly with members of parliament at all levels online. Users log-on with their name and zip-code and a system determines the voter precinct. Profiles of local MPs can then be accessed and questions sent directly by citizens according to simple rules and moderated by the Parliament Watch team. In a useful addition, questions can be “voted up” by other users to create pressure for answers, and all questions and answers are saved publicly online, to create longer-term accountability for issues discussed. Parliamentarians were initially hesitant, but over time have realized the value of a neutral forum through which to engage with the public. To date, over 90% of MPs have provided over 80,000 online answers to these questions, and the site has more than 10,000 visitors a day.
This is what we mean when we talk about ICTs fundamentally expanding the possibilities for interaction between citizens and power-holders. The internet allows for constant two-way communication, and for constituents to set agendas to which elected representatives have to respond, rather than vice-versa. If designed appropriately for context, this allows for more direct accountability and more effective policymaking. Online tools of this kind are an accountability innovation we love!