Micro-referendum Tool

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Micro-referendum Tool: Citizen Engagement through SMS

Yerevan, ArmeniaYerevan, Armenia
Year Founded:
2013
Organization type: 
hybrid
Project Stage:
Growth
Budget: 
$10,000 - $50,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

The Micro-referendum Tool is an initiative, which enables the local self-government in Armenian communities to engage their constituency in local level decision-making through SMS-polls, and providing people safe environment for expressing opinions on community development priorities.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

What if a citizen can influence his/her community affairs with just one SMS?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Citizens of Armenia are not actively engaged in decision-making processes in their communities despite the overall favorable environment in terms of legal framework and necessary institutions. There is an atmosphere of apathy and low level of trust towards development processes in the country and lack of accessible and transparent participatory mechanisms on the local level.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

The idea is to employ SMS polling that helps the local authorities to reach their constituents through SMS communication (sending out a question) and provide them an opportunity to express their opinion on community development priorities (through response SMS). Mobile engagement allows ‘almost-no-effort’ and fast response from broad constituency. This tool enables elements of direct democracy by quickly collecting and publishing the opinions of community members on priority issues (on environment, healthcare, security, etc) in advance of the Local Council meetings and helps the local authorities to substantiate their decisions. The idea was piloted in five communities of Armenia in 2013 with the support of UNDP Innovation Fund.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Five selected pilot communities in Armenia recently experienced the first cycle of SMS-polls. In each community, the Mayor jointly with the Local Council members identified 3-4 community issues, and sent out to residents (those who registered for the poll, in average 25% of the adult community population) a question to select the most topical issue to be addressed by the local authorities. In average, about 23% of the community residents registered for the poll have responded. The poll results will be publicized by the local government and taken into account during prioritization of problems, defining the solutions and respective budget allocations. The proposed engagement model resonates well with all parties engaged.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

The proposed safe, accessible and low-cost participation modality can progressively bring onboard a broad constituency for local-level decision-making. The tool has good potential to stimulate sense of ownership and responsibility towards the community affairs among the residents and build on the local democracy in action. Through the tool the local government can ensure transparency and accountability of governance processes and strengthen their communication and linkages with the constituency. The recently amended RA Law on Local Self-Government obliges the community councils to support residents' participation in local self-governance. The proposed tool is innovative, time- and resource-efficient for the local government, and when successfully applied, can positively contribute to the fulfillment of their mandates.

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?

(i) The micro-referendum tool has a good potential for upscale in the country and even beyond. The strongest feature of this engagement technique is its low cost. Many communities have a financial potential to cover the sms-polling from the community budget. (ii) The legislative norms in the area of local self-government stipulate the necessity to engage citizens in decision-making processes. The use of e-governance techniques is strongly encouraged. (iii) With stakeholders' positive reaction both in pre- and post-poll phases we believe, there is a commitment to the initiative by all parties.
Sustainability

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

The sustainability of the initiative is seen in the integration of the SMS-poll costs in the community budgets. Upon completion of the pilot phase the approximate budget estimation will be done for small and medium communities and proposed to them. UNDP Armenia partners with the RA Ministry of Territorial Administration (MTA), which considerably supports the initiative through mobilization of the MTA sub-structures and promotion of the Tool.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

Participatory governance is a topical issue in the country. Variety of online and offline approaches and models are applied by inter/national stakeholders. However, most of the models require allocation of time, internet access, ability to use online platforms and social media tools, and confidence to openly express their opinions. The proposed tool is well inclusive, since allows to reach also people who do not have access, competence and wish to use internet and SM platforms, as well as are unable to attend community meetings on some reason.
Team

Founding Story

Mobile connection is the most accessible communication means in Armenia (116%). This resource shall be utilized for democratization of community governance and provide equal opportunity to engage in community decisions for: women and men; young, middle-aged and elderly; employed and unemployed; vulnerable and disadvantaged groups; other. Participation in the polls is voluntary. We researched and noted successful practices of SMS-participation overseas. Women engagement in local self-governance is a key area of interest and activity for UNDP Armenia. We see an opportunity for women Mayors and Council members to become more proactive and influential in their communities through promotion and operation of the proposed Tool.
About You
Organization:
United Nations Development Programme
About You
First Name

Natalya

Last Name

Harutyunyan

About Your Organization
Organization Name

United Nations Development Programme

Organization Country

, Yerevan

Country where this project is creating social impact

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Impact
Full Impact Potential: What are the main spread strategies moving forward? (Please consider geographic spread, policy reform, and independent replication/adoption of the idea or other mechanisms.)

The SMS-polling technique has a potential to stimulate progressing culture of demand among community people in expressing their opinion on community affairs. Employment of this participatory mechanism and subsequent transparency and accountability in sharing the results, as well as actual decision-making based on the residents' opinions can increase the level of trust towards the local self-government in the community. The tool has good potential for nationwide upscale.

Barriers: What barriers might hinder the success of your project and how do you plan to overcome them?

Though sms-poll seems a simple and straightforward participation modality, there are challenges too. The “MR Tool” pilot requires agreement and engagement of number of stakeholders: RA MTA, local authorities, all mobile connection providers, content provider, and community people. In case even one of the partners is out, the Tool can not work. The barriers seen: level of low trust among people; possible reluctance of the local self-government to employ the Tool. To overcome them, we plan: active promotion of the tool, development of culture of demand among community people.

Sustainability
Partnerships: Tell us about your partnerships.

Partnership with: the RA MTA - joint selection of target communities, outreach and promotion of the Tool in the country; Local self-government (LSG) in selected communities - engagement of the LSG in development of the micro-referendum Tool, joint activities in the communities; with mobile connection and content providers in acquisition of reduced tarrifs and actual SMS-channeling; NGOs - promotion of the Tool in the communities.

Closing the Loop
How does your project primarily ensure that feedback delivers results?

Create an environment where people give feedback freely.

Please elaborate on your answer to the above question.

SMS-polling provides community residents an opportunity to express opinion on community issues anonymously. The local government (mayor+local council), with UNDP team's support, frame the question in consensus, send it out to residents with multiple choice response options. The response results on community poll is displayed to LSG and other parties only in charts and general statistics with gender and age disaggregation. The participation in the poll is voluntary. The poll questions include only community development issues, questions with political connotation are not allowed.

Languages: In what languages are you able to read and write fluently?

English.

2nd Round Questions
Thinking about your feedback loop; what information are you trying to get from whom, to whom, and to bring about what change?

We strive to enable the local governments to collect citizens' feedback on community priorities - to stimulate meaningful engagement of people in the community affairs. The feedback is sought in relation to community social and economic issues; questions with political connotation cannot appear in the sms-poll (the system will block).
The change we envisage with the initiative is three-fold: (i) participation of citizens in community affairs is encouraged and increased; (ii) constructive dialogue between the village/town mayor and the local council members is stimulated and strengthened (the question for the poll is defined in very democratic way); (iii) transparency and accountability of the local government is enhanced, which in its turn can boost the level of trust among community members and improve cohesion at the local level.

What is the purpose of your feedback loop?

Other

If other, please specify

Strengthened linkages between the local government and their constituency, fostered participatory governance at the local level

What mediums or mechanisms do you use to collect feedback? (check all that apply)

SMS.

If other, please specify
Could you briefly describe the way you collect the feedback?

1) Promotion and outreach activities are undertaken by UNDP team and local government representatives to explain the tool to people and invite them to participate in the sms-poll. People join voluntarily and can subscribe through: contacting municipality or local council members; online registration; sms-registration.

2) The database on community is developed and maintained by selected content providing company (UNDP's partner in this initiative).

3) The representatives of local government, with support from UNDP team, define issues to be consulted with the community residents and make decision on the question during the local council meeting.

4) The local government representatives (assigned municipality official or member of the Local Council) create sms-poll in the system. Access to the system is granted to the assigned officials.

5) The question is sent out through sms with multiple choice answer options to the residents, who had registered for the poll. The senders do not see the database, they just select the community and the system links the question to the residents' database of that specific community.

6) The residents can respond during 24 hours, just clicking "reply" button and choosing the number of their preferred response option.

7) The system collects and analyzes the results and produces response statistics in charts and graphs, disaggregated by gender and age (three age groups).

8) The local government publishes the poll results on the web interface, community website, on the publicly placed information board in the community, social media platforms (where applicable). The Ministry of Territorial Administration also features the results on their website.

What mechanisms are in place to protect people from retribution?

Option to provide feedback anonymously

If other, please specify
What are the immediate benefits or incentives for people to provide feedback?

Confirmation of use of feedback

If other, please specify
How do you ensure new and marginalized voices are heard?

Specific targeted outreach efforts

If other, please specify
What are the incentives for the intended recipient to act on the feedback?

They understand that feedback is necessary

If other, please specify
How does the feedback mechanism close the loop with those who provided feedback in the first place?

Reports on collected information

If other, please specify
How is feedback published/transparent?

On a website

If other, please specify
Give two concrete examples of how feedback loops have brought a program or policy more in line with citizens’ desires.

1. “Which issue is of higher priority in Areni?” This questions was asked during the sms-poll in Areni village, with the following response options: (i) Street lightening, (ii) Reconstruction of the road from the Central Square to the House of Culture; (iii) Furnishing of the village gym. More than half of the respondents opted for street lightening.
As the village mayor informed us, the results of the poll helped him in negotiations with potential sponsor. Impressed with this method of feedback collection and its results, a business company agreed to contribute financially to the street lightening of the village. Apart from democratization, the tool helped the community in resource mobilization.

2. Tumanyan town is a community with a very small budget. As the Mayor informed us, that the poll results help him to substantiate his arguments for requesting additional resources from the Central Government for reconstruction of street N 8, which collected the biggest number of responses.

If there was one thing you could change to increase the impact of your feedback loop, what would it be?

Allocate more time for outreach activities - to bring more people on-board for the poll and have better community representation in response.

What are your biggest challenges or barriers in “closing the feedback loop”?

Lack of incentives for people to provide feedback

If other, please specify
Are you aware of The Feedback Store?

No, but I can see myself using it as a resource

What are the main uses you can envision for the Feedback Store?

Workable tools and techniques, ideas and solutions.

What is the one thing you would most like to see changed to improve the competition process?
What are you doing to make sure that feedback providers know that they are empowered by the information they can give and that they know exactly what the information they are providing?

The project ensures that the results of the sms-polls are made public by the local government using the variety of all the available means. We also monitor/follow up on whether the communities undertake steps to solve the issue that collected the biggest number of responses. Regular communication is maintained with the representatives of local government on the previous and upcoming polls, so far lessons learnt, challenges and opportunities.

Comments

Mari Kuraishi's picture

I'm not entirely positive I know where the boundaries of the project fall. I think the idea of local politicians in Armenia using SMS polling to get feedback from citizens is great, but I'm not sure whether the project is proposing to build out the SMS polling technology, or to tweak and improve the incentives around stakeholder engagement--from getting politicians to not back-burner issues raised by citizens to getting a larger portion of the citizenry to sign up for the polling, to getting a better picture of what's going on in the city. The latter strikes mes as more valuable than the former, but I may be misjudging market penetration of such tools in places like Armenia. The competition puts up an interesting contrast between the polling approach and the issue emergence approach (championed by VoXUp)--I think it's worth thinking through the merits of each side by side. I rather wish that the tool weren't built and maintained by the government, which creates some moral hazard. Of course the moral hazard is there even if the tool were built and maintained by a vendor who is then paid by government--but there's just a bit more potential for setting the rules of the game if the provider of the service is independent of the government.

If you’ve worked on a similar project, what were the unexpected challenges you faced? What important aspects would you highlight?

Mari Kuraishi's picture

I'm not entirely positive I know where the boundaries of the project fall. I can't tell if the project is about building out SMS polling capability, or tweaking and refining the incentives of the stakeholders such that government officials have an incentive not to sit on results of the polls or that citizens have a better incentive to sign up for the polling, and to respond to the polling questions. I am assuming that the latter is more valuable, given that SMS polling in and of itself feels like a commodity service, but I may be underestimating the penetration of such services in places like Armenia. I also would prefer that the government not be in the business of building and maintaining such services--for one thing, the pace of technological change is high, and keeping up a service like this to align with user expectations and behaviors is challenging enough for the private sector, let alone the public sector. For another, it creates a moral hazard--it's possible that if the government is fully in charge of this, they might face adverse incentives in reaching certain groups of the population. A service provider paid by government is also subject to some of the same pressures but is arguably at least one step removed.