UNDP: Technology and public services in the Asia-Pacific Region

Digital technologies and social media can help governments become more responsive and deliver public services better and faster, said Haoliang Xu, UNDP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

The use of digital media has the potential to engage citizens in creating a better future, Mr. Xu said, speaking at the inaugural Activate Summit in Singapore this week, organized by Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

Activate’s summits and online platform provide an opportunity for leaders and innovators working across all sectors to investigate how digital technologies can help in dealing with critical issues and transform people’s lives. UNDP’s Global Centre for Public Service Excellence in Singapore partnered with the Guardian to host the Singapore summit.

The summits build awareness of development needs and encourage businesses and leaders to come up with innovative solutions to help the poor and marginalized.

Speaking at a panel discussion on ‘Tech-led Innovation in Public Services and the Future of Regional and Global Governance,’ Mr Xu said, technology and social media have empowered citizens giving them new avenues to have their voices heard and to participate in government decision- and policymaking.

He cautioned that access to ICT’s is uneven, and that this digital divide puts some developing nations and some of the world’s poorest at a disadvantage. So efforts must be made to ensure that technology and services reach these groups to increase participation in decision-making and to improve accountability and transparency.

To illustrate the innovative potential of digital technology in development, Mr Xu pointed to a UNDP supported “mobile phone cash transfer” initiative in the Philippines that has helped provide fast and safe payments to typhoon Haiyan survivors enrolled in cash-for-work schemes.

UNDP and its partners, SMART mobile phone operator and the government’s LANDBANK, created the service by which participants can withdraw payments for their work from banks and stores with a cell phone and a debit card issued by the LANDBANK.

In Central Asia, UNDP and two national medical institutions brought the first e-Health Services initiative to the Kyrgyz Republic. Under the programme, skilled medical experts from hospitals in the capital of Bishkek can ‘talk’ to remote local health workers, transmit life-saving information, and assist with diagnosis and prescriptions using e-health technology.

By the end of 2012, UNDP was supporting over 200 e-governance projects in close to 100 countries, for a quarter billion per year.

Mr Xu highlighted a range of issues where digital technology has empowered ordinary citizens by allowing them to report corruption or abuse, threats to security, alerted them of their status on legal issues and helped them get timely access to government.

When an earthquake struck off the coast of Japan in March 2011, over 120,000 people in vulnerable coastal communities of the Philippines and 300,000 in Papua New Guinea, received early warning of a possible tsunami via text messages. Many of these people were in remote areas and may have never been reached without such a system.

Using digital technology the UN system has increased people’s involvement in the debate about the post-2015 development agenda, launching a global conversation via social media, other websites, and face to face meetings, he added.

This resulted in an unprecedented series of consultations with people across the world to seek their views on a new development agenda to build on the successes of the Millennium Development Goals. Over 1.5 million people participated.

Mr Xu cautioned that data collected by public authorities is a treasure trove which needs protection. There is a need to balance security, privacy and accountability, and democratic societies have a better chance of establishing the governance mechanisms to preserve such a balance without having to go overboard, he said.

To foster awareness of development issues and needs of people across the world UNDP’s Global Centre sponsored one category of Activate’s Tech Talent Competition. Its focus was on empowering the poor, excluded or vulnerable people in developing countries to better access or benefit from public services.