From 1 to over 100 parliamentarians: On collaborating with public institutions

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In this episode...

In this episode of the Digitally Yours Podcast, our guest Ismail Lsoukm executive director of simsim participation citoyenne, told us about the organization's experience implementing civic tech projects in Morocco since 2014.


Digitally Yours Podcast


Host: n today's episode we will focus on the use of technology to leverage civil society work and what challenges are being faced locally As you may know by now this season's theme is to examine e-gov and civic tech in North Africa through a beyond the hype loop It is a reality check tp spot opportunities discuss challenges and see the way forward. Well to do that, we are today being joined with Ismail Ilsouk Executive director of Morrocan Ngo SimSim participation Citoyenne.

Q: Let us start by giving our audience a brief idea of SimSim participation Citoyenne, the story and the current work

I.I: Simsim participation Citoyenne is an organization founded in 2014. Since then, our first project was with the Moroccan parliament, nouabook, a platform that people can use to reach out to their representatives in parliament. We work with all political parties represented in first chamber, the chamber of representatives and we use their interest to engage in different activities with citizens, communication, share information on what is happening inside the parliament and collaboration on legislation with civil society. We try to get them to work with citizens and civil society and promote a culture of openness, transparency and accountability within the institution. We also expanded to work on access to information in general in Morocco and we also work in the MENA region on a project called innovation for change, it is a project that aims to create technological alternatives that civil society and activists can use in restrictive contexts in the MENA region to do their work. We try to come up with solutions online that they can use to overcome wherever restrictions that exist in their context.

Q: As someone with experience in both civic tech and the youth sector in Morocco, do you find young people more receptive to using technology for civic engagement or this is not really a generational preference

I.I: I think civic tech does provide civil society with opportunities to reach out to a bigger audience, a wider population. I do not believe that there should be something that is only based on online platforms or online engagement because I don't think t can always be inclusive. Now we are working on civic tech trying to engage youth on online platforms. There are opportunities but there are also challenges. We believe that if you want to engage youth and citizens, you need to go where they exist, where they are. Online platforms and social media can be where they are now. But you also have to be aware of the challenges. Your content online is not the only existing content. For example, if we try to build trust between the parliament and citizens, there is also content online that can affect the trust of citizens with their institutions. We noticed since we started working there is interest in our work online with parliament. We try to use that interest from citizens and institutions to make something happen offline concretely. Again, it really has to do with your approach. We have seen projects that work with parliaments in different countries I think Tunisia has one, but the difference is in the approach. Two main approaches: Do you want to collaborate with the institutions and work with them to be more open, or hold them accountable from a distance. I think it is a choice you have to make based on your context and also what you want to get to. In Morocco, we just saw more benefits working with the institution itself to become more open and use whatever opportunities we have online to make something happen concretely. So if we have interest from the side of parliamentarians on a certain issue and it is also something citizens are interested in, we try to get civil society and parliamentarians to sit together and do something about it offline. We also realized that sometimes we gave bigger expectations of what certain institutions can offer at the moment. So we have to be aware of that and pretty much adapt our speed to what the context provide and what those institutions are ready for at the moment. It can be some frustration here. But again that is our approach and it is a matter of perspective and approach. 

Q: In your work with the parliament, what was the journey like to convince parliamentarians and did you see any evolution through time?

I.I: It has been a learning experience for us In 2014, the idea was to put a platform online, put parliamentarians' information on that platform, create their accounts and allow citizens to reach out to them and representatives of parliament would answer whatever question or request submitted to them through the platform. That was pretty much the idea. When the team reached out to 395 parliamentarians we received only one response. Only one parliamentarian was interested to be on the platform. and that was expected. It was the first time they would do something similar with a civil society organization. They don't know what it entails and they are most of the time attacked on social media because the discussion is not moderated on social media, with lots of accusations and it is not a constructive dialogue. I took time to actually convince them that the conversation on nouabook platform will actually be moderated. The way we do it is to have a code of conduct that in a way regulates the conversation between parliamentarians and citizens  Nouabook team does the moderation, so we only accept questions that respect certain criteria.  The only thing is that people need to ask their questions in a respectful manner and it has to do with the work of the parliament. It took time to convince them it is actually a safe space where constructive dialogues can happen. Since then we saw a lot of evolution. We have grown to work with more than 130 parliamentarians from different political parties and we organized a lot of activities around parliament work. One of the initiatives we started back then to encourage parliamentarians to participate was online townhalls meetings, we changed its name now to Cafe politique, which is an online live discussion where we host parliamentarians, civil society activists academians and journalists to have conversations around public policy and legislations whenever relevant. So we have seen a lot of evolution and interest from the parliament. We also have grown to work with the institution itself. One thing we've done last year in collaboration with the chamber of representatives is we submitted to them a technical study of their website. We asked them to update their website to add more information and make it more accessible to citizens and users. That is something they positively reacted to and their platform has been updated. They also asked us to work with them on training journalists on parliamentary. We just issued a guide for journalists and we plan to use it to train them on how to report on parliament work. There has been a lot of progress since 2014. We try to build on small successes with the institution. It has been going very well. We are trying to keep a coordination approach a support approach where we support the institution  There are definitely a lot of things we like to see move faster, there are things we don't like but we also realize these things take time and we try to support and talk to them to see where our work can be helpful. And just be patient. 

Q: How was the engagement like from citizens, what was the feedback and what interest points did you spot?

I.I: There is a lot of interest. Most of the time, citizens do not understand what is happening inside the parliament and some conversations are not clear to them, there is no access to information. In Morocco, for example, we don't have a parliament channel, the discussion within committees are private and citizens can not attend and see what is happening by the constitution. There are exceptions but the general norm they are secret discussions within the committee

During covid, it was interesting. The parliament had to adapt because parliamentarians cannot come, all of them. They streamed the discussion from committees on their platforms. There was a lot of interest from what you can see in the media. in discussions online or even in the live broadcast. There is a lot of interest from citizens It is just that sometimes you have to explain what is happening, so people can follow the discussion. You have to provide simplified information. It is something we start within the platform A lot of the questions we received on the platform had to do with local issues that parliamentarians do not work on, other institutions do. We had to go back to organize workshops, produce videos to explain what parliament and parliamentarians do and what they can answer. It had to be expected. It is an institution that really was closed for decades. I think the institution didn't realize or know how to adapt to new changes in society and what people expect to find information online. For example, now there is a law to access information in Morocco. But some of the challenges is that you have to request the information from the institution or does the institution has to proactively share the information on their website. There are a lot of discussions happening around that. Parliament in my point of view can do better because it is expected to lead and provide an example to other institutions so that citizens can access information.I have to say there is interest. It is not always positive interest from the side of citizens. It is not always an informed interest. But it is the role of civil society, the media and the parliament institution itself to provide correct information that is timely and clear for citizens to understand and engage in discussions happening in the parliament. Some of those discussions can be complicated and not accessible.. 

Q: Regarding the right access to information, how do you see technology being used to leverage that right and is it also important to see how this information is being presented?

I.I: Access to information, it is something we started working on when we had a law in Morocco. Let us start by saying that the existence of legislation on access to information is better than not having it at all. After that, once we have it, our reflex is to look into the law and criticize it saying it limits the access or it is not effective enough and doesnt support the culture of access to information, openness in the country. You can always find for instance articles that limit citizens access to information more than it supports it. It is a conversation we had to have internally at Simsim. But we can spend time criticizing the law but we can also spend time educating citizens about it and get them to use the opportunities it provides, then find challenges and try to push the institution to fix those challenges. I will give an example. One of the early discussions we had was Why does not the government create a platform where citizens can easily submit access-to-information requests rather than go to certain institutions We were very lucky because it was something done in the early stages in Morocco. We didn't have to push for it  I think “chafafiya” made a platform where citizens can submit requests. Beyond that, there are other challenges. The one thing we did in addition to organizing workshops Where we tell people about their right to access to information and how they can practice it and use the information after they receive it. We also ourselves submitted between 80 and 100 Access to information requests on chafafiya platform, the governmental platform and we tracked those requests and how much time it took them to answer and did they answer in the delays they have in the law. is there coordination between governmental institutions? Then, we issued periodic reports that were widely shared by the media and there was interest from the citizens. You have to start somewhere. The fact that there is an access-to-information law that regulates the whole thing it's good. civil society has the responsibility to take it forward. We can't expect governments to take it forward. I think they like to take their time in such things Citizens are not always informed and if they are informed they don't always know how to act upon this. And even when they do, there are always frustrations because they may go to one institution and their request is not taken or they don't respond to them on time or there are delays. The process can be exhausting and sometimes frustrating. As a civil society, we can't stand and watch. We have to practise this right and push the government whenever they can. Again, it is going to take time. It is a sort of new culture. We will face many challenges. But as civil society organizations, we need to center ourselves and lead this new culture and try to educate citizens on one side and assist them and also hold the government accountable and push them forward. The goal is to support and encourage civic participation and civic culture rather than limit it. Using online platforms can be easier and more effective. 

Q: What the state can do to encourage citizens' participation in public debates?

I.I: I think before having a law and having civil society look into it and tell us what is wrong with it.. we can use that in an earlier process. It will help create quality legislation on civic participation. This will take us forward rather than having the law, criticizing it and submitting reports on what government can do better. We call for better participation from civil society and citizens in the legislative process. If we were involved when the law was in the making, we would push for more use of online platforms, we would push for shorter deadlines to respond to citizens' access to information requests and give civil society a role in following up and assisting the government in implementing this law. The second thing is you cannot produce legislation in 2022 the same way in the 80s. The population has changed, legislation has changed. The level of progress, development and expectations of citizens have changed. The use of technology is something that should be present in whatever mechanism we produce for civic participation and engagement or advocacy. It is present in our lives. Imagine if we had access to information law but we don't create a platform where citizens can submit requests to government institutions. Imagine if we had this law but we still ask citizens to go in person to print out a form to submit to whatever institution they want to access information from. We call for more inclusion of citizens and Civil Society in early processes of legislation. We call for the inclusion of civil society in the implementation of these mechanisms. We also call for the use of technology and online platforms to create more engagement from citizens. It is very important in a time when there is less trust in official institutions, we should do more to enhance citizens as partners. This leads to talk about civil society. We need to give more space for civil society. We need more democracy in the region. This is always something at the heart of the discussion we have as a civil society. We need more space and democracy in the work of the civil society. I believe it can only lead to better outcomes.

Q: What are your thoughts on how to implement and sustain civic tech initiatives in our context? What do you think civil society should focus on? 

A: The work of the Civil Society in the region is very important on different levels. But the challenges that civil society face in the MENA region are enormous in some cases. I am not saying it is the same everywhere. Civil Societies enjoy different opportunities and face different challenges from country to country in the region. But overall it's not an easy that civil society does in the region. Sustainability of the work is one verdic challenge. When we talk about civic tech and the engagement of citizens we need to have a sort of knowledge transfer from the civil society side to public institutions. Let's say if on the Nouabook platform we create a constructive dialogue between citizens and parliamentarians, we are doing it because the parliamen was not in 2014. We would like to transfer this task and the knowledge acquired and experience we gained to parliament. We want to see the parliament interact with citizens. We dont want to be an intermediary organization between citizens and parliamentarians. We were filling a void and e want parliament to take on this responsibility. We are ready to transfer this knowledge and experience. We are ready to train parliament staff to do this work. But I think there is an opportunity here because we always say public institutions should be more open and provide information online. They are not doing it very well. Civil society can start by filling the void. But the ultimate goal is for the governments to train their staff to do it. It is a way for it to become sustainable. Having dialogue channels always open help. We can always pish on public institutions to take on this task. We can always assist. I don't think civil society will run out of issues to work on in the future. As we work with the parliament, we want them to do this and we can always move to something else there is always benefit 

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