Information Access in the Digital Age

By Nasubo Ongoma
  Published 12 Jun 2017
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Transforming governmental services from analogue (e.g., visiting offices, offline media channels (government publications, newspapers, radio, TV, word of mouth, etc.)) to digital has been lauded for ease in service delivery and enhancing government communication. However, citizens feel that digital platforms have not been adequately addressed. In May, the research team visited three counties, Nakuru, Kisumu and Mombasa to find out citizens’ experiences on the ICT tools launched.

One finding that was consistent across all locations is that information access is a problem, ranging from where to get information, how to access information and the value citizens attribute to that information. Some participants faulted the government for inadequate knowledge sharing tools and timely information. But, where does the buck stop? On one hand, the government provided web portals, but do these portals actively provide information and do the citizens use these portals? Where exactly is the problem? A valid answer requires the definition of information access.

Information access is the ability to identify, retrieve, and use information effectively1,2

More and more participants noted that without adequate and timely information, decision making is slower and one-sided. In a democracy, all parties should have adequate and timely information to have a non partisan discussion. Information access is closely tied to digital divide3, without the expertise (identifying, retrieving and using information given) widens the digital divide. Information access entails;

  1. Cost of Access, what does it entail to go online and how much is it to go online to access the services. Without equipment, digital literacy and the high cost of broadband, it becomes an unattainable task.
  2. Language used, What is the mode of communication? English and Swahili are national languages, but, the majority of the platforms, if not all, are in English, this limits the number of people online. The sites are also not friendly to users with disabilities, for example the blind, the portals do not have a voice over option.
  3. Modes of access, which device do most people use to access the services online and can they access most of these services with those devices?
  4. Digital literacy, are citizens digitally compliant? Who is tasked with the role of educating the citizens on the importance of going online, or the real cost of remaining offline?
  5. Security and Privacy, are citizens confident about the security of their information? When using these sites is user privacy taken care of?
  6. Information Credibility, is the information verifiable, if so, through which channels? When the information is finally archived, where is it archived and can it be retrieved? When one asks for the information, is it given?

It seems that all these fall under the mandate of the government as she builds and deploys more products. Are the above put into consideration when designing the softwares? How can the cost of devices and mode of access be lowered to bring more people online? What about the language of transmission? Kenya is a bilingual country, curious as to why we don’t we have Swahili as one of the languages. How do Kenyans access these services, can all platforms be customized for mobile access? The latest report from the Communication Authority (CA)4, has it that approximately 90% of Kenyans own a mobile phone and 50% own smartphones, but only 68% of mobile subscribers access the Internet on their mobiles. Most people access the Internet via the mobile, however, how many government platforms have been deployed with this in mind?

Finally, on digital literacy, has the government educated its citizens on the importance of going online and why it is implementing e-government platforms? The full effect of digital transformation will only be seen as more and more people go online. Nevertheless, bringing people online is not the solution, it is also equally important to find out how online users can be persuaded to use government services online. Some may argue that not all services can be done online, true, but the majority can be initialised online and then followed up later.

Back to the mandate, who bears the responsibility? Everyone! If all actors play their part, 1) the government setting up services to enable a two way interaction with timely information and 2) citizens acting on the information. Only then can we be closer to having a well oiled system which is essentially a working feedback mechanism and thus enhance democracy.

Demystifying issues

Persuading those online to use government services is one of the biggest hurdles the government faces. Most participants noted that the government resorted to scare tactics to ensure that people use these platforms. An example is KRA tax returns, if you don’t do on time, you get a penalty. The problem with that, as a participant noted, is that there are no timely reminders about what you owe them.

This month, we are at it again, filing tax returns. Every Kenyan who has a KRA PIN, regardless of her employment status, MUST file returns online. The good news is that this is not the first time, therefore people have lots of practice, right? Kenya has over 2.2M active5,6 taxpayers, from both the public and private sectors, however, out of this group, there are many who do not know how to file tax returns online. This is evidenced by the number of people flocking the cyber cafes days to the deadline. June is usually a money minting period for cyber attendants who charge a fee to help Kenyans out.

It is likely that iTaxwill be jammed, days to the deadline with a numerous number of Kenyans flocking cyber cafes to ensure that they have done their part. I am against giving your private details to someone, just because you are unable to do the task. As an advocate of do it yourself (DIY) and being a stickler for privacy, it is not hard to understand where I am coming from. Think about it, you give someone your ID number, KRA PIN, P9 form, that’s a lot of information, especially to someone who knows nothing about you, worse still it remains resident on his computer! Technology should facilitate and enhance privacy, but according to KRA, as long as you file your returns nothing else matters! Every year, same thing, some participants noted that the system was made deliberately to fail. The government has done their part, some citizens have caught up, but a majority are left behind, especially in rural counties. This is debatable and we’ll delve more on it in subsequent posts.

What I would love to know now is how many people have accessed the Internet this month. Could we have a monthly analysis?CAplease help! The last report4 tabled had an interesting perspective, there was an increase in the number of Internet users during the last quarter, because students were at home for the holiday. It will be interesting to see if this resonates with this month’s tax returns.

Next week I will report on some of the recommendations tabled by the participants on how the government can ensure that more people go online. For instance, There could be laws set in place to ensure that access devices are more affordable and the cost of accessing the service is also affordable.




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