THE on-and-off movement control measures and travel restrictions have made people, organisations and government transform the way they interact with one another.

Many people have been forced to postpone social gatherings and meetings or resort to online learning. The recent e-Conomy SEA 2020 report by Google, Temasek and Bain and Company showed that one in three Malaysians started using digital services due to Covid-19.

With the rising usage of online advocacy platforms, civic technology or civil tech for short, can be utilised for informing, engaging and connecting citizens with the government, or with one another to advance civic outcomes that have the potential for Malaysia to better inform and encourage citizen engagement through technology.

Civic tech enhances the relationship between people and government with software for communication, decision-making, service delivery, and political process. It also includes information and communications technology supporting government with software built by community-led teams of volunteers, non-profit bodies, consultants and private companies as well as embedded tech teams working within government.

There are four different types of e-government services and civic tech falls within the category of government-to-citizen (G2C). The other categories include government-to-business (G2B), government-to-government (G2G), and government-to-employees (G2E).

The continuous challenges in conducting Parliament sittings during the pandemic, for instance, led several Malaysian youth organisations such as Challenger Malaysia, Undi 18, Liga Rakyat Demokratik and United Nations Association Malaysia (Unam) Youth to jointly organise Parlimen Digital, a virtual mock Parliament between July 4 and 5 last year.

This event won plaudits from various parties who witnessed 222 young Malaysians representing respective parliamentary constituencies, debating issues ranging from economic challenges to the state of the nation’s education system.

It could also be used to help simplify voter registration, host virtual dialogues and launch crowdfunding campaigns supporting civic causes.

Although civil tech empowers citizens to take action and transform the nation’s democracy landscape, there are several challenges to consider.

Sinar Project, a Malaysian-based civic tech initiative, could not register as non-profit. Due to the ongoing struggles with funding and sustainability, Sinar Project could not improve governance and encourage greater citizen involvement in public affairs as anticipated. As a result, the progress of creating a more open, transparent and accountable Parliament has been slow.

To truly foster social change, civil tech also needs to reach a large number of users. However, the lack of rigorous and consistent outcome-measurement and compelling evidence of impact have prevented civic tech organisations from attracting a relevant audience.

As urban poor and rural citizens have limited access to digital devices or unstable internet connections, civil tech could not involve them. It limits the potential of civil tech to reach every segment of society to create a substantial community impact.

Furthermore, the funding for civic tech organisations only caters to short-term implementation of specific projects and programmes. Often, civil tech has to carry out fundraising regularly to meet associated operational expenses such as for remuneration and utilities.

Therefore, for civic tech to enhance citizen engagement in Malaysia, Emir Research has several policy recommendations for the Government to consider:

0 Integrate initiatives created by the private sector and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) into one streamlined website. For instance, the Ministry of Youth and Sports could combine all initiatives from the private sector and NGOs into its official website for Malaysian youths to access relevant information easily;

0 Take a lead in organising dialogues with different industries such as manufacturing, hospitality and retail sectors in Malaysia, enabling different voices to be heard at all levels of government, company boards and multilateral organisations. This, in turn, would foster an intergenerational transfer of experience, knowledge and skills besides forming people-centric public policies;

0 Work on data collection, analysis and visualisation with relevant ministries, agencies and representatives from the private sector to bring better information to the people. With current, updated, trustworthy, accurate, reliable and complete data, industry players will be able to benchmark business performances based on their understanding of the current state of the industry and adopt the most appropriate business approaches to address citizen issues; and

0 Focus on citizen autonomy in taking decisions and direct democracy empowerment tools. The government could acknowledge civil tech by providing necessary funding for them, further advancing Malaysia’s democracy.

By emphasising the importance of civil tech, the government could empower more citizens to engage in societal change, and have a better understanding of what the people want and need.

The writer is research analyst at Emir Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.