Cristian Berrio-Zapata
Darío Sebastian Berrío Gil
Publication Date
June 1, 2017

Federal University of Pará, or UFPA (Berrio-Zapata); Colombian Ministry of Education (Berrío Gil)

This research brief examines the impact of information and communication technology (ICT) mediation in democratisation and citizen engagement in Colombia. This country's e-government development has been recognised by the United Nations (UN) as a leader in Latin America and one of the 20 most developed nations of the world in the area. However, Colombia suffers from an access divide due to economic and infrastructural limitations, and a second level digital divide because of weak information and data literacy. The brief identifies the impact of ICT mediation in democratisation and citizen engagement in terms of what is understood as governance, how those representations are legitimised, and the ways in which they change power relations. In particular, it analyses the government project called Urna de Cristal (UDC), which is the centrepiece of President Santos' mandate on e-government policy and democratisation.

The authors review Colombian ICT mediation policies, place them in relation to the context, and contrast them with previous research about local e-democracy developments. For instance: "The Colombian legacy of political violence, corruption and elites who perpetuate the concentration of wealth and power are 'old problems' that remain present, and affect the construction of e-government and e-democracy. Corruption and violence have fed the economic and political exclusion of vast populations, fuelling a state of war for 70 years. Political trust and cooperative relations were seriously damaged, and the lack of quality in education favoured political apathy, non-critical use of technology, and absence of informational-data competencies. These conditions have been improving, but at a very slow pace. The same problems that affect the appropriation of ICTs in the population limit the action of governmental officers..."

This results in a characterisation of how Colombian e-government routines have evolved. As part of this history, Colombia's first Open Government Plan was produced in 2012 (Comité de Seguimiento AGA Colombia, 2015), and UDC initiated online consultations in 2013. Three previous studies have been produced by the government on this project (Colombia, 2015; Datexco, 2012; Infométrika, 2013) and one by the Uppsala University (Parra Beltran, 2015). For their own case study of UDC, the authors conducted in-depth interviews with relevant actors. Among the issues they uncovered were the following:

  • Poor educational quality, absence of political consciousness, a consumerist perspective of citizenship, and citizen indifference towards digital participation.
  • Lack of knowledge about the government and its bureaucratic processes, absence of information about digital democratic participation, and lack of competencies for critical informational action.
  • Distrust towards the government, lack of public awareness about e-government and democratic engagement, and oversimplification of democratic deliberation.
  • Lack of knowledge about users, arrogance, and lack of competence of the government.

However, they identified some auspicious elements: a positive attitude towards ICT policies; technology perceived as a propeller of positive social changes in political participation; and the recognition of the government's efforts and social achievements in digitisation. The research also identified a promising change in the thought process of government officers, non-governmental organisation (NGO) leaders, and research institutes. The Colombian government's sustained efforts to develop e-government during the past three presidential administrations has reflected positively in e-readiness indicators as well.

The authors conclude that "Democratisation through ICT mediation will not be easy in Colombia, and the first step is to understand that technology will be a reflection of the country's reality, and not a miraculous solution....In the case of Colombia, we identified at least four areas for improvement:

  1. ...While changes to the overall education system are vital to building competencies of citizens, an immediate step can be taken to provide training to community leaders on the basics of data and information literacy. Community leaders must also fully understand how data and information are linked to democratisation...
  2. Political literacy...(the set of abilities necessary to participate in a society's governance, the ability to read issues and events politically, political awareness and effectiveness) is basic. Mass media campaigns and community-based outreach by NGOs about e-democracy will be useful. Campaigns on social networks may also be effective...
  3. ...Not everyone with the necessary knowledge to take advantage of ICTs will have an interest to participate in the political project for democratisation. Traditional leaders must be introduced to the virtual arena of e-governance, and those digitally competent should be motivated to work for democratisation.
  4. ...Developing engagement tools for e-democracy on mobile based platforms will have a massive impact. An example of this is the software app used by taxi drivers in Bogotá, that not only serves as a GPS [Global Positioning System] and passenger link, but is also used collaboratively to solve doubts, share information, monitor security risk, and coordinate actions over cheap tablets and smart phones."

This research brief is part of the IT-for-Change-led Voice or Chatter? - a multi-country case study analysis about how ICT-mediated citizen engagement can be empowering for citizens and transformative for democratic governance outcomes. Voice or Chatter? was funded by Making All Voices Count.


OpenDocs from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), August 3 2017. Image credit: people by Wilson Joseph from the Noun Project. Bank by art shop from the Noun Project.