Technologies That Help Democracy Work

Author: Ricardo Tavares
Published: 2019-01-14

“We had no other option–we had no money,” Luciano Rezende told me when I asked him why he started a smart-city program in his town. 

Mr. Rezende is the Mayor of Vitória, a beautiful island-city of 400,000 people and the state capital of Espírito Santo in Southeast Brazil.  He took office in 2013 during a severe fiscal crisis. The city used to receive funding from a federal tax to support its two ports, but this fund was eliminated by the Brazilian Congress just before Mr. Rezende started his first term in office.  The following three years brought the worst economic recession on record for the country, further depleting the municipal government coffers.

How Mayor Rezende managed to keep his popularity intact during such a challenging period and without raising taxes is a tale of prioritization and leveraging of information and communications technologies (ICTs).   He defined health and education as his two main priorities, and began introducing technology changes under a tight budget to address those areas.

Brazil’s mobile broadband penetration skyrocketed in recent years.  Leveraging phones in the hands of the population, the city began scheduling doctors’ appointments using Internet and short messages. “Forty percent of capacity in our 28 health clinics was wasted by patients who did not show up,” recalled Mr. Rezende.  With automatic platform notifications, no-shows decreased and more people got appointments.  Digital medical records allowed patients to use any clinic with any doctor having full access to previous records.

More importantly, patients receive a message via SMS or WhatsApp after their appointment to rate the visit from 1 to 10.  That made health clinics’ performance transparent.  Mayor Rezende told me that in his early months in government he thought of firing the head of one of these clinics based on a “gut feeling,” but the data from the patients’ feedback revealed that particular clinic as the best performing. In the end, the manager not only kept his job but was invited to support other clinics to improve their performance. “Digitalization provides you with data that informs better decisions,” said the Mayor.

What’s fascinating about the City of Vitória’s experience is the simplicity of the technology solutions it implemented.  In education, the digitalization of city-wide elementary school registration, as opposed to a school-by-school system, revealed extra capacity that didn’t seem to be there before.  Most health and education solutions were developed in-house by a small team of software engineers, as there was no money for big procurement.  These improvements in city services in spite of a severe fiscal crisis led voters to reelect Mayor Rezende to a second term in 2016.

For advisors of smart-city projects, the lesson from Vitória is that public administration doesn’t need a lot of money to be smart.  Mayors who justify poor performance based on lack of money are missing the point.  Mayors need to adopt simple technology solutions targeted to their communities’ priorities.  Rezende’s reelection during an anti-incumbent wave in Brazil showed that well-targeted technology innovation pays off, and is now essential to making democracy work.

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