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Smart Governance Practices on the Rise in Central America

A summit sponsored by the International Republican Institute highlights the technological innovations that municipalities across the Northern Triangle are undertaking to promote transparency and citizen security.
At the IRI expo in Guatemala City last week, several dozen leading technology firms showcased their products and solutions to eager municipal representatives looking to expand their technology footprint. Photo and homepage photo courtesy of the author.

The latest developments in information and communication technology (ICT) are no longer the rage among just tech-savvy enthusiasts. Municipalities across the hemisphere are also starting to pay attention. In Central America, mayors, municipal councilors and their advisors are embracing ICTs such as websites, social media platforms, mobile text messaging, and video cameras as useful tools for doing business—and to save lives in a region fighting violence and drug trafficking.

Known as “smart governance,” the use of ICTs is being shown to increase transparency and accessibility, promote equality and inclusion, and improve citizen security—making it in many ways an extension of democratic governance.

This is why democracy promotion institutions such as the International Republican Institute (IRI) are leading the way in forming partnerships with local mayors to build their capacity to launch smart governance programs. Some of the region’s best practices were on display last week in Guatemala City during an IRI conference—organized with support from the National Endowment for Democracy— that brought together forward-thinking municipal officials from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras alongside technology start-ups, The World Bank and even the South Korea-based World e-Governments Organization.

One thing was clear: there is a lot to learn from the innovative practices being launched in the region. In Guatemala, for example, the Secretaría Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (National Secretariat for Science and Technology—SENACYT), is promoting a nationwide initiative to extend web access by opening more Internet cafés. This is especially important in a country where 91 percent of the population does not have Internet access at home. In addition to increasing Internet availability, SENACYT also is partnering with universities to train Guatemalans, especially the elderly, how to use the Internet so they are not left behind by the digital divide.

Guillermo De León, SENACYT’s information technology director, believes that greater ICT use will also result in an increase in government transparency, a priority of President Otto Pérez Molina. He adds that while small municipalities are local laboratories of innovation, it is important for the national government to show leadership and to make smart governance a national priority.

Smart governance can also help to make communities safer—a key priority in the Northern Triangle. In Puerto Cortés, Honduras, Mayor Allan Ramos is using ICT to streamline the emergency response system. Rather than dial separate numbers for the ambulance service, police precinct or fire station, residents can now call *100 (similar to 911 in the United States) and the dispatcher will direct the emergency to the appropriate service. On the security front, Puerto Cortés has invested $385,000 in video surveillance technology. Cameras across the community feed into an emergency command center that is constantly monitored by security personnel. Similar to models seen in other Central American communities—and outside the region as well—this allows the police to react to crimes in real time.

These efforts help to boost citizen confidence in government and produce an on-the-ground impact. From 2008 to 2011, the murder rate in Puerto Cortés nearly halved from 91 homicides per 100,000 persons to 51 per 100,000. For business, this also means greater confidence in investing in a city that is home to the country’s main port and thus dependent on being seen as a place to do business.

Like Ramos, the new mayor of Villa Nueva, Guatemala, Edwin Escobar is using technology to help boost security. Elected earlier this year, Escobar has already begun to accomplish some of his campaign goals including increasing street lighting and video camera use, recovering public spaces, creating a security operations center, and establishing a municipal reaction force.

Mayor Escobar, a longtime entrepreneur, has used his private sector experience to already achieve commendable results. Villa Nueva has opened a security operations center, which can be reached by texting or dialing *7762. He has also set up Seguridad para Nuestra Comunidad (SPNC): a geo-referencing tool that pinpoints crimes in real time, often reported anonymously, and relays the information to a local command center. SPNC was first built while Escoabar was in the private sector; he then donated it to the Villa Nueva municipality and is now focused on expanding its scope. For Mayor Escobar, the hope is that SPNC also will empower Villa Nueva’s citizens by allowing them to feel safe reporting a crime. The system is already showing signs of success: Villa Nueva’s homicide rate in 2012 has dropped by almost 29 percent.

The smart governance wave has also reached El Salvador. In Santa Tecla, a 120,000-person municipality of greater San Salvador, Mayor Oscar Ortiz and his digital city director, Reynaldo Tarrés, have ushered in grand ideas to revitalize Santa Tecla’s digital footprint. Tarrés sees the city’s ICT initiatives as increasing transparency, facilitating access to information and fostering greater citizen participation. As part of the mayor’s team, he has overseen the creation of both Santa Tecla’s online complaint system and its municipal job bank—both built in response to citizen demands.

Tarrés led beta tests with residents and also ensured that the municipality’s website is mobile-friendly—as smartphones and tablets are very popular among Salvadoran youth. Santa Tecla has also begun to roll out a system of telecenters, or mobile “universities” where tecleños can receive ICT training. So far, 1,600 people have taken advantage of the service.

These leaders are just a sampling of the pioneers who are at the forefront of a smart governance wave in Central America. For institutions like IRI, support of these innovative practices is crucial “to improve democratic processes and make public institutions more efficient, inclusive and transparent,” notes Antonio Garrastazu, Central America director for IRI. The hope is that these local governments will be part of a regional wave of communities—and nations—increasingly rolling out new ICT practices to increase citizen participation.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Central America, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Information and communication technology, Democratic Governance


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