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Are African Governments Providing Understandable and Accessible Content for the ‘Mobile First’ Continent?

December 7, 2016 | Connected Society | Sub-Saharan Africa | Alex Smith

There are now 3.5 billion people using the Internet to communicate with one another, shop, learn or listen to music, in ways that were unavailable to people in previous generations. The Internet also opens up huge opportunities to improve the relationship between governments, citizens and businesses. Often grouped under the term eGovernment, this covers three areas:

  • The effectiveness of Government itself (often using the acronym G2G). By digitising services, governments can make huge efficiency savings in the same way that any organisation can make large efficiency savings.
  • Government and Business (G2B). Technology can help improve the business environment, through areas such as electronic procurement, online tax completion.
  • Government and Citizen (generally known as G2C). Technology can improve the delivery of government services to citizens by making processes cheaper, more available and accessible such as the ability to take part in consultations, pay taxes and apply for official documents.

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Given this range of activities, proponents, including the World Bank, have suggested that technology has the potential to have a transformative effect, leading to more responsive governments that are more efficient and less corrupt1. Moving services online can also help address the lack of locally relevant content in many of these markets and ensure that people living in these countries have a compelling reason to begin using the internet in the first place. For this reason, the UN enshrined the role of ICT in good governance in a 2014 General Assembly Resolution2.

In recent years, the spread of mobile to all corners of the globe means it has increasingly moved to the centre of eGovernment discussions. There are now 4.78 billion unique mobile subscribers around the world, with nearly 3 in 4 of these mobile internet subscribers3. Given that for many subscribers, especially in the developing world, mobile is their only way of accessing the internet, it is crucial that these services are designed for mobile.

Efforts have been made to track how well governments are fulfilling their duty in this area, most notably the World Bank’s eGovernment Development Index (EGDI) which measures the readiness of governments to launch eGovernment services around the world based on telecoms infrastructure, human resource endowment and service availability. Perhaps unsurprisingly, low and middle income countries perform poorly on this Index given the weight put on the first two categories.

However, our experience of visiting government websites for the countries in which we work, showed us that the problem may be more basic. We regularly found that information was fragmentary and sometimes wasn’t there at all. Given this, we set out to understand three things:

1. Is it the case that all African governments even have a website?

2. Given that the majority of people are now accessing the internet through mobile devices, are these websites mobile enabled, therefore ensuring they don’t have a terrible user experience?

3. Many African countries have rich array of spoken languages. 7 of the world’s top 10 most linguistically diverse countries are in Africa, with Cameroon alone home to 281 languages4. Do countries even fulfil a minimum requirement of translating their website into all the official languages of state?

We went away and did some analysis on African government websites, and the results weren’t pretty.

Firstly, 3 countries – Comoros, Central African Republic and Eritrea – had no functioning government website at all5. The latter two are perhaps not surprising, given the limited amount of transparency and freedom that exist in both.

More surprisingly, only 43% of African government websites were ‘mobile friendly’6. The features assessed for ‘mobile friendliness’ of the webpages include the size of the page, text or links, to determine if the page can be comfortably viewed on a mobile device. Given that 63% of internet traffic in Africa comes from mobile devices7 and that for a majority of the 344 million Africans that subscribe to the mobile internet, mobile is their only means of accessing the internet8, this means that the majority of African governments are making it incredibly difficult for users to access information and services.

Nearly 27% of websites were not available in all the official languages of the country. For example, the Kenyan Government’s comprehensive MyGov portal is let down by the fact it is not available in Swahili, the most widely spoken language in the country. The South African Government website is only available in English, with none of the other 10 official languages available and despite the fact that less than 10% of the South African population speak English as a first language9.

Ultimately, only a third of African governments have websites that are ‘mobile friendly’ and available in all of the country’s official languages. What does this mean?

Firstly, it is important to note that it says nothing about the quality of the content, the design or the services on offer10. In our increasingly mobile world, it is not even to suggest that a website is the only, or even the best, platform for governments to use. Nonetheless, the ability to make information accessible and understandable to citizens should be seen as the first step to a successful use of technology on the part of governments. At present, the majority of African governments are failing in this regard, meaning that the hypothesised benefits of eGovernment are a long way off.

As a result, we urge African governments to bring information and services online, to make sure they are ‘mobile friendly’ and that they are languages that their citizens understand.

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[1] World Bank

[2] UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/69/204, December 2014. This states that governments have a responsibility to ensure “the effective use of information and communications technologies in their design of public policies and in the provision of public services responsive to national needs and priorities, including…national development efforts.”

[3] GSMA Intelligence, Q3 2016

[4] Ethnologue

[5] Note that for the purposes of our analysis we didn’t count websites focussed at foreign investors or tourists. We were interested in understanding how well governments were doing at making information available to their citizens.

[6] As defined by Google’s Mobile-Friendly automated test. Correct as of 21/11/16

[7] StatCounter, Nov 2016

[8] GSMA Intelligence, Q3 2016

[9] South African Census 2011

[10] The South African governments inability to convey information in plain language was covered here, with the  quality of African government web design amusingly critiqued here.

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