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Mongolia Mobile App Lets Citizens Say Where Taxes Get Spent

May 27, 2020

By Bakhytgul Titov, Mark Koenig, and Khaliungoo Ganbat

The promise of technology to engage citizens and transform the ways we manage cities is no longer a dream. Today it’s a necessity, and cities across the globe are eagerly trying new approaches, improving their online platforms, and making more and better use of technology.

Even before social distancing became a troublesome necessity, Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, had been increasing the pace of its transition to online platforms and tools, and the benefits of these timely preparations can be seen vividly in the city’s response to Covid-19. In the best of times, these improvements—using websites, mobile applications, databases, remote sensors, and other tools—can deliver urban services more efficiently and create new pathways for citizen engagement. During the pandemic, they are giving citizens new ways to stay involved in their democracy and make their voices heard on important civic matters, even while practicing social distancing and limiting in-person gatherings.

The ger districts of Ulaanbaatar are sprawling, unplanned neighborhoods that suffer from unequal access to basic public services including electricity, water, waste and sewage disposal, and heating. (Photo: Tsegts Media, 2020)

The Asia Foundation’s Urban Governance Project, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, is an ongoing collaboration with the Municipality of Ulaanbaatar (MUB) to find creative new approaches to public services and civic engagement. As part of this effort, the project has been working with MUB to launch an electronic voting tool that will allow citizens to register their opinions on local infrastructure priorities. The new system is integrated with MUB’s existing SmartUB mobile application, which has already made its mark as a digital platform for improvements in urban governance.

A citizen uses the SmartUB mobile app to vote on how the LDF will be invested. (Photo: Tsgets Media, 2020)

The new electronic voting tool allows users to weigh in on investments by the Local Development Fund (LDF), which allocates monies provided by the national government for local projects to improve the urban environment. The LDF is a pioneering experiment in participatory budgeting, the only one like it in Mongolia. LDF voting in the past has relied on paper-based household questionnaires—one response per household—followed up with local community meetings, but social-distancing restrictions to fight Covid-19 have taken this traditional approach off the table for the 2020 cycle. So, for the first time, MUB has moved to a fully online voting system.

The 2018 and 2019 trials of the voting app, in limited areas of the city, collected 13,000 and 76,000 votes, respectively. For 2020, the app was scaled up to cover the entire city. Roughly 347,000 citizens—159,000 men and 187,000 women—participated in the process and shared their opinions, a remarkable 43 percent of the eligible population.

Bagakhangai, Nalaikh, and Chingeltei districts piloted the SmartUB mobile app in 2018 and 2019 and had the highest rates of participation in 2020. The participation rate in Bagakhangai district was greater than 100% due to a government decision to register internal migrants in that district during Q1, a practice previously banned, resulting in more eligible voters than the previous year’s official figure.

Bagakhangai, Nalaikh, and Chingeltei districts piloted the SmartUB mobile app in 2018 and 2019 and had the highest rates of participation in 2020. The participation rate in Bagakhangai district was greater than 100% due to a government decision to register internal migrants in that district during Q1, a practice previously banned, resulting in more eligible voters than the previous year’s official figure.Enabling household members to vote individually was one of the key improvements made possible by the mobile application, allowing men and women young and old, not just household heads, to make their own opinions heard. Where voting had previously been restricted to one vote per household, the fully deployed e-voting system gave a vote to every citizen.To support the citywide deployment, local government officials were active at the neighborhood level, calling residents and offering guidance and support for elderly citizens and those who had trouble with the technology.

In ger khoroos, both men and women voted for public safety, in the form of streetlights and closed-circuit television (CCTV), as well as other redevelopment priorities.

The new voting app also significantly improves operational efficiency at the city’s smallest administrative unit, the khoroo. Collecting citizen inputs every year had been a major undertaking. Distributing and retrieving paper questionnaires and entering the data were extremely laborious. And despite the hard work, the process could not guarantee an accurate portrait of the popular will, because of the restricted participation and shortage of resources for data analysis.

Furthermore, the lack of an effective communication channel back to respondents to share information about which projects were chosen and completed, combined with doubts that LDF community meetings represented a true cross-section of the community, limited the perceived quality of engagement, and citizens often remained uninformed of final decisions.

In non-ger khoroos, closed-circuit television, childrens’ playgrounds, and a greener environment were the most-voted-for infrastructure improvements among both men and women.

The new LDF mobile application solves a number of these problems. Automatic data aggregation and visualizations allow both decision-makers and citizens to track the polling results with useful tables and graphs. The app has also significantly reduced the burden of data management and analysis for local officials.

Uranchimeg Sonom, an official of the fourth khoroo in Ulaanbaatar’s Baganuur District, says, “I collected citizen votes on the LDF using paper forms for five years, and it was a very lengthy process.” In 2018, Baganuur District became one of the first to pilot and then adopt the electronic voting system in all of its khoroos. Uranchimeg says the fourth khoroo was able to build ramps, communal wells, and bus stops using the LDF app’s voting results to set priorities.

A bridge funded by the LDF provides a shorter route for citizens to get water from communal wells. (Photo: Tsegts Media, 2020)

With the 2020 e-vote now complete, the review of the data has begun. Looking across the city, those living in apartment complexes mostly voted for children’s playgrounds, more green areas, and the installation of more security cameras. Ger district residents wanted streetlights and revamped urban planning, followed by more security cameras. The investment priorities from the LDF e-vote process show that residents want improvements that will produce safer and more livable environments. The LDF application will keep them informed of the government’s decisions on these investments, provide updates on project implementation, and, hopefully, demonstrate just how meaningful their participation has been. 

Bakhytgul Titov is a senior project officer and Khaliungoo Ganbat is a project manager for The Asia Foundation’s Urban Governance Program in Mongolia. Mark Koenig is the Foundation’s Mongolia country representative. They can be reached at bakhytgul.titov@asiafoundation.org, khaliungoo.ganbat@asiafoundation.org, and mark.koening@asiafoundation.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Mongolia
Related programs: Strengthen Governance
Related topics: Urbanization

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