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Bhutan is a young democracy where the concept of active democratic citizenship is still new. For many parliamentarians, it may take over a week to visit the remote areas of their constituencies, due to the mountainous terrain and limited road access. Approximately 70% of Bhutanese people live in rural areas, Internet penetration stands at 23%, and the general literacy level is 63%. This means that an innovative way to connect Parliamentarians with their constituencies between twice-yearly constituency visits needed was needed to help prevent a disconnection between the Parliament and those at risk of being left out.
The Virtual Zomdu project (“Zomdu” = a meeting of residents of villages or communities) aims to enable citizens and parliamentarians to interact and meet virtually to discuss issues of concern via videoconference. Eventually, the meetings could be held at all 205 Community Centres (CCs), utilizing a government fiber-optic network, and will be open to everyone regardless of literacy, gender, social status, or whether they have access to the internet.
During the prototyping funded by the Innovation facility, a videoconferencing hub for the National Assembly was procured, and mock Virtual Zomdus held between two remote constituencies and their parliamentary MPs. The prototying was able to test both technical feasibility and garner feedback in order to improve options for future upscaling.
The project is being implemented by a project team which is led by the National Assembly of Bhutan, in partnership with the Gross National Happiness Commission, National Council of Bhutan, Department of Local Governance, Department of Information Technology and Telecom and Bhutan Post Corporation.
The Virtual Zomdu engaged not only the Parliament Secretariats and MPs, but the Speaker of the National Assembly himself, to lead the prototyping of the project. This, combined with blogging and working out loud, resulted in media coverage in newspapers including Bhutan’s only daily newspaper covering the whole country and tweets from parliamentarians.Most importantly, all 13 community members who took part in the prototyping were “extremely satisfied” with the sessions they took part in and believed that it would positively benefit their community. The opportunity provided by the Innovation Facility helped to develop interest and momentum, which is being utilized by a cross-agency project team which is now on the brink of testing the Virtual Zomdu in all 47 constituencies across Bhutan.
The nature of the Virtual Zomdu project necessitates working with a number of agencies, which can create pressures for finding agreement for the way forward – especially when, due to the innovative nature of the project, no office has it in their annual work plan . At the same time, achieving so much in a short time demonstrates what is possible and creates a great sense of momentum and achievement which helps take the idea forward – this should be taken advantage of. The value of the prototyping approach was demonstrated by a number of lessons being learned regarding bandwidth, installation and equipment which would not have been found out without physical testing. Finally, an unexpected risk is that the Virtual Zomdu could end up reducing MP visits to communities, and so listening to feedback carefully is important in order to be able to adjust the project approach.
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