Claudio Orrego, mayor of Peñalolén, Chile, recently gave a talk in Ottawa on potential future collaboration with Canada on a digital democracy project in Chile. Orrego, also a former minister of housing and head of Chile’s Committee for Modernization, started up a single telecentre in 1997 with the

goal of providing IT skills to those without access to computers. Since its inception, the first centre, which started with a little seed money from Canada’s International Development Research Centre, has become self-sustaining and grown into a network of 16 locations. The idea for the centre, called El Encuentro, was inspired by Canada’s approach to providing community access to the Internet and its Strategis portal to promote e-business.

Orrego’s visit was hosted by the Institute for Connectivity in the Americas (www.icamericas.net), an organization that supports efforts to increase the connectivity levels of Latin American and Caribbean nations.

TIG: How did you get involved with the telecentre project?

CO: In 1997 I was made responsible for e-government and the modernization of state program for Chile. I decided with a few friends to start this telecentre in Chile after a visit to Canada. We were invited by the Canadian government to see the modernization of state programs and I saw three things that we actually ended up replicating in Chile. One was the Strategis project — using IT to foster relationships between companies. Then (we replicated) the Canadian government portal, which has everything of the government on one Web site that you can search in a very intelligent and simple way. The third was the Community Access Program. In fact, the program I started, called El Encuentro, which is our network of telecentres, was inspired by the experience I had in Canada.

TIG: Where is Chile with e-government at this stage?

CO: We have come a long way. We’ve covered the first two stages — putting everything we had online, even if was a static Web page. We have more than 600 public institutions on the Web. We were able to go to the second stage where we have some transactional online projects, so you will find we have 374 actual transactions with government you can do over the Net right now, from procurement, which is one of the key successes, and tax payment, to getting a birth certificate over the Net. However, we’re facing new challenges now. The first one is that the front office is one thing; the back office is another. If you want to move forward you need to integrate, but not only between the back and front offices, but between agencies. We have way too many databases in government. People are asking citizens for the same papers over and over again, so we need to integrate that, and that’s a huge challenge. The barriers, the turfs between public agencies, that is a difficult one. If we want to move forward it’s not a matter of having more Web pages. The second is the digital divide, in various ways. One is within government. Local governments are in the stone age, but the central government is in the 21st century. So we need to close that gap. The other (divide) is among citizens. We have done a lot in government to increase the quality of the supply of public service; we have done little to increase the quality of the demand of the services, and that is because … a huge majority of the country not only doesn’t have a place where they can be connected, but they don’t understand, they don’t think they need it, which is even worse. If you have the need you will develop the tools, but without the need you’ll never develop the tools. The third type of digital divide, incredibly enough, is with the private sector. We discovered, both from my work in the public sector and my work with the private sector, that after the hype of the Internet bubble and all the first stages of modernization, companies are hesitant, they’re more scared; they’re having second thoughts about technology. Now we’re in a different world where government is pushing through fast, and companies are kind of staying behind.

TIG: How do the centres work? It’s an interesting combination of capitalism and socialism, it seems.

CO: In Chile we have a very clean and efficient government and they have done a good job of opening up public sector infrastructure. These are public sector offices run by public sector employees to provide access to this segment — youth, the elderly and microentrepreneurs. Then we have the community-based projects where I don’t think we have got that far. The CAP programs here in Canada are much stronger than we have in Chile. Because it’s difficult; if you’re not state and you are not business it’s difficult to stay alive. We decided to charge from Day 1 because we knew after the first seed money was gone we would have to survive and after eight years that has been the key to our success, even though we work in very poor places. I always say poor people also drink beer, go to see soccer games and smoke cigarettes, so they are willing to pay for those things they value. I think if we’re able to show them the Internet is also valuable they will pay and they’re doing it. The third component is the private sector — the cyber cafes you also have here — at the local level. It is getting stronger every day and that’s good. However, neither the public sector nor the private sector (options) provide to society what the community access projects do, which is a sense of community and I think that’s very important for this new information economy we’re building.

TIG: How was your model perceived?

CO: The sustainability issue is something we were faced with from Day 1 and we were misunderstood. People would say, “”You come here to a poor neighbourhood and charge people. Where is your social conscience?”” Down the road everyone will face the same issue and now I feel (vindicated) that everyone is charging for telecentres. There is no seed money for telecentres. If you want to continue operating, you need to have strategies that will make you sustainable.

TIG: How was it funded?

CO: We didn’t get funding, we got the equipment. We started with volunteer work, and as we wanted to do more things I started charging and we covered our operational costs, and therefore we could hire people. When you hire people, you can (be open) more hours and give more training. Then we discovered we could get some government subsidies for training on a results basis. So we took a risk and it has been very successful. Last year just one of the telecentres in the network trained 600 people in advanced or medium-level computing and we have 1,300 people on a waiting list. This is just one community so the need is out there.

TIG: The statistics that I saw on who connects to the Internet in Chile suggest it’s mostly young, educated males. Has that started to shift at all?

CO: I don’t think we have a gender issue anymore; there are as many women as men using it. We do have an age issue, still. The majority of the people are young. The new thing, though, is we see more and more people not in that age group, so once you train someone, that becomes part of the demand. We also have a law that now mandates that every single agency in the municipal governments will buy everything over the Internet through ChileCompra, which is our e-procurement site. So imagine what happens when you get to a local community where people that are not connected have this law. You cannot sell to me if you are not connected. So in January this year I made a promise that every single microentrepreneur of my community will get free training if they want to use ChileCompra. We as government officials are willing and more than happy to buy from local providers insofar as they are connected.

TIG: What are your biggest success stories, both at the individual level and at the community level?

CO: El Encuentro Corp. We started with something that looked like a computer centre and now it is a community centre where you have community radio and hundreds of people of different ages, backgrounds and political ideas getting together and taking their future into their hands. As a mayor elected just three months ago, I can tell you 80 per cent of the policies I want to implement in Chile to tackle very harsh social problems require a very organized community. So unless we find ways of stretching that social capital we won’t get anywhere. In terms of individual stories I have tons. Alfredo, who was the first guy that entered our centre right now is a very successful system administrator. He’s from the slums. He’s the first guy in his family ever to enter university. He did his first job as a volunteer without knowing anything about computers.

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