In 1999, Bhutan lifted its internet ban, and 17 years on it embraced the use of tech to open up its public sector. The government is using virtual platforms to connect with remote communities across its wild, mountainous terrain.

The initiative, called “Virtual Zomdu”, allows MPs and their constituents to discuss new bills, national and local issues in community meetings. Elected leaders can reach out to citizens to better understand their concerns, and provide relevant services needed by the community.

The online sessions are open to everyone in the constituency – disregarding class, literacy, social and gender status, and location. It also allows women and vulnerable groups to finally be represented, talking about issues that they face.

So far, videoconferencing facilities have been installed in 47 community centres in the country, with pilots carried out by 25 MPs to test its reception in local communities. During the trial, 74 IT officers were trained on how to operate the tech.

Reception of Virtual Zomdu has been positive. The platform has been “hugely beneficial for people from lower income groups as they need not spend money to travel to meet their representatives”, said Pema Dechen, from a local community in Samtse, a rural Bhutanese district, according to the Open Government Partnership blog.

Jigme Zangpo, speaker of the National Assembly, praised the initiative: “Within no time, their doubts are clarified… anything which is beyond my capacity and capability can be [written] down and put up to relevant agencies for speedy action.”

The platform also provides opportunities for children and youth to voice out their opinions, Pema Gyamtsho, an opposition leader, told the OGP.

The programme was launched officially at the National Assembly and the National Council of Bhutan in 2015.

Seven parties are working on this project: the National Assembly of Bhutan, the Gross National Happiness Commission, the National Council of Bhutan, the Department of Local Governance, the Department of Information Technology and Telecom, the Bhutan Development Bank, and UNDP Bhutan.

Simple video-conferencing software is connecting this country, and opening it up like never before.

Image by Arian Zwegers, licensed under CC BY 2.0