How New Technologies Can Make Every Voice Count in Government Activities

Ten years ago, leveraging information and communication technology for development was all about getting people an email address. Today, there is an explosion in access to ICT thanks to mobile technologies – the CEO of Ericsson recently predicted, 92% of the world’s inhabitants will live in an area with mobile reception coverage by 2018 (see article).  But what impact is all this technology having on the relationship between governments and citizens?

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At the recent Technology Salon London on “How Can New Technologies Make All Voices Count?” around 30 thought leaders and decision makers joined lead discussants Marjan Besuijen, Programme Director for MAVC, Martin Tisné, Director of Policy at Omidyar Network, and Elvis Mushi, Lead Researcher of Voices of Citizens at Twaweza, to find answers to questions like:

  • Which technologies help citizens provide feedback on government performance?
  • What incentives and capacity do governments need to respond to citizens?
  • When would citizens engage with government to create better performance?
  • How can we make explicit linkages between citizen feedback loops and enhanced government performance?

Our discussion was far ranging and deeply focused on citizen participation in government decisions and improving government service delivery based on that feedback. Below is a synopsis of the discussion.

In the developed world many governments are criticised for being fixated with focus groups, voting intention surveys, online petitions and rolling economic statistics at the expense of consistent long term policy making. At the other end of the spectrum policy makers in the developing world often have to take decisions, which affect millions of citizens based on limited, poorly structured or out of date information and a restricted understanding of how their decisions play out on the ground.

There is a shortage of unique tools and platforms which successfully support citizen participation and engagement in developing world contexts – and those that do exist need to be scaled up to stimulate further impact. The new Making All Voices Count Grand Challenge for Development is focusing thought and effort on how technology can support, enrich and sustain the relationship between governments and citizens.

Inclusion and sustainability challenges

One recurring problem with using mobile technology to engage citizens and generate effective feedback loops to government is that many of these initiatives only reach a certain segment of the population – and therefore fail the inclusivity test. For example the TRACfm platform in Uganda which engages citizens in debates via radio and SMS only reaches a total of 60,000 users (of which 90% are men). Barriers such as fear, lack of literacy skills, or lack of perceived relevance (for example if access to food and water loom largest on your personal agenda) all play a part in eroding the inclusive capacity of mobile engagement channels.

In addition there are issues surrounding the sustainability of mobile engagement channels and surveys. Persuading citizens to participate in one-off engagement exercises (such as electoral monitoring) is substantially easier than fostering the consistent and long-term engagement required for monitoring the delivery of government services. Indeed, in some instances robust attempts to prompt on-going engagement from citizens can sometimes lead to complaints of harassment! Furthermore, successfully engaging with government often requires persistent and prolonged effort which presents a barrier to citizens with a shortage of time and resources.

Effective feedback loops – it takes two to tango

An evolving and positive relationship between government and citizens depends on two essential components: a) that citizens adequately engage with feedback mechanisms to generate a volume of useful input; and b) that government then uses this information to adapt and improve policies and services. Both elements need to be present for this process to work – and ultimately if citizens engage without any visible long-term results their faith in feedback mechanisms will be fatally undermined.

Softly, softly….or name and shame?

How can citizen feedback be used to secure government action? In Iraq Al Jazeera launched an SMS survey in March 2013 to compare individual accounts of electricity shortages with official government data. The incompatibility of citizen reports with the government’s preferred narrative helped spur officials to take further action to start addressing the problem. But while naming and shaming may sponsor short term success based on government embarrassment – is this really the best way to establish a long-term positive and collaborative relationship between citizens and government? In addition, NGOs who seek to name and shame public officials could provoke a backlash if they are simultaneously seen to overlook or ignore their own mistakes and shortcomings.

The experience of the BBC Media Action programme which operates in Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Angola is that information gathered from citizen engagement needs to be presented in a non-combative format to government – otherwise the administration may simply elect to shut down the offending media outlet! Often a focus on improving service efficiency as opposed to exposing corruption will be more palatable to many government officials. The example of US initiative SeeClickFix shows that feedback mechanisms which successfully integrate themselves within bureaucratic work flow routines and log specific information to responsible departments have higher chances of success.

How do we address mistrust between citizens and government?

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There is little doubt that where an adversarial relationship exists between citizens and government – the hazards associated with delivering unpalatable feedback to state institutions represent a greater personal risk (and little anticipated reward). However, in such instances citizens should seek to engage with intermediaries such as journalists, religious leaders, social movements (such as change.org in India) or libraries that can aggregate and anonymize their input in the process of communicating this information to government.

Citizen stories can be collected via SMS/IVS platforms and then represented to the state whilst protecting the contributing individuals. There is also evidence that governments can embrace feedback once they recognise its value in relation to potential cost savings, service improvement and citizen satisfaction. For example a public service reporting platform in South Africa has recently yielded a 70% problem resolution rate while offering public sector savings through more effectively holding sub-contractors to account in terms of performance.

Just put the data out there and stuff will happen?

Remember that just because data is made available (either from citizens engaging with feedback mechanisms or governments publishing open data) does not automatically mean that worthwhile consequences or better decisions will ensue. At the most depressing end of the scale is the example of the 2011 famine in Somalia where the available data predicted its arrival some six months in advance – to little avail. In other instances open data initiatives are launched by governments without proper consideration as to which information citizens really want or need.

Other administrations deliberately release limited amounts of data to serve as window dressing for their failure to embrace open government principles in reality. Similarly it should be remembered that, in the absence of adequate citizen empowerment, technology will inevitably be co-opted by existing political and social structures – rather than automatically reforming these structures by its mere existence. Finally, whilst not all data is always intrinsically politicised – data will always have specific political and economic implications which need to be taken into account when leveraging that information to achieve positive policy outcomes.

The perils of myopic technological paternalism

It is essential not to risk overlooking innovative home grown private/public sector solutions through a disproportionate focus on externally sponsored initiatives. For example few NGOs can claim to match the recent performance of the Philippines government who set up a disaster relief website, hotline and dedicated twitter hashtag three full days before the onset of a typhoon. Another well acknowledged example of good practice is the Society for Social Audit, Accountability and Transparency, an autonomous body set up by the State Government of Andhra Pradesh in India. By the end of last year this initiative had conducted more than 3,200 social audits, provoking over 38,000 disciplinary cases being brought against public officials, along with the successful recovery of nearly a quarter of the $24 million financial irregularities detected through this process.

In Tanzania the Twaveza initiative has sought to address deficits in government awareness and public engagement by using rapid fire topical mobile SMS surveys to collect public input on a range of policy issues and feeding back the results to policy makers. To maximise sustainable and inclusive citizen engagement Twaveza selects a list of 2000 regionally diverse respondents and provides mobile devices and solar chargers to those without phones. The mobile surveys are conducted according to a strict and predictable calendar (the last Thursday of every month) in order secure a regular response rate of 60-70%. This approach is specifically designed to avoid the significant lag time associated with collating responses from traditional analogue surveys which can often mean that by the time the results are eventually published they are more easily dismissed by government.

Those individuals using technology at grassroots level will always be the best informed and the most likely to innovate in comparison to interventions lead by external priorities. There is a constant need to think about solutions and challenges within the context of a wider communications ecology which involves many-to-many interactions across multiple channels (radio, twitter, SMS….etc). Moving forward, NGO stakeholders need to think about what they can do to support and scale up successful local initiatives to further drive potential for innovation whilst militating against delivering “more of the same”.

Making All Voices Count

The new MAVC Grand Challenge for Development offers an interesting opportunity for civil society, technologists, and governments to innovate around citizen engagement. This $45 million programme will be implemented across 12 countries with backing a broad range of stakeholders including the Swedish Government, the UK Department for International Development, the US Agency for International Development and the Omidyar Network.  The initiative includes research into underlying issues and pre-existing assumptions combined with a resolute focus on identifying and scaling up innovative practices and projects in the sphere of open government, transparency and citizen engagement.

As momentum continues to build around the programme there is little doubt that this presents an exciting opportunity to catalyse global attention and provoke cohesive action to empower the voices of citizens whilst improving government responsiveness and accountability.

This post was written by Dan Mount, Head of Policy & Public Affairs, Civic Agenda.


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