Southern Africa Media Award in Social Accountability Reporting

Highway Africa, together with the Partnership for Social Accountability (PSA) Alliance, invites journalists in Southern Africa to apply for the inaugural Southern Africa Media Award in Social Accountability Reporting 2017.

The award recognises two journalists from the PSA Alliance’s project countries – Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia – whose investigative reporting on social accountability contributes to improved public health and agriculture in the following categories:
• HIV and Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR)
• Food Security

Applications will be examined by a panel of media experts in the region and two winners will be awarded at the Highway Africa Conference to be held on 31 August – 1 September 2017. The award includes a prize of USD 250, plus travel and accommodation to the 2017 Highway Africa Conference.

Deadline for Submission – 15 August 2017

Criteria
• Applicants must be based in Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique or Zambia.
• Work must be published between July 2016 and July 2017.
• Print, Radio, TV, Multimedia and Photo journalism are admitted.
• If submitting multiple entries either in the same category or across multiple categories, complete an entry for each story to a total maximum of two entries.

How to apply – Candidates can submit their applications here

How Citizens Are Shaping Budget Priorities in a Kenyan County

Milka Losia knew it was the river’s fault that her brother died. The culprit was the dirty brown water they had no choice but to drink.

‘Our village needs a hospital, people are dying,” said Benson Naitalima, a farmer.

Of course hospitals are important, Milka thought. But if it wasn’t for the dirty river water, they wouldn’t have needed a hospital in the first place. People like her brother would be alive and, Milka wouldn’t be caring for his orphaned children.

Milka heard there was going to be a meeting to discuss how local citizens like herself could get involved in making decisions on how money was going to be allocated and spent in the local budget. She decided to attend this meeting on “participatory budgeting” in West Pokot, a dusty arid county located in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley on the border with Uganda, to make a case for the importance of clean water. Milka hoped that others would agree with her.

Public participation in the budget is a key feature of Kenya’s Constitution, adopted in 2010 and implemented since 2013.

The World Bank supported participatory budgeting project has strengthened citizen’s capacity to shape the budgeting process. Thanks to the Kenya Participatory Budgeting Initiative, which started in October 2015 and is ongoing, West Pokot began integrating participatory budgeting for the first time by engaging the public.

Participatory budgeting requires dialogue and a prioritization of community needs and solutions. At the meeting in March 2015, it was apparent that the community had many needs.

When Milka arrived in West Pokot, she saw about a hundred community members sitting under spindly acacia trees. Men were on one side, women on the other. Women rarely speak at these community meetings. However, the participatory budgeting increases women’s opportunities to express their opinions by providing a platform to take an active role in their community.

County residents, including women, expressed their needs that ranged from the need for a dining hall in the village’s only school to centralized market to sell produce from the farm.

Milka wasn’t sure if she was the first to propose water as a priority, but when she spoke, her opinion was popular.

“This water is bad, it has killed so many people,” Milka said.

“I walk two hours every day to collect water and it’s not even good water,” she told the group. Many cheered, particularly the women who were familiar with strenuous daily treks to fetch water. While access to an improved drinking water source has increased in Kenya over the years, 43 percent of rural Kenyans, like the residents of West Pokot, still lack one.

“This water is contaminated and so many people had gotten sick, my whole family has suffered,” added Veronica Maditan, one of the oldest women in attendance. She had been admitted to the hospital twice due to typhoid, a water borne illness.

Milka was delighted to get support from her fellow villagers but there still wasn’t a consensus on budget priorities.

“Irrigation could finish hunger in the area,” said one man, something the community could scarcely imagine.

Irrigation would be for the fields and cannot address the immediate need for clean drinking water, Milka worriedly thought.

Veronica was old enough to remember when clean water ran freely and the community didn’t have to rely on the dirty river. In 1978, a group of Norwegians built a borehole. For a few glorious years, villagers had water, until the tap ran dry. By then, the Norwegians had left and no one knew how the borehole worked, or had the money to fix it.

The community unfortunately had to go back to drinking the dirty river water.

Veronica suggested that instead of constructing an entirely new water system, they could just repair the broken borehole.

Before the end of a participatory budgeting meeting, the community must determine their top three priorities. Fixing the unused and broken borehole landed at the top.

“This was easily justified because it really answered the question of the water related borne diseases in the community and it was cheap for the county government,” said Honorable Thomas Ngolesia, the Member of the County Assembly of Sekerr Ward in West Pokot.

This was the first participatory budgeting project to be implemented in West Pokot. The county saved money by repairing the old borehole. Extra funds were used to make the borehole a hybrid run by both solar power and electricity—ensuring continuous access to clean water to the county residents.

“Participatory budgeting made the difference here,” said Prisillah Chebbet Mungo, The Head of Budget in West Pokot. “This project had been a priority for the community for a long time but it was ignored [by the county]. Now, whatever the community decides we have to implement.”

This article first appeared on the World Bank website here

Why isn’t Tech for Accountability working in Africa?

Research is shedding light on the problems inherent with adopting technology for accountability initiatives, and providing recommendations for future projects.

In an article published by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), Indra de Lanerolle, argues that “it seems that civil society organisations (CSOs) and governments often ‘re-invent the flat tyre’: experimenting with new tools without finding out what has been tried (often unsuccessfully) before. They also do not follow best practices in how to soure, develop and test technologies to ensure that these are ‘fit for purpose’. Decision makers should focus on building an effective innovation ecosystem with better links between technologists and accountability actors in both government and civil society to enable learning from success – and mistakes”.

Recommendations include:

  1. Those with responsibilities in creating the innovation ecosystem, including funders, should focus  on building a supportive innovation ecosystem.
  2. Funders should shift their focus from supporting short-term pilots to building institutions capable  of success over time, and invest in strengthening links between initiatives and disseminating  learning resources across the continent.
  3. Those who are leading and managing innovation initiatives – in government and CSOs – should  focus on getting better and smarter at managing the innovation cycle.
  4. Research suggests the following ‘rules of thumb’ will lead to better outcomes: acknowledge what  you do not know, think twice before building a new tool, get a second opinion, test technologies in  the field, plan for failure, budget to iterate, and share what you learn.

To find out more and read the full article: Why isn’t tech for accountability working in Africa?

 

Social Accountability from the Trenches: 6 Critical Reflections

Originally published on the GPSA website
By Gopa Kumar Thampi, Director, Economic Governance – Sri Lanka, The Asia Foundation & GPSA Steering Committee 

There is a clearly a surge in social accountability initiatives across the globe today. From informal expressions at the grassroots to entrenched voices in corridors of power, the social accountability multiverse has become stronger and diverse. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we are indeed witnessing the rise of an ‘audit society’ that animates the spectrum between confrontation and collaboration in citizen’s engagement with the state. The proliferation of toolkits and manuals embellishes this trend as social audits and scorecards have become commonplace parlance for civic activists, policy wonks and academics as they line up an impressive array of data to hold the state to account. However, viewed from the trenches of day-to-day encounters with social accountability, some notes of caution need to be flagged:

1) Primacy of technique over politics: ‘Bring politics back’ is an oft-quoted plea that is heard at the closure of every learning and sharing event on social accountability. Though some excellent conceptual writings exist on the rationale and approaches to acknowledge politics, there is clearly a knowledge gap on praxis. This gap becomes accentuated when projects finish their shelf lives and local interlocutors are left dealing with unplanned political aftermaths. What we need is not just the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of navigating politics, but the ‘how’ too. There is also the bias of working with executive ‘accelerators’ – reformist executives who push the frontiers of constructive engagement and deliver high quality impacts on pilot projects. But the reason why these ripples of change never result in a transformative wave is because politics is often viewed as a problem best avoided. We need to acknowledge that any change sans the inconvenience of politics is bound to be short lived. Working with politics and programming with sensitivity to political ecologies means more flexibility in design and implementation. This is where contemporary discourses on ‘Doing Development Differently’ are opening up new opportunities and pathways.

2) Tyranny of tools: Social Accountability tools like public hearings, scorecards, report cards and social audits have played a major role in bringing rigor to discourse and praxis, by moving the frame of reference from the anecdotal to the evidential. However, projects driven by the novelty of applying tools run the risk of not just undermining sustainable impacts, but paving the way for a far more serious erosion of trust and acceptance. Tools have a tendency to trade efficiency over inclusion, and participation over representation. There is also a case for ensuring quality. As an evolving field where theory consistently lags behind practice, it is critical that the field of practices is constantly reviewed, reflected upon and improved. Finally, there is the issue of local capacities. Applications of tools in rural areas often rely on external agents to play the role of interlocutors, but seldom do legacies and capacities get left behind for continued actions by local interlocutors.

3) Interrogating civil society: A dominant theme in the discourse and praxis of accountability is the emphasis placed on the role of civil society as the vanguard of change. There are genuine concerns that the sector is fast losing its rootedness and legitimacy –a schism grows between genuine informal social movements and formal organized civil society. One, exhibiting the vigor of confronting and embracing the politics of governance and the other, seen as obsessed with the rigor of getting the method right. We need to honestly interrogate our understanding of civil society organizations and widen our focus to bring in new, unseen but genuine champions from the cutting edges. A considerable proportion of existing civil society proponents of accountability often tend to be urban centered, and speak a language that appeal to our funding imperatives. We need to empower and enrich the language that has the credibility and endorsement of the basic constituency that we seek to address – citizens, especially the disadvantaged.

4) Seduction of contestation: Rights-based social mobilization sometimes leads to an unintended consequence – spiraling expectations. When amplified voice encounters weak responses from the state, ‘rude accountability’ manifests. The grammar of engagement changes swiftly to a confrontational mode. In social contexts where power asymmetries are accentuated, these confrontations can take very violent forms. There is a case for calibrating social accountability initiatives to match state capacity. In contexts marked by a trust deficit between state and citizens, it may be prudent to focus on trust building exercises as a starting point. The other issue is of public dissemination. Should one go for a big bang release of the findings from a social audit, thereby securing a guaranteed news coverage? Or, should the state be allowed to frame its responses and then go public with the findings and responses? To strengthen principles of constructive engagement, closing the feedback loop in the public domain becomes a critical factor. Voice needs an ear to respond.

5) Rethinking evaluation: It is near impossible to engineer transformative changes given the short project cycles of social accountability initiatives . End of project evaluations can seldom provide meaningful insights. What the field of social accountability needs are longitudinal studies that explore questions related to sustainability and uptake of reported successes. In particular, five aspects could be emphasized: (a) Extent of multi stakeholder engagement; (b) Width of citizen involvement, especially aspects of inclusion; (c) Long-term partnership among stakeholders; (d) Legal or institutional recognition of civil society engagement; and (e) Extent to which processes generate compliance and provide deterrence. Rather than focus on narrowly defined outcomes, evaluations should dwell into process indicators that reveal if critical pathways and enablers are set in place.

6) Illiberalism and social polarization: Perhaps the greatest challenge for social accountability initiatives is the growing popularity of illiberal electoral democracies and, in parallel, the deep social polarization that is tearing up fragile social fabrics. Leaders with divisive agendas and populist outlooks, aided by manipulated (and at times, completely fake) news are posing a grave threat to democratic institutions. There is also the distinct disconnect between the informed public and the mass public in terms of their expressed trust in institutions. All these have substantive repercussions on the way we imagine and operationalize social accountability. We need to focus on activities that build bridging social capital – locating actions that result in enhanced inter-group collaboration. The role of traditional media – once the trusted ally and champion for accountability – needs to be evaluated given the ubiquitous spread of social media. Rather than lamenting the loss of old spaces, the strategy should be to appropriate the new ones.

To sign off: Social accountability is recognition that there exists a lack of engagement with the public institutions that are so critical to our daily lives, a lack of influence in decision-making and more importantly, a lack of voice for expressing our needs, concerns and demands. We believe that social accountability approaches enable citizens, especially the voiceless and the powerless, to engage with state institutions in a proactive and constructive way to demand and exact accountability and responsiveness. This moral high ground of the concept and praxis of social accountability needs to be protected and nurtured.

How Can Social Accountability Address Fragility and Help Societies Rebuild?

By Jeff Thindwa, Program Manager, GPSA.
First published on the GPSA website.

By 2030, almost half of the world’s poor will be concentrated in countries affected by fragility, conflict and violence.  It’s easy to associate these problems with only poorer countries, but in fact they affect a broader range of countries, and yes, middle income countries too. And, increasingly, they cross borders. Beyond the threats of terrorism, conflict and violence, poor public services and economic livelihoods have led to mass migration and forced displacement, trapping growing numbers of innocent people in vicious cycles of deprivation. Consider how the Syrian refugee situation has spilled over beyond the Middle East, and the current famine in South Sudan, which is impacting approximately 100,000 people, with millions of lives at risk in the region if we do not act quickly and decisively.

As has been long argued, addressing the challenges of fragility, conflict and violence calls for measures along the whole continuum of emergency assistance and long-term development. We need to support affected communities not only with the delivery of vital services, like water or healthcare, but also enable people to be more resilient and to rebuild the social fabric. More important, perhaps, we must invest in prevention. We must also provide the kinds of support that enable governance to include and involve citizens, and to respond to their needs and preferences.

The lack of accountability and the loss of citizen trust are some the drivers of fragility and conflict. It is often said that accountability is the cornerstone of good governance. Among the different ways to strengthen accountability and improve how governments work is social accountability, an approach that relies on citizen engagement.  Social accountability mechanisms have features that make them potentially suited to both tackle the drivers of fragility and enable countries to improve their governance. In this respect, the Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) is working to integrate social accountability in the World Bank’s response to these challenges.

As part of this effort, last month the World Bank hosted a roundtable, “Engaging Civil Society in Situations of Fragility, Conflict and Violence,” featuring Kristalina Georgieva, the World Bank’s Chief Executive Officer; Debbie Wetzel, Senior Director of the Governance Global Practice; Saroj Kumar Jha, Senior Director for the Fragility, Conflict and Violence Group; Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez, Senior Director for the World Bank Group’s Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice; and members of the GPSA’s Steering Committee. The roundtable tackled important issues related to the role of social accountability in situations of fragility, which includes bringing the voices of citizens into government, enabling citizens to monitor and provide feedback on delivery of services, and helping to build trust between citizens and governments.

Preventing Crises

The challenges in fragile settings can range from weakened institutions, broken public services, frayed social relationships and a weak civil society. Rebuilding of societies can cost a lot, and take a very long time. So, Kristalina Georgieva hit the nail on the head when she said, “The best way to deal with humanitarian crises is to not have them in the first place. We must build resilience for individuals, families, communities and countries.” To build stability, it’s clear that development institutions such as the World Bank need to engage early to address emerging risks. Our response needs to be comprehensive and sensitive to each context.

Saroj Kumar Jha asked during the roundtable, “Can we use development tools differently to prevent conflict before it turns violent?” That’s where the GPSA fits in, as we see social accountability as part of a sustainable approach to overcome fragility. Saroj announced the new partnership between his group and the GPSA, committing US$1 million from the State and Peacebuilding Fund (SPF) to support resilience and mitigation efforts initially in Guinea, Nepal, Niger and Tajikistan.

In order to ensure what we do is sustainable, we have to take up approaches that lay the ground for longer term institution building, with strong emphasis on engaging citizens to build political support, promote social cohesion and strengthen resilience. Experience has also taught us to pay attention to inclusion across institutions: public and private, formal and informal, whether governments, community groups and development organizations.

For instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), we are supporting CORDAID to improve health service delivery by strengthening the ways in which citizens interact with health authorities, like strengthening Health Facility Committees that act as a mechanism through which citizens can interact with service providers. The health sector in DRC, as in many fragile settings, is marred by inefficiencies, insufficient funding, poor infrastructure, limited accountability and weak institutional capacity. Another example is in Sierra Leone, where the GPSA is supporting the CSO, IBIS, to monitor the effective utilization of post-Ebola recovery funds. The GPSA is working to ensure that the resources provided under IDA18 are used effectively in fragile environments, and CSOs are vital partners in many of these efforts.

The promise of social accountability

We have also learned that the challenges of engaging in fragile contexts — where the rule of law, security, space for dissent, and basic trust between citizens and governments cannot be taken for granted — call for innovation and adaptation in our approaches and tools. The good news is that a great deal of innovation has taken place in recent years to improve how citizens are engaged in the development process, supported by civil society organizations and, in some cases, private sector actors.

When it comes to operating in fragile settings, CSOs have advantages that have been widely recognized, even if experiences differ across contexts. With the right kind of support, CSOs can be effective mediating agents. They often work directly with the most vulnerable people, using participatory methods that include citizens, to hear their voices and make them a part of the solution. They are mostly present in remote or isolated parts where others may not be able to reach; are often more agile in their practices; and, increasingly, a lot of them have strong technical expertise including the use of information and communications technologies.

As Debbie Wetzel said at the roundtable, “It is important to build the connectivity between governments, civil society and other organizations on the ground. We need to use the tools at our disposal, including the GPSA, to continue to open the space and emphasize that engagement leads to policy effectiveness and better results.” CSOs also have a potentially significant role as third party monitors of donor operations in fragile states — a point that Saroj Kumar Jha also made when he explained the priorities of the SPF,  which finances innovative approaches to state and peace-building in regions affected by fragility.

Finally, a theme that was echoed at the roundtable, and a key lesson from social accountability practice, is that context matters. Well, nowhere is this more relevant than in fragile states, even if we admit we are continuously learning  about what works and doesn’t and under what conditions. A little bit of humility doesn’t hurt! The international development community has been called upon to do more in these challenging settings using the full range of tools at our disposal. But we can’t forget that the central focus is the people. Our approaches must keep them at the center, listening, including, involving them — ensuring all this benefits them!

Has Kenya’s ICT revolution triggered more citizen participation?

First published on the Making All Voices Count webpage

Much of the literature on citizen accountability focuses on citizen voices. This research briefing is one of four which turn the spotlight on the how the state behaves in instances of accountable governance. Each examines a landmark social justice policy process in Africa, asking when and how the state listened, and to which actors; and why, at times, it chose not to listen.

How far does Kenya’s information and communications technology revolution transform e-government – implementing decisions with the help of ICTs – into e-governance – using ICTs to help make decisions?

Most of the Kenyan government’s ICT policy initiatives are structured around its Vision 2030, a long-term planning blueprint which rests on three pillars: social, economic and political. The political pillar envisages a democratic system that is issue based, people centred and results oriented, and accountable to the public. Kenya’s ICT revolution is contributing to attaining the goals of the economic and social pillars, but there has not been parallel progress in the political pillar.

Case study research interviewed young people in Nairobi, the hub of most of Kenya’s ICT initiatives, found that most respondents were not aware of the government’s efforts to provide online services – which includes 41 public services that can be accessed online, and 12 one-stop shops for online access to basic services – and that two thirds had not accessed them. They also said that their engagement with their leaders through e-platforms was minimal.

Interviews with politicians found that in their view, citizens were using e-platforms only to complain, or request assistance. There was not strong interest among the politicians and bureaucrats interviewed in citizens’ voices or what they were saying.

The findings suggest that the government needs to focus on ensuring parallel progress in the three pillars of Vision 2030. Few people know about the e-government platforms that do exist, and many do not have the skills needed to use the public services that are provided online. Policies that enable the inclusion of the majority without ICT skills are imperative.

Day by day, young Kenyans are finding their critical voices on social media. If the government chooses to engage with this civic awareness and public participation, it is more likely to be able to steer the voices of the masses towards constructive dialogue.

This Research Briefing is part of the When Does the State Listen? series.

Read Nyambura Salome’s blogs on whether e-government platforms in Kenya actually mean more responsive government – and what it’s like to try and use them.

Download the full Research Briefing

Can Social Accountability Strengthen Family Planning Programming?

With a view to facilitate mutal learning among social accountability practitioners and thinkers across the globe, the Community of Practitioners on Accountability and Social Action in Health (COPASAH) launched it Social Accountability Dialogue Series in March 2017.

The series intends to enrich the field of social accountability with insights and experiences from the field of accountability practice. The first in the series of Social Accountability Dialogues was held on March 15, 2017, 14.30-15.30 (IST). COPASAH Global Convener, Dr. Abhijit Das shared insights and experiences from small scale efforts in India on the theme – Can Social Accountability Strengthen Family Planning Programming?

The Dialogue witnessed participation of nearly 21 persons from different geographical locations including Turkey, Pakistan, Myanmar, New Zealand and India.COPASAH coordinator, E. Premdas Pinto set out the context for the webinar with introduction to COPASAH, the Dialogue series and the speaker for the day along with the modalities of participation in the Dialogue.

To find out more, engage with the discussion on family planning, and follow future discussions, go to:

http://www.copasah.net/accountability-dialogue.html

Limitations to develop a culture of transparency in the public sector

by Carolina Maturana Zúñiga

Originally published on the GPSA Knowledge Network

Transparency and access to information are not only human rights, but also means to allow citizens to know and monitor what their government is doing. But, what are some hindrances to develop an effective culture of transparency in the public sector?

Using data from the National Study of Public Servants, held by the Consejo para la Transparencia in Chile (Council for Transparency)[1], we explored the role of the bureaucratic system’s traditional structures on the practical limitations regarding the implementation of governance reforms and specifically toward the proper development of access to public information.

The results show that, even though most Chilean public servants perceived their major obligations are toward the citizen, and they have high levels of referential knowledge and valuation of transparency, there is a decrease on both dimensions while deepening the analysis. Data shows that higher levels of hierarchy and contractual stability of public servants seem to be two main factors that can make the difference on the willingness to embrace transparency. This highlights the limitations that medium and lower public servants face to be part of the democratic reforms –for example, they do not access proper training, they are not included in the discussions about the potential benefits of these reforms, and they are only assigned to implement these changes as administrative commands like: “if you get an access to information (ATI) request it should be answered in 20 working days” –. Because of the abovementioned factors, the staff in front line of public services is not prepared to guide or empathize with a citizen requesting information.

In addition to the challenges transparency has to overcome inside the bureaucratic system, it is possible to identify challenges among citizens as well. Traditionally, people have not been involved in the public decision making process and political institutions in Latin America function under the principles of secrecy. Under this historical premise, citizens do not perceive the need or the right to request information and it is hard for them to perceive the potential value of public information, weakening the ATI system by disuse. These perceptions are complemented by strong distrust in electronic and online means to access information; reinforcing the idea that ATI is a slow and complicated process with uncertain results [2].

All these factors, contribute to generate and maintain informal methods for accessing information through personal connections with public servants. This practice allows people involved in those networks to access more information and in a faster way than the regular procedures mandate, damaging the legitimacy of the ATI system and reproducing patronage [3]. At the same time, these practices replicate the power structures that transparency seeks to eliminate.

Then, in order to advance toward a culture of transparency, it is necessary to recognize that legal reforms are not enough and the implementation phase is key for success. Implementation should consider the promotion and engagement of a broader scope of public servants in the discussions regarding the improvement of the bureaucratic system, changes on governance standards, and the democratic vision our societies are aiming for. Public servants should be more aware that quality of service and positive experiences accessing public information, improve citizen’s perceptions about them and their institutions, so they will understand the reasons behind the efforts to change some of their bureaucratic practices [4], an element that will allow them to see themselves as part of a process that strengthens democracy and promotes social rights.

From the lessons learned about the Chilean experience, it is possible to address effectively the practical challenges related to transparency. Elements such as the real capacities of public institutions of different scale and resources to meet their legal obligations; the development of archival systems; the standardization of specific documentation (such as formularies, electronic websites, etc.); and the information and training granted to public servants whom will assume these responsibilities are key components of a successful implementation. Without them, it will be really difficult to install the perception that transparency is more than an additional administrative burden. When traceability and information recall has to be done manually, it becomes a major task and the burden of this labor undermines the social validity of information requests, eroding the social value of ATI and transparency [5]. If public servants perceive that transparency is an important element to improve the public administration, any effort toward the creation of a culture of transparency in the public sector will find a solid ground to start growing.


 

[1] http://www.cplt.cl/estudios-nacionales-de-funcionarios/consejo/2014-09-11/125235.html

[2] http://www.cplt.cl/consejo/site/artic/20121213/asocfile/20121213155411/estudio_nacional_de_transparencia_2012.pdf

[3] Moya y Dueñas  (2015), http://200.91.44.244/consejo/site/artic/20150108/asocfile/20150108180133/t_s_n3___web.pdf

[4] Maturana (2015), http://200.91.44.244/consejo/site/artic/20121213/asocfile/20121213161557/articulo.pdf

[5] CPLT (2016), http://200.91.44.244/consejo/site/artic/20121213/asocfile/20121213160518/avances_y_desafios.pdf

10 tech issues that will impact social justice in 2017

In our increasingly complex and interconnected world, innovations in technology and data are inching us closer to a reality driven by automation, prediction, personalization, surveillance, and the merging of our physical and digital lives. This is taking place at the same time that the world is experiencing transformative cultural, demographic, economic, and political shifts. In the face of so much uncertainty and change, the independent watchdog group Freedom House reports that globally, Internet freedom has declined for the sixth consecutive year, “with more governments than ever before targeting social media and communication apps as a means of halting the rapid dissemination of information, particularly during anti-government protests.” At the same time, Civicus has highlighted the many threats facing democracies, representative institutions, and civil society as a whole.

As we begin a new year and a new political administration takes office in the US, let’s take some time to consider some pressing issues that exist at the nexus of technology and social justice—and think about how we as social justice advocates can address them most effectively. Even amid so many unknowns, we can be certain that these issues are among those that will shape 2017 and the years and decades beyond it. And they will be central to the work of building a free, open, and transparent future.

1. Online hate crimes, harassment, and discrimination are increasing

In 2016, we saw an increase in the number of reported online hate crimes and harassment targeting Muslims, immigrants, and LGBTQ people, as well as groups working to protect reproductive rights and strengthen racial justice. At the same time, Internet and other communication technologies are being used to promote the online radicalization and organization of hate groups.

2. Fake news, campaigns of misinformation, bias, and propaganda are proliferating

During the 2016 election, the use of intelligent Twitter bots, targeted advertising, and search engine manipulation affected what Internet users saw on specific platforms and search engines. “Filter bubbles” and algorithms have been blamed for failing to separate real news from fiction, and researchers have noted an escalation in bias, propaganda, and misinformation online. Together, these factors contribute to increased polarization and hamper the free flow of accurate information that is essential for civil discourse, policy making, and ultimately democracy.

3. Trolling threatens democracy and free expression

During the 2016 US presidential election, online trolls were credited with influencing political discourse. This kind of trolling is also a global epidemic. Freedom House has reported that across the world, state-sponsored trolling operations (aka “troll farms”) attack government critics and independent media often by posting thousands of comments at a time, polluting online dialogue through hate speech and disinformation. Hampering free speech, trolling is frequently aimed at journalists and activists, along with those engaging in political protest and other forms of expression.

4. Reduced regulation creates risks for consumers

2017 may see the deregulation of the largest cable and phone companies, and the weakening of consumer protection laws. These reduced federal regulations could undermine a free, open, and secure Internet and undercut a variety of hard-won initiatives, protections, and services that benefit low-income individuals and households. These include net neutrality wins, federal guidance and regulation of the Internet of Things, Lifeline and broadband subsidies for low-income households, and efforts to regulate prison phone costs.

5. Governmental databases put pressure on minority groups

As technology and data processing power gets more sophisticated, government databases such as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, deferred action, or gang databases could be used to discriminate against or target vulnerable groups. At the same time, the expansion of biometric technologies in the immigration system and other areas may raise concerns about government monitoring and data sharing.

6. Increased surveillance puts vulnerable groups under a microscope

The expansion of legislation such as the Patriot Act, along with the use of high-tech surveillance tools, including drones, facial recognition software, automated license plate readers, stingray tracking devices, and the NSA’s PRISM program, can lead to increased surveillance of citizens. This raises particular concerns for vulnerable groups, among them Muslims, immigrants, and LGBTQ communities.

7. Less attention to issues of algorithmic bias and online discrimination creates opportunities for abuse

The White House’s Big Data initiative has studied big data’s potential to discriminate, especially when it comes to housing, employment, credit, and consumer issues.  Legislation such as the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2015 and an amendment to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act was intended to govern the collection, use, and distribution of consumer data and extend the standard of protection for online and digital content. But under a new administration, the fate of such rules and regulatory attention is unclear.

8. Advocacy groups need digital security protections

In 2017, advocacy groups and social movements may be subject to a greater degree of surveillance, harassment, or both. As a result, they will need a strong digital security infrastructure to help protect them against potential threats, as well to support them in developing strategies for responding to attacks as they arise.

9. Technology and data initiatives provide important support for social justice work

Increasingly, technology will play a central role in strengthening a progressive agenda. To achieve this, organizations might focus more on developing strategies for organizing and base-building across different sectors, building strong progressive narratives, and supporting open data initiatives at the state and local level to increase transparency and accountability.

10. Developments in open government and transparency affect advocacy work

Since the 2000s, open government initiatives have sought to identify ways to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to enhance governance. In support of these efforts, the Obama administration developed Data.gov, a central online location for all US government data. This year, we will see whether the new administration will continue to maintain this useful resource, as well as whether the US will remain in the multilateral Open Government Partnership, and how the government will handle the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), including reforms that Congress passed in 2016.

The language of citizen engagement

By Mwazvita Machiri: MobiSAM Project strategist and evaluator

As a member of the MobiSAM team one of my core tasks have been to attend a number of Municipal meetings and forums including: communication forums, the inauguration of councillors, municipal public accounts meetings the Water and Sanitation forum and the Kowie Catchment management forums to mention just a few.

One of the most common observations that I have made is that of the relatively poor attendance of these events by citizens. As such both the number and demographic of those usually present at these meetings do not offer a representative sample of local residents. This means that many groups and communities of people are never represented at these public gatherings.

These public platforms organised and managed on the part of the Municipality aim to function as places in which municipal representatives and elected officials are able to hear and respond to comments and feedback from citizens. As citizens this process requires our buy-in as a way of engaging local government in ways which force them to listen and respond to the people they have been elected to serve. The lack of residents present at these meetings and public fora made me wonder if we as citizens actually know what citizen engagement means and how it stands to benefit you and me as citizens.

Definition?

Citizen engagement can be understood as the two-way communication and interaction between the local government and the citizens. Therefore communication with the aim of assisting government in making decisions that are supported by the public. Citizen engagement can be shown and therefore understood through the relationship between civic action and user feedback as shown in the diagram below.

civicengagementvennd_peixotofox2016_forblog

Civic action is more of a collective action and is therefore public, compared to user feedback which is individual and undisclosed. An example of this is the reporting of an issue by a CSO to the public whilst user feedback is the act of providing information as an individual to an institution like a local municipality which usually takes the form of an undisclosed report. In light of the above, MobiSAM can be understood as a true representation of what citizen engagement should encompass as it aims to involve both individual and civic action by providing real time access to mechanisms to report issues to all stakeholders. This allows the policymakers to identify and address service delivery problems from a more informed position. Added to the above, the benefit of the current system is that through collective “critical mass” action there is a higher chance of overall responsiveness on the part of local government. The ideal state of affairs would be as is depicted in the centre of the diagram where these two processes overlap and allow for useful Citizen Engagement. Therefore by engaging with an institution in this case Makana Municipality MobiSAM can encourage and foster a higher degree of responsiveness to issues of service delivery.

The evidence so far indicates that most of the ICT platforms similar to MobiSAM that manage to leverage responsiveness somehow directly involve government. As such many public agencies are using mobile phones and social media to disseminate information efficiently. The Makana Municipality has therefore signed an agreement with MobiSAM as a way of engaging with the citizens and promote transparency and accountability to improve service delivery.

But it’s important to bear in mind that citizen engagement does not always only assist official or municipal structures and processes, but citizens too as it promotes and enables;

  • Reducing the chances of receiving unwanted or unnecessary services therefore promoting better quality in the delivery of services;
  • Empowering local citizens through making local information freely available and promoting participation in local decision making processes;
  • Logging a database of service delivery issues and responses which enables citizens to hold government accountable with recent and relevant evidence if and when complaints are not dealt with adequately;
  • It removes the distance factor, as mobile technologies allow people to connect and share information across diverse geographic terrain.

As such the main aim guiding the project and the various civic and municipal partnerships and interventions that MobiSAM has launched and will continue to monitor and develop into 2017 rests on the following: “Improved citizen engagement has the potential to improve service delivery.”

This post first appeared on the MobiSAM blog. You can find it here:
http://www.blog.mobisam.net/2016/11/the-language-of-citizen-engagement/