Citizen Accountability in a time of Facebook

This article is written by John Gaventa and first published on the IDS opinion blog here

“Develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”

This is what Facebook’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in his open letter to the Facebook community at the beginning of this year. The statement of intent from the social media giant is a bold one, and one worth reflecting on for those of us working on issues of accountability and empowerment. For me it raises a couple of important questions. How far can or should the likes of Facebook, and other technical innovations that have rapidly evolved over the last ten to fifteen years, connect us all as individuals and engage us with the institutions that govern us and help us hold them to account? And how does this happen in a world where the opportunities and spaces to voice dissent and protest are shrinking, and where questions about ‘whose voice matters’ are further confused and complicated by ‘whose voice is real or authentic’ in this digital age?

The promise of tech

They were also questions that arose at the recent Making All Voices Count (MAVC is a programme funded by DFID, Omidyar, SIDA and USAID) Policy and Practice Dialogue, Appropriating Technology for Accountability. And as I reflected in my speech at that event, these questions around transforming and improving accountability are by no means new. However, the context in which we ask them is constantly changing – from the Gutenberg press which took printing out of the hands of priests and put it into the hands of the people over five hundred years ago, to more recently, the advent of the personal computer, the internet (1990), Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006) and What’s App (2011). These technologies have revolutionised the way people access information, how they communicate with each other, as well as institutions and public figures, and how they respond to and organise around particular issues.

There’s no denying the positive force of these technologies in helping people to speak out and to amplify voices in an attempt to hold powerful institutions and individuals to account. This was evident in a number of examples shared over the course of the two-day event – the Black Sash human rights organisation in South Africa who are piloting a project encouraging citizen-led monitoring of local public services; This Is My Backyard (TIMBY) which has highlighted millions of dollars of misspent county social development funds and unearthed a 10.5 million dollar scandal in Liberia; Game my Village which built new relationships of trust and transparency between government officials and villagers in Indonesia and Oil Journey which communicated with over 300,000 citizens in Accra in Ghana about how oil revenues were being spent on community development projects.

Tech and closing civil society space

Yet at the same time there is no escaping the fact that these technical innovations designed to empower are operating in a global environment where civil society space is shrinking. The current situation has been labelled by Civicus as ‘a Global Civic Space Emergency’ in their 2017 State of Civil Society Report. The report highlights that:

  • Only three per cent of the global population live in countries where civic space is completely open.
  • In 106 countries, over half of all countries, civil space is seriously constrained.
  • This problem affects all regions of the world including the UK where civic space has narrowed in the past year.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that technologies are being used to close spaces as much as to open them, to surveil and monitor, as much as to connect and engage. Examples extend from malware being used to monitor the activities of advocacy and campaigning groups (highlighted in this open letter from Mexican civil society of the Open Government Partnership (pdf) and this IDS Bulletin article The Dark Side of Digital Politics) to state-supported trolling. For those gathered at the conference, there was a sense that the excitement and optimism that had characterised the work of MAVC and other similar programmes exploring accountability and the role of technologies in creating more open, inclusive and accountable societies only a few years ago was being replaced by a growing pessimism.

A digital level playing field?

The conundrums and paradoxes associated with technology and its role in promoting accountability is also evident in relation to global governance. On the one hand technology has enabled voice and responsive governance, but on the other hand the governance of the digital sphere remains in the hands of a powerful few who control the networks they have created. As reported recently in the New York Times, Google’s market share of search advertising is 88% and Facebook owns 77% of mobile social media traffic.

Digital technologies have created winners and losers, rather than a level playing field. Rather than disrupt, they have often replicated entrenched inequalities and power imbalances within society. Critically, just under half of the world’s population remain offline. Moreover, women are 50 per cent less likely to have access to the internet and a third less likely than men of a similar age, education level and economic status to access their Internet via their phone (World Wide Web Foundation, 2016). Inequalities also exist within the tech industry. A study in the US found that Hispanics, African Americans, and women hold only 8 per cent, 7.4 per cent and 36 per cent of tech sector jobs respectively (US EEOC 2016). Hence, across decision making, usage and application of technologies it is often the voices of the already powerful that are amplified and the voices which have always been marginalised remain unheard.

Within this unequal context, it has also become increasingly hard to distinguish amongst the myriad of information flows and voices between what’s authentic and what’s not. It is not well understood amongst the majority of technology users, how complex and sophisticated algorithms are being used by companies, by governments and by individuals, to control and manipulate what is shared and liked, and ultimately shape public opinion and debate.

While technology has helped achieve amazing things, in itself it cannot create a ‘social infrastructure…that builds a global community that works for us all.’ Politics and power still matter, and it is only when we link these with technology-led accountability initiatives as well more analogue, traditional efforts that of transformative change towards a more inclusive, accountable and open world is possible.

 

Using open aid data for accountability in Benin and Tanzania

This post was originally published on the Open Data Charter website, written by Elise Dufief, Research and Monitoring Manager at Publish What You Fund

The government of Tanzania announced in August that it was withdrawing from the Open Government Partnership (OGP) process. This was seen as a dramatic turn of events by some as the previous administration was regarded as a champion of transparency reforms. For others, it highlighted some of the challenges of international transparency initiatives and potentially offered an opportunity to reflect on how these initiatives could better respond to domestic issues and put citizens’ needs at their heart.

Earlier this year, I travelled to Tanzania and Benin and conducted interviews with representatives from government, donors and civil society organisations to investigate some of these issues. I looked into the opportunities and barriers for open aid data to be used as an accountability mechanism for partner country citizens. We at Publish What You Fund published a discussion paper earlier this month detailing the findings of our work.

Publish What You Fund, among other organisations, has argued that the public disclosure of information on development activities by major donors is an essential and necessary step to increase aid effectiveness. Substantial progress has been made at the international level through initiatives such as IATI and individual efforts of some major donors and governments to publish more and better quality development data. However, transparency alone is not sufficient as this information also needs to be used to promote accountability to local actors and respond to citizens’ needs.

We are also not the only ones reflecting on this. Organisations such as Oxfam and Open Contracting are also trying to find a constructive and collaborative way to move the transparency agenda forward and shed light on the necessary conditions for data to be used for accountability.

The new framework developed by Liz Carolan of the Open Data Charter, alongside the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, also helped shape our thinking on the matter. That study found 5 steps connecting open data and accountability: data production, sharing and processing, use and action. We proposed two additions to it: an initial step of identifying information needs and mapping potential users; and to also implement feedback mechanisms once data is made available to create a circular and iterative process from transparency to accountability.

Additionally, five key findings emerged from the interviews conducted in Benin and Tanzania:

1.There is a clear and repeated need for more high quality information on aid and development finance.

This was articulated clearly by donor country offices, government representatives and civil society organisations. Recent efforts to provide more information should be sustained and respond to these needs where possible.

2. International donor-led initiatives are not yet meeting country-level needs.

Tanzania’s withdrawal from the OGP is a manifestation of this. More attention needs to be paid to the national context and dynamics at play between different actors. This would help to identify where and how transparency and open data can help to improve development outcomes and accountability to citizens.

3. Both the development and data landscapes are fragmented and this is increasing.

The international development landscape increasingly involves more actors, more diverse flows and varied interests and objectives. In the absence of effective coordination, this complexity is reflected on the governance of data at country-level, also impeding its potential users.

4. A lack of trust in open data and its applications impedes its use as an accountability tool.

Data accuracy issues aside, examples from Tanzania and Benin demonstrated that more openness and transparency is sometimes met with fear of criticism and misinterpretation of the data. These are serious concerns that should be addressed. Shrinking civil society space and legislative restrictions to the access and use of this information, however, do not appear as viable solutions; they rather contradict the stated aim of the open data agenda.

5. With publication comes responsibility.

All actors have a responsibility to go beyond mere publication to make data truly accessible, usable and used. This requires putting people at the heart of transparency initiatives. It is only by working towards the identification of their needs, understanding their concerns and actively seeking their feedback that adequate responses and meaningful change will be implemented at country level. Data alone does not bring change. People do.

You can read our discussion paper ‘With Publication Brings Responsibility: Using open data for accountability in Benin and Tanzania’ here.

Turning Big Data Into a Useful Anticorruption Tool in Africa

Originally posted on the Global Anticorruption Blog

Many anticorruption advocates are excited about the prospects that “big data” will help detect and deter graft and other forms of malfeasance. As part of a project in this vein, titled Curbing Corruption in Development Aid-Funded Procurement, Mihály Fazekas, Olli Hellmann, and I have collected contract-level data on how aid money from three major donors is spent through national procurement systems; our dataset comprises more than half a million contracts and stretching back almost 20 years. But good data alone isn’t enough. To be useful, there must be a group of interested and informed users, who have both the tools and the skills to analyse the data to uncover misconduct, and then lobby governments and donors to listen to and act on the findings. The analysis of big datasets to find evidence of corruption – for example, the method developed by Mihály Fazekas to identify “red flags” of corruption risks in procurement contract data—requires statistical skills and software, both of which are in short supply in many parts of the developing world, such as sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet some ambitious recent initiatives are trying to address this problem. Lately I’ve had the privilege to be involved in one such initiative, led by Oxford mathematician Balázs Szendrői, that helps empower a group of young African mathematicians to analyse “big data” on public corruption.

The first step in this project was to develop software; this may seem trivial, but many cash-strapped African universities simply don’t have the resources to purchase the latest statistical software packages. The African Maths Initiative (AMI), a Kenyan NGO that works to create a stronger mathematical community and culture of mathematics across Africa, has helped to solve this problem by developing a new open-source program, R-Instat (which builds on the popular but difficult-to-learn statistics package R), funded through crowd-sourcing. Still in development, it is on track for launch in July this year. AMI has also helped develop a menu on R-Instat that can be used specifically for analysing procurement data and identifying corruption risk indicators.

Once we’ve got the data and the software to analyze it, the third and most crucial ingredient are the people. For “big data” to be useful as an anticorruption tool, we need to bring together two groups: people who understand how to analyze data, and people who understand how procurement systems can be manipulated to corrupt ends. Communication between the two is essential. So last month I tried to do my part by visiting AIMS Tanzania, an institute that offers a one-year high-level Master’s programme to some of Africa’s best math students, to help conduct a one-day workshop. After a preliminary session in which we discussed the ways in which the procurement process can be corrupted, and how that might manifest in certain red flags (such as single-bidder contracts), the students had the opportunity to use the R-Instat software to analyse the aid-funded procurement dataset that my colleagues and I had created. Students formed teams and developed their own research questions that they attempted to answer by using R-Instat to run analyses on the data.

Even the simplest analyses revealed interesting patterns. Why did one country’s receipts from the World Bank drop off a cliff one year and never recover? Discussion revealed a few possible reasons: Perhaps a change of government led donors to change policy, or the country reached a stage of development where it no longer qualified for aid? Students became excited as they realized how statistical methods could be applied to identify, understand and solve real-world problems. Some teams came up with really provocative questions, such as the group who wanted to know whether Francophone or Anglophone countries were more vulnerable to corruption risks. Their initial analysis revealed that contracting in the Francophone countries was more associated with red flags. They developed the analysis to include a wider selection of countries, and maintained broadly similar results. Another group found that one-quarter of contracts in the education sector in one country had been won by just one company, and more than half of contracts by value in this sector had been won by three companies, all of which had suspiciously similar names. Again, there might be perfectly innocent reasons for this, but in just a couple of hours, we had a set of preliminary results that certainly warrant further analysis. Imagine what we might find with a little more time!

It is programs like these, that develop the tools and cultivate the skills in the next generation of analysts, that will determine whether the promise of “big data” as an anticorruption tool will be realized in the developing world.

Post written by Dr. Elizabeth Dávid-Barrett of the University of Sussex

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?

 

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

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/

Connecting the Dots: The Coordination Challenge for the Open Government Partnerhship in South Africa

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete Commitments from governments that promote transparency – the implementation of these Commitments is then monitored by an independent review mechanism. South Africa has been a founding member of the OGP since 2011, having submitted three National Action Plans (NAPs). But change will only happen through a mechanism such as this if its implementation is effective. What can be done to get government departments coordinating on the OGP to make its projects a reality?

This research seeks to address specifically how implementation might be improved, through enhancing inter-departmental coordination on open data commitments. Worryingly, very little of the OGP conversation so far has practically considered how we can get a variety of departments (and not just lead agencies) to coordinate to make OGP commitments a reality.

After a several months of extensive research ODAC believes that one of the answers lies in driving departments to work together on both the OGP more broadly, but also in relation to specific commitments. Inter-departmental coordination has never been an easy ambition – but ODAC have posited some simple strategies, within the OGP process, that will help in moving open government ambition to open government reality.

You can download the full report here

MobiSAM sister project launched in Malawi

By Rachel Sibande, Malawi Coordinator

It is expected that inefficient mechanisms for citizen engagement in service delivery are not unique to the home of the social accountability monitoring tool MobiSAM, in the Makana Municipality, South Africa.

A sister project to MobiSAM has thus been launched in Malawi in late August 2016. The project is being piloted in the three main cities in Malawi; Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu.

Titled, Mzinda meaning “My City” in Malawi’s populous Chichewa language, the project seeks to enhance citizen engagement with locally elected Councillors, City councils, the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (ESCOM), and the Water Board on the delivery of essential services such as waste collection, sanitation, water and electricity at the local level.

Prior to the launch over 80 community block leaders from Blantyre and Mzuzu were trained on how to use the web-to-SMS platform through “Deepening Democracy” boot camps organised by the Story Workshop Education Trust.  Twenty four of twenty six Councillors from Lilongwe City were also trained on how to use the Mzinda platform on 25 July, 2016.

Nine community campaigns were conducted in prime locations within Lilongwe City such as Ntandire, Mtsiliza, Phwetekere and Senti. During these sessions, more than 1,000 citizens were sensitised on their rights to engage with duty bearers and service providers.

Citizens were also introduced to the web-to-SMS based Mzinda platform through which over 122 verified and approved SMS reports on service delivery issues were sent to the platform by citizens within the following categories:

  • Water
  • Electricity
  • Sanitation
  • Waste Collection
  • Roads

Some reports translated from Chichewa to English read:

“Here in Mtandire; waste is dumped here but not collected.”

“There is no toilet in Kaliyeka Market”

A baseline study has been finalised to understand ways in which citizens currently engage with elected councillors, service providers and the city council. The baseline also seeks to understand how citizens use technology and gauge their willingness to use technology to engage with duty bearers and service providers. Comprehensive results from the analysis of data collected from the baseline study will be made available end of September, 2016.

Expectations

The ultimate test for any citizen engagement initiative lies in the rate of responsiveness from the state, duty bearers or service providers. It is expected that the purpose of such initiatives as Mzinda and MobiSAM is not only to amplify citizens’ voices, but to also enhance responsiveness and corrective measures. It is thus important to enhance the feedback loop from Councillors, city council and service providers rather than advocate for citizen’s voices alone. On the other hand; duty bearers have also expressed the need for citizens to use the platform productively and not for malice.

“I hope that Citizens will have the willingness to use the Platform constructively and resist from malice. I believe if Citizens report on real issues and with all honesty, we too as their representatives will be more than willing to assist,” said the Mayor of Lilongwe City Council, Willy Chapondera in his speech at the launch of the platform.

On the other hand, service providers such as the Lilongwe Water Board and ESCOM have fully embraced the platform. For example, Lilongwe Water Board has been posting water rationing schedules and tips on how to save water and prevent leakages through the platform. The board has also actively taken note of citizens reports on water issues and taken swift action where possible.

Lessons learned so far

One of the key lessons we have learnt so far is that, beyond access and use of technology; there exists a need to enhance citizen’s awareness of their rights to engage with duty bearers. This is corroborated by one of the key insights from the baseline study we conducted in the three pilot cities of Mzuzu, Blantyre and Lilongwe. The study reveals that 31.8% of citizens do not think their views matter or that they can make a difference at the local level; 65.3% have not participated in a community meeting. 80% have not reported any matter to their Councillor and 64.3% have not reported any service delivery issue to the city council, yet 72% are willing to use the mobile phone to engage with these entities.

We can therefore start making inferences which indicate that in the presence of technology, with low levels of citizen particiaption in local governance, there could be potential in the technological factors that will enhance citizen engagement. There are likely to be social, cultural and political factors that facilitate citizen participation. Several authors have alluded to this notion and suggested that social, political and cultural factors need to be considered when seeking to employ technological tools as way in which which citizens could engage with local government successfully, (Gigle & Bialur, 2014). Therefore it is important to note that part of the purpose of the research conducted by Mzinda is aimed at establishing which factors influence or inhibit the use of technology as tools for the engagement between citizens and local government.  that influence or inhibit the use of technology as a tool for citizen engagement.

The beauty of having MobiSAM and Mzinda run side by side in the two different countries and contexts is that there are lessons to be learnt based on the different contexts and scope of the two deployments. A comparative analysis of the social, technical, economic, cultural and political factors that may enhance or restrict citizen engagement through ICTs in such different contexts may be relevant to the emerging discourse on ICTs for citizen engagement. Such lessons would be useful for academics, researchers, practitioners and technology developers to consider in subsequent deployments of ICTs for citizen engagement initiatives.

The Mzinda project is funded by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. It is being implemented by Citizens for Justice and mHub with technical support from the MobiSAM Project at Rhodes University. Follow @mzindawanga on twitter, find us on Facebook or SMS your service delivery report to +265 888 242 063 and access the web platform at http://www.mzinda.com
First published on http://www.blog.mobisam.net/2016/09/mobisam-sister-project-launched-in-malawi/

Technology can boost active citizenship – if it’s chosen well

Indra de Lanerolle, University of the Witwatersrand

Civic technology initiatives are on the rise. They are using new information and communication technologies to improve transparency, accountability and governance – faster and more cheaply than before.

In Taiwan, for instance, tech activists have built online databases to track political contributions and create channels for public participation in parliamentary debates. In South Africa, anti-corruption organisation Corruption Watch has used online and mobile platforms to gather public votes for Public Protector candidates.

But research I recently completed with partners in Africa and Europe suggests that few of these organisations may be choosing the right technological tools to make their initiatives work.

We interviewed people in Kenya and South Africa who are responsible for choosing technologies when implementing transparency and accountability initiatives. In many cases, they’re not choosing their tech well. They often only recognised in retrospect how important their technology choices were. Most would have chosen differently if they were put in the same position again.

Our findings challenge a common mantra which holds that technological failures are usually caused by people or strategies rather than technologies. It’s certainly true that human agency matters. However powerful technologies may seem, choices are made by people – not the machines they invent. But our research supports the idea that technology isn’t neutral. It suggests that sometimes the problem really is the tech.

Code is law

This isn’t a new discovery. As the technology historian Melvin Kranzberg put it:

Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.

US legal professor Lawrence Lessig made a similar case when he argued that “Code is Law”.

Lessig pointed out that software – along with laws, social norms and markets —- can regulate individual and social behaviour. Laws can make it compulsory to use a seat belt. But car design can make it difficult or impossible to start a car without a seat belt on.

Our study examined initiatives with a wide array of purposes. Some focused on mobile or online corruption reporting, others on public service monitoring, open government data publishing, complaints systems or public data mapping and budget tracking.

They also used a range of different technological tools. These included “off-the-shelf” software; open-source software developed within the civic tech community; bespoke software created specifically for the initiatives; and popular social media platforms.

Less than one-quarter of the organisations were happy with the tools they’d chosen. They often encountered technical issues that made the tool hard to use. Half the organisations we surveyed discovered that their intended users did not use the tools to the extent that they had hoped. This trend was often linked to the tools’ specific attributes.

For instance: if an initiative uses WhatsApp as a channel for citizens to report corruption, the messages will be strongly “end-to-end” encrypted. This security limits the behaviour of governments or other actors if they seek to read those messages. If Facebook Messenger is used instead, content will not be encrypted in the same way. Such decisions could affect the risks users face and influence their willingness to use a particular tool.

Other applications, like YouTube and Vimeo, may differ in their consumption of data. One may be more expensive than the other for users. Organisations will need to consider this when choosing their primary platform.

It’s not always easy to choose between the many available technologies. Differences are not transparent. The effects of those differences and their relevance to an initiative’s aims may be uncertain. Many of the people we spoke to had very limited technical knowledge, experience or skills. This limited their ability to understand the differences between options.

One of the most common frustrations interviewees reported was that the intended users didn’t use the tool they had developed. This uptake failure is not only common in the civic tech fields we examined. It has been noted since at least the 1990s in the worlds of business and development.

Large corporations’ IT departments introduced “change management” techniques in answer to this problem. They changed employees’ work practices to adapt to the introduction of new technologies. In civic tech, the users are rarely employees who can be instructed or even trained. Tech choices need to be adapted for the intended users, not for a structured organisation.

Try before you buy

So what should those working in civic technology do about improving tool selection? From our research, we developed six “rules” for better tool choices. These are:

  • first work out what you don’t know;
  • think twice before building a new tool;
  • get a second opinion;
  • try it before you buy it;
  • plan for failure; and
  • share what you learn.

Possibly the most important of these recommendations is to try or “trial” technologies before making a final selection. This might seem obvious. But it was rarely done in our sample.

Testing in the field is a chance to explore how a specific technology and a specific group of people interact. It often brings issues to the surface that are initially far from obvious. It exposes explicit or implicit assumptions about a technology and its intended users.

Failure can be OK. Silicon Valley’s leading tech organisations fail regularly. But if transparency and accountability initiatives are going to improve their use of technology, they are going to need to learn from this and from other research – and from their own experiences.

The Conversation

Indra de Lanerolle, Visiting Researcher, Network Society Lab, Journalism and Media Programme, University of the Witwatersrand

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.