The Social Audit Network has supported a number of communities over the years and different innovative social audits have led to greater impacts. This short documentary shows the importance of partnership, collaboration, scale and other sector based social audits.
The 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) released in January 2018 by Transparency International reveals that the continued failure of most countries to significantly control corruption is contributing to a crisis of democracy around the world. “With many democratic institutions under threat across the globe – often by leaders with authoritarian or populist tendencies – we need to do more to strengthen checks and balances and protect citizens’ rights,” said Patricia Moreira, Managing Director of Transparency International.
“Corruption chips away at democracy to produce a vicious cycle, where corruption undermines democratic institutions and, in turn, weak institutions are less able to control corruption.”
The 2018 CPI draws on 13 surveys and expert assessments to measure public sector corruption in 180 countries and territories, giving each a score from zero (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). To view the results, visit: www.transparency.org/cpi2018
More than two-thirds of countries score below 50, with an average score of only 43. Since 2012, only 20 countries have significantly improved their scores, including Estonia and Côte D’Ivoire, and 16 have significantly declined, including, Australia, Chile and Malta.
Denmark and New Zealand top the Index with 88 and 87 points, respectively. Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria are at the bottom of the index, with 10, 13 and 13 points, respectively. The highest scoring region is Western Europe and the European Union, with an average score of 66, while the lowest scoring regions are Sub-Saharan Africa (average score 32) and Eastern Europe and Central Asia (average score 35).
Corruption and the crisis of democracy
Cross analysis with global democracy data reveals a link between corruption and the health of democracies. Full democracies score an average of 75 on the CPI; flawed democracies score an average of 49; hybrid regimes – which show elements of autocratic tendencies – score 35; autocratic regimes perform worst, with an average score of just 30 on the CPI. Exemplifying this trend, the CPI scores for Hungary and Turkey decreased by eight and nine points respectively over the last five years. At the same time, Turkey was downgraded from ‘partly free’ to
‘not free’, while Hungary registered its lowest score for political rights since the fall of communism in 1989. These ratings reflect the deterioration of rule of law and democratic institutions, as well as a rapidly shrinking space for civil society and independent media, in those countries.
More generally, countries with high levels of corruption can be dangerous places for political opponents. Practically all of the countries where political killings are ordered or condoned by the government are rated as highly corrupt on the CPI.
Countries to watch
With a score of 71, the United States lost four points since last year, dropping out of the top 20 countries on the CPI for the first time since 2011. The low score comes at a time when the US is experiencing threats to its system of checks and balances as well as an erosion of ethical norms at the highest levels of power. Brazil dropped two points since last year to 35, also earning its lowest CPI score in seven years.
Alongside promises to end corruption, the country’s new president has made it clear that he will rule with a strong hand, threatening many of the democratic milestones achieved by the country. “Our research makes a clear link between having a healthy democracy and successfully fighting public sector corruption,” said Delia Ferreira Rubio, Chair of Transparency International. “Corruption is much more likely to flourish where democratic foundations are weak and, as we have seen in many countries, where undemocratic and populist politicians can use it to their advantage.”
To make real progress against corruption and strengthen democracy around the world, Transparency International calls on all governments to:
• strengthen the institutions responsible for maintaining checks and balances over political power, and ensure their ability to operate without intimidation;
• close the implementation gap between anti-corruption legislation, practice and enforcement;
• support civil society organisations which enhance political engagement and public oversight over government spending, particularly at the local level;
• support a free and independent media, and ensure the safety of journalists and their ability to work without intimidation or harassment.
To reclaim civic space, there are three key drivers that organizations must focus on, and three critical issues affecting local responses.
From attacks on human rights defenders to limits on civil society’s work, we are facing an emergency on civic space. As evidence from the CIVICUS Monitor suggests, threats to civic freedoms are no longer just happening in fragile states and autocracies, but also in more mature democracies. While there has been growing attention on how to respond to this phenomenon, we believe there needs to be more attention on underlying drivers and on supporting local responses. Civic space can’t be “saved” from the outside.
Many of the current restrictions on civil society are knee-jerk responses, sometimes pre-emptive, to popular mobilizations, a sad and unexpected result of the initial hope of the so-called Arab Spring. Of course, this pattern is not the only cause of growing constraints on civic freedoms. Repurposing of the global security discourse to curb dissent, restrictions on international funding for advocacy groups by nationalist leaders, and retreat from the international human rights framework using flimsy arguments of state sovereignty are all ways by which the rights discourse is being undone. While there are several drivers of civic space restrictions, three in particular are worth paying attention to, due to their cross-cutting nature and deep impacts.
1. The business of civil society repression
The impact of of mega-corporations and market fundamentalism in undermining civic freedoms cannot be overemphasised. Private sector influences are particularly clear in the area of natural resource exploitation by extractive industries and big agri-businesses when local, often indigenous, environmental defenders face retaliation for protecting natural resources from grabs by corrupt business and political interests. The assassination of award winning Honduran activist Berta Caceres and restrictions on the right to peaceful protest for those opposed to the Dakota Oil pipeline in the United States are examples of how of these challenges transcend global North-South boundaries.
2. A toxic mix of extremist ideologies
Civil society is also being increasingly targeted by extremists aiming to divide societies around narrow interpretations of ethnicity or religion. Civil society emphasis on diversity and social cohesion is derided as antithetical to nationalist cultural values and in some cases those speaking out against such projects are branded as operating at the behest of outside interests. In Europe, for example, civil society groups working on the rights of refugee and migrant populations are facing a backlash. In many parts of West Asia, women’s rights defenders have been attacked by armed groups seeking to impose puritanical religious doctrines on populations by arguing that gender equality is a Western construct. In South Asia, bloggers and journalists have been persecuted online and offline for opposing dominant cultural mores, while in Africa religious evangelists have linked up with like-minded groups on other continents to spur extreme forms of homophobia and attack defenders of LGBTI rights.
3. Retreat from democracy and multilateralism
We’re also facing a crisis of moral leadership on the international stage which has led to a retreat from universal human rights values and is negatively impacting civil society. Degradation of civic freedoms and the emergence of “neo-fascist” politics in Europe and the United States have emboldened despotic regimes in countries such as Bahrain, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and more, to attack dissenters and consolidate their power by manipulating electoral processes and state institutions. From the Philippines to Russia, Turkey and Venezuela, efforts are underway to silence dissent whereby repression against those who speak the language of human rights is becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Despite these challenges, placing local responses at the heart of efforts to reclaim civic space is critical. Based on conversations with civil society stakeholders on their present challenges, we have identified three under-researched but critical issues:
a. Resourcing resilience, close to the ground
In an era of growing linkages between rights oriented civil society organizations and the donor/philanthropic community, financial resources have become a key area of contestation. Only a tiny proportion of development assistance actually goes directly to civil society in the global South. Fickle donor priorities and excessive deference to whims of governments that restrict international funding have caused several smaller organizations to fold up. At the same time, bigger ones, which are more adept at marketing and meeting sophisticated accounting requirements of donors, are expanding. The organized civil society firmament has already started to resemble the market with big franchises edging out locally owned and rooted businesses. For example, an organization run by Syrian refugees in Turkey says they have experienced difficulties accessing international funding despite having much more relevant local knowledge than the international organizations that attract global donors. International donors should be mindful of how their red tape excludes community organizations that possess local expertise and have significantly lower overheads.
b. Beyond accounts-ability
Across the world, the legitimacy of organized civil society is being challenged on several fronts, from politicians demonizing them as disconnected special interest groups to social movements that see traditional CSOs as arcane at best and co-opted at worst. The usual ways in which CSOs demonstrate their accountability—through compliance with regulatory requirements and donor reporting are proving insufficient to convince skeptical politicians or publics. We thus need to move beyond just “accounts-ability” to enhanced transparency and dialogue with communities, not for the sake of checking a box but because they are key to making meaningful change. This shift could include things like people-centred decision-making, real-time adaptation to stakeholder needs, and nurturing the next generation of social change-makers. This form of accountability is not only about financial reporting and transparency to donors but about meaningful dialogue with affected communities and stakeholders, and keeping an eye on big picture outcomes to drive organizational decision-making process.
c. Standing together
Lastly, an energetic, civil society-led, global response is needed to counter attacks on civic freedoms. Many of us have done a good job of ensuring that the reality of closing civic space is on the international community’s radar, but efforts to push back against restrictions are often duplicative and uncoordinated. We must make clear that the enabling of civil society rights is an essential part of the defense of democracy. To do this, we need to form and work in progressive alliances, bringing together substantial masses of citizens and connecting classic CSOs, protest movements, journalists, trade unions, youth groups, social enterprises, artistic platforms and many other parts of the civil society universe.
A robust civic space can only exist within a functioning democracy, and thus safeguarding civil society also involves re-imagining more participatory models of democracy, with citizens at their heart. Seen in this way, the over-arching challenge is not a technical, short-term one of pushing back on attacks on civic space, but a longer-term political one of re-imagining a more participatory landscape where substantive democracy thrives.
***This article is an extract of an essay published in the 26th edition of the Sur Journal of Human Rights.
Exploring what it takes to enhance social accountability practice.
The conference theme aims to interrogate the challenges of working in the social accountability field and specifically the elements which allow for successful social accountability practice, where practitioners are able to enhance the interaction between the state and the public. The conference will explore the manner in which social accountability practice is impacted by context, by power, by the ecosystem of actors within the sector and by actors we may consider outside of the ecosystem.
Download the conference PROGRAMME
You can link to a livestream of the plenary presentations and panels on the 11th and 12th September here
A number of multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs) have brought together governments, civil society organizations (CSOs), and private sector firms to hash out a variety of difficult governance issues. Initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency work to encourage transparency and accountability reforms in a rapidly expanding number of countries around the world.
But while the breadth of these MSIs is inarguable, how deep do reforms really go? What tangible changes are they driving at the country level? These are some of the questions that Dr. Brandon Brockmyer of the Accountability Research Center has been investigating. We recently spoke to Brandon about his research.
IBP: Can you give us a quick outline of your findings in terms of the effectiveness of MSIs?
Brandon: Overall, what I found is that global MSIs are quite good at encouraging participating governments to proactively disclose information about their activities and performance, even in cases where governments are disclosing this information for the first time. However, MSIs are notably less effective at encouraging participating governments to become more responsive to requests from citizens for information that they are not already publishing. This allows governments to retain control of the agenda, deciding what information to disclose.
MSIs help to improve proactive government transparency when two core conditions are in place: First, nongovernmental actors (i.e., civil society and the private sector) must be treated as full and equal partners in MSI decision making and implementation. Second, participating civil society organizations must have the technical expertise to steer disclosure in the right direction, as well as the resources to regularly attend meetings.
IBP: One of the interesting findings is that it seems MSIs are quite effective at advancing transparency, but broader improvements to accountability so far have been more elusive.
Brandon: Currently, global MSIs are designed to tackle transparency directly, while most of these initiatives address accountability only indirectly. This approach seems to assume that there is a straightforward, linear relationship between the two. I think my research findings support a more general consensus emerging in the field that transparency gains alone are unlikely to drive gains in accountability. Disclosed information needs translation, aggregation, benchmarks, and simplification to be useful to potential users. Demands for greater accountability require collective action that can be difficult to organize, especially given that civil society groups vary across regions, sectors, and funding levels and often have different priorities when advocating for government action. And even if these groups can come together to make coherent demands, citizen voice alone may not be an effective channel for changing the incentives of public sector actors, or for gaining greater influence over public resource allocation.
If global MSIs want to tackle the challenge of accountability more directly, their activities probably need to be more purposefully embedded within existing national pro-accountability coalitions. I think this could be done in several ways:
- Pro-reform actors—national and local civil society groups, government reformers, and international NGOs that are already invested in the MSI approach—could expand processes for civil society consultation and participation beyond political and economic centers.
- National MSI agendas need to be customized so that they resonate with broader civic and social constituencies.
- Since MSIs are voluntary, reformers need to petition independent audit institutions, ombudsmen, courts, and legislatures to monitor and support compliance with MSI guidelines and respond with inquiries and sanctions when problems are uncovered through these processes.
- If MSIs succeed in facilitating disclosure, newly released information needs to be embedded into existing channels of public discourse and decision making.
IBP: Many of IBP’s civil society partners are also trying to push their governments to improve transparency and accountability. Did you find any evidence where CSOs were able to use MSIs to advance their agendas?
Brandon: Yes, but it really depends on the specific agenda. CSOs that are already working toward greater government transparency will often find natural allies in the government and private sector by engaging with global MSIs. In these cases, MSIs offer a powerful way to advance their agendas. However, for those CSOs that value transparency primarily as a tool for advancing a broader social or environmental agenda, participation in a global MSI may be a costly distraction. In fact, I found that participating governments sometimes use MSIs to “openwash”— that is, to project a public image of transparency and accountability, while maintaining questionable practices.
IBP: IBP engages with initiatives like OGP and GIFT, particularly at the global level, while at the same time supporting many local CSOs at the national and local level. What insights do you have about bridging these big global movements with the nitty-gritty challenges that CSOs face on the ground?
Brandon: I think it’s critical that CSOs considering engaging with global MSIs have a realistic sense for how MSI activities and outputs might fit into their own broader reform strategies. Conversely, it’s equally important that global MSI architects work to tailor activities and outputs to fit the needs of pro-reform actors in participating countries.
IBP is well placed to inform both sides of this equation. IBP can educate CSOs about how global MSIs work, so the CSOs can make informed decisions about whether to get involved. If CSOs decide to participate, IBP can also serve as an invaluable resource for effective strategies and tactics for using global MSI processes to achieve their domestic goals. Simultaneously, IBP can use its influence within these global initiatives to advocate from a CSO perspective for MSI membership rules, events, and training opportunities are optimally geared toward producing the types of transparency and civic participation that CSOs identify as critical for their broader reform strategies to work. Nevertheless, it’s also important to remember that the reform process is likely to unfold somewhat differently across various contexts. As a result, IBP can guide MSIs toward offering participating members a more useful toolkit, but MSIs must still avoid being overly prescriptive.
Admittedly, this is a tough balance to strike. But by embracing the fact that not every global MSI will be a good fit in every context, IBP can help global MSIs improve their credibility, and help national and local CSOs avoid pointless opportunity costs.
This article was origninally published by the IBP here
This article was written by Mariz Tadros and first published on the IDS website here
With the proliferation of donor-funded accountability programmes, including in authoritarian settings, are we in danger of mistaking the means for the end? Do accountability tools such as community scorecards, workshops and roundtables, or participatory budgeting provide a convenient “citizen engagement” gloss without seriously probing uneven distribution of power or the stifling of marginalised groups?
It may seem unusual to talk about accountability and authoritarianism in the same breath. And yet multilateral and bilateral donors invest enormous amounts of funding into implementing accountability programmes in authoritarian contexts.
Given that accountability is still important in donor circles, this is unlikely to change any time soon.
The implementation of accountability-promoting programmes in authoritarian contexts is informed by a number of assumptions about how change happens, assumptions very similar to those that informed advocacy promotion initiatives of the 1990s and early 2000s.
These assumptions are that:
- Governments have the political will and/or capacity to respond to citizen demands in some way
- There is a democratic space (or at least a modicum of it) which allows for expression of citizen voice
- There is an understanding of how policy influencing pathways and policymakers work (broadly speaking)
- Technical know-how in claims-making will empower local actors to challenge power-holders
The absence of these conditions, or, uncertainty over how they will develop due to high levels of unpredictability, leads to a wide array of relationships that allow for the co-existence of authoritarian rule alongside accountability initiatives. It is probably best to think of them as a spectrum of possible power configurations, that extend from one extreme with authoritarian accountability, to the other with accountable authoritarianism.
Neither, however, are absolute and both shift temporally and spatially as opposed to being binary.
What exactly is Authoritarian Accountability?
At one extreme end of the continuum is when authoritarian systems of governance are kept intact or even strengthened by being associated with Western-style accountability programmes.
When it comes to identifying their impact, this phenomenon very much resembles the democratisation programmes being implemented in authoritarian settings during the 1990s and early 2000s, which Steven Heydemann has described as “upgrading authoritarianism”. Although the case studies he presents are from the Arab world, they are easily applicable to other contexts where authorities are able to effectively accommodate the introduction of measures that give a semblance of tolerating non-state political contestation but in a deeply controlled manner so that they do not pose a threat to the status quo.
Accountability programmes that function in authoritarian contexts without disturbing the status quo in substantial or even marginal ways initially generate win-win situations for donors and governments alike: the former can tick the ‘doing accountability’ box, and the latter can project an image of good relations between the governed and the governing.
In most cases, the label “accountable” is latched onto donor-funded programmes that essentially focus on applying tools and implementing activities. For example:
- community members using score cards to rank priority measures/areas
- roundtables between communities and local officials
- school council meetings involving parents asking for improved educational services, etc.
These measures in and of themselves can be highly participatory and may sometimes even give access to officials that would otherwise not be possible. The problem is, however, they have no teeth because they are undertaken in a very controlled manner and have no roots in the community.
A given regime gains facade of accountability – but little more.
In essence such programmes can be interesting exercises in the application of accountability tools on the ground, which if we acknowledge them as such, at least we are realistic about the limits of donor-induced authoritarian accountability. The tragedy is that they are celebrated, lauded, and applauded as if they are genuine expressions of citizen power.
And what about Accountable Authoritarianism?
At the other end of the spectrum is accountable authoritarianism – when pockets of people or sub-sections within the governance system become responsive to citizen-led demands. Authorities may not admit to it and their responsiveness doesn’t drastically shake up the status quo.
If the problem with authoritarian accountability discussed above is that it’s an apolitical, technical fix, the problem with accountable authoritarianism is that it does not fit the critics’ conceptual framing of what kind of effect qualifies as an accountability outcome.
In some respects, perhaps they are right. In some contexts where space is so deeply circumscribed, accountability, understood through in the traditional meaning of answerability and sanctions-enforcement, is not going to happen except rarely and on a limited scale, unless there is regime overthrow.
But the tragedy is that this results in accountability struggles being overlooked because we forget that they are operating in contexts where democratic prerequisites, such as enforcement of rule of law, fair process, freedom of expression, freedom of association, etc., are missing.
In fact, there are many accountability struggles occurring in highly authoritarian contexts: how they have framed the issue, their pathways and the kind of power configurations they have shifted have often been nothing short of ingenious.
Take, for example, women and men mobilising in a highly authoritarian context to institutionalise an anti-sexual harassment policy by establishing a unit to respond to violations on a university campus which liaises with police and ensures justice is served. The fact that they are able to make elements of authoritarian systems carve out pathways through which claims-making and redress are possible is highly significant. And it makes authoritarianism accountable in some small way.
These initiatives may not shout “accountability” to an audience acquainted with jargon and recognisable tools/methods (as described above). Instead, they are locally–led, non-projectised and premised on working with the grain of changing political opportunities of influence.
And above, all, the key difference with accountable authoritarianism, is that shifts in power do occur, even if these are temporally and spatially limited.
Authoritarian Accountability and Accountable Authoritarianism: two sides of the same coin?
Some would argue that whichever way you look at it, accountable authoritarianism or authoritarian accountability, the hazards are the same: the appropriation by repressive regimes of accountability initiatives to enhance their external (or even internal) image of tolerance and reasonableness.
For example, in Mubarak’s Egypt, well-intentioned multilateral agencies such as the UNDP sought to foster a culture of respect for human rights among security personnel by inviting them to capacity building workshops with human rights organisations.
Ultimately the programme had the unintended outcome of extending security personnel’s outreach within the human rights sector.
Perhaps another way to describe authoritarian accountability is as “Accountability-lite”. It manifests itself as externally-funded, technical fix-its which are far different from accountability struggles that go some way to making their authoritarian regimes a little more accountable.
The former may not endure because the face-lift it gives to authoritarianism is so contingent upon external drivers in projectivised forms.
The latter are part of people’s struggles to find spaces and niches in which they can extract some accountability while at the same time knowing that the “redlines” of what is politically permissible are changing and unpredictable, and require constant adaptation.
Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) – IDS-led research set in fragile, violent and conflict-affected contexts
In the Action for Empowerment and Accountability programme (A4EA) we continue to explore the tensions and complexities of how accountability “sits” with authoritarian and highly unpredictable systems of governance.
Across very different contexts (Pakistan, Mozambique, Nigeria, Egypt and Myanmar), we at least know that we need to avoid two extremities: overlooking the dangers of donor-led authoritarian accountability programmes that give window-dressing impressions of citizen contestation and under-estimating the potential for power shifts occurring on the margins of the governance systems which go some way to making authoritarianism a little more accountable.
Along the spectrum of different configurations of how authoritarianism and accountability sit together, there will always be many unintended outcomes and ripple effects of both positive and negative kinds, as will be discussed in a forthcoming blog.
This article was written by Mariz Tadros and first published on the IDS website here
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:
- Waste Collection
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.
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/
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.
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.
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.