Technology-Enabled Citizen Engagement: ‘Short Route’ to Better Accountability? | World Bank Institute (WBI)

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Throughout the world, people, including the poor, increasingly use information and communications technology (ICT) to voice their needs to the government.
  • Under certain conditions, technologies can empower citizens to participate and make governments more transparent and responsive, thus helping to close the accountability gap between government and citizens.
  • The June 19th launch by WBI of the new report on "Closing the Feedback Loop: Can Technology Bridge the Accountability Gap?" delved into some of these issues.
(c) World Bank

July 1, 2014―What does a school need to organize its education process? Of course, textbooks, classrooms, teachers, curriculum…For the Epifanio Delos Santos elementary school in Manila, Philippines, this critical list also included proper toilets – a situation not unusual for poor, marginalized communities. Until two years ago, the institution providing education for young children had very poor toilets that were inadvertently a health concern.  

The problem of poor sanitation at Epifanio Delos Santos was identified by one of the groups of experts and civil society representatives who were visiting schools nation-wide, hearing their concerns, checking their conditions against government’s official data, and later publicizing the updated information and problems via the checkmyschool.org website. During one year, these groups identified 231 issues that required solutions in 84 schools.

Throughout the world, people, including the poor, increasingly use information and communications technology (ICT) to voice their needs to the government, as the latter gradually open up to listen. Citizens commenting on the web on how to improve garbage collection in their neighbourhood, sending voice messages about the quality of their town’s health clinic, or voting on their village’s budget via mobile phones are all present-day practices of engaging the government directly, with the use of technology to demand better services to improve the quality of their lives.

“Poor people by virtue of their needs and circumstances are pretty eager to learn new things and create opportunities to get out of the poverty trap,” says Rijhan, a social mobilizer for Nepal’s Poverty Alleviation Fund (PAF) in Dhanusha district. “It feels good to watch women, earlier limiting themselves behind the veil, expressing their opinions on how they can make a difference in the development of their community.”

PAF is Nepal’s national program for community-driven development. In areas like the Kapilvastu district with high illiteracy rates, a voice-animated survey system was developed (instead of text messages) for residents to send in their opinions on what small-scale projects they think should be primarily implemented in their communities.      

open-quotesIt takes time to write a letter, take it to the municipality's offices and follow up on the status of the case. We lose time and spend money on transportation. The OnTrack system has shortened that time and process for us.close-quotesRuben Altuzarra, resident and activist of AchachicalaWith open and transparent governance that also makes citizens’ participation possible, government’s accountability can peak, while lack of accountability can waste the efforts and resources of countries and development organizations that are trying hard to lift millions of people out of poverty.

In this process, technology can create ‘shorter routes’ for citizens to participate to hold their governments to account. The residents of Achachicala neighborhood in the outskirts of Bolivia’s capital city La Paz may not be using innovative ICTs to manage their daily lives, but they have come to rely on them as shortcuts to letting the municipality know what the basic infrastructure needs are in their neighbourhood and how the most needed services are functioning.

“It takes time to write a letter, take it to the municipality's offices and follow up on the status of the case," says Ruben Altuzarra, resident and activist of Achachicala. "We lose time and spend money on transportation. The OnTrack system has shortened that time and process for us.” 

OnTrack is an SMS and web-based platform introduced in nine World Bank-supported projects in four countries: Bolivia, Ghana, Nepal, and Zambia. Some 30,000 marginalized rural families in Bolivia, with the push of a button, can send an SMS to air their grievances and needs, such as for access to near-by markets to sell their produce, bridges and roads to transport their products, and access to cheap loans to develop their small businesses. They are providing feedback on the performance of the Rural Alliance project that seeks to improve their access to markets, and so far 70 project participants have sent in about 150 pieces of feedback.  

When citizens talk, with the use of technology or otherwise, governments should listen and respond. That is what bridges citizens’ participation to government’s accountability. It also builds mutual trust and a sense of co-ownership of issues and solutions between them.

Technology helps governments too to do their job better, for example to collect and analyse information about how public money is being spent, where the wastes are, and if the services are reaching the people who need them the most. In the case of Epifanio Delos Santos elementary school, the Education Department got alerted about the problem through the Checkmyschool platform; it allocated money and the school’s toilets got renovated.  

However, the power of technology should not be overestimated. Technology is a tool that can help to better connect citizens and governments to work with each other, and its effectiveness ultimately depends on the context it is applied in – on how a variety of social, economic, and political factors interplay. Technology can speed up change, but it “does not drive change, people and institutions do,” as Rakesh Rajani, civil society leader from East Africa, and co-chair of the Open Government Partnership, put it. 

Ponder this: In many cultures, women hold the primary role for collecting water for household chores. But when it came to collecting SMS feedback from citizens if water wells were working in some districts of Tanzania, women’s voices were virtually absent. Why? One, it was mostly the men who held mobile phones; therefore, women were kept out of the feedback loop. Second, there was an underlying apathy – citizens were used to the often blind eye of some government officials and did not believe their reporting would solve the water problem. At that time in 2011, only 40% of Tanzania’s rural population had access to a water source, and only 54% of public water points were functioning. The Maji Matone project was set up to collect feedback from rural residents in some districts to help improve their access to water. Of the target of 3,000 messages, the district water departments received only 53 messages. 

The success or failure of technology is closely tied to the culture, values, behaviors and capacities of the people and institutions that use them. How willing and capable are citizens to participate, and to do so constructively? What is government’s capacity, incentives, and willingness to enable participation, to engage and collect feedback? How are governments responding to feedback and measuring success?  

These were also the questions discussed, among others, around the June 19th launch by the World Bank Institute of the new report on Closing the Feedback Loop: Can Technology Bridge the Accountability Gap? The book looks into the existing evidence, some of them highlighted in this article, if and under which conditions technologies can empower citizens to participate and make governments more transparent and responsive, and by that, help close the accountability gap between government and citizens.

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