As conference centres go, the Rockefeller Foundation‘s Bellagio Centre is pretty hard to beat. Overlooking Italy’s stunning Lake Como and surrounding mountains, it was the backdrop for a conference last week focusing on the role of ICTs in service delivery and how transparency and accountability mechanisms can most effectively feed into the post-2015 framework of development goals.
Over the course of three days, 23 participants from countries as diverse as Kenya, the Philippines, India and Spain discussed and debated the merits, successes, failures and policies for integrating ICT into service delivery and accountability mechanisms. In essence, the conference divided into three broad topics. While a full discussion of the conference would take more than a single blog post, here are some of the highlights:
- Day One (tech, partnerships and successes): The first day saw a series of presentations looking at existing projects and platforms using tech to monitor and improve service delivery. The work of Text to Change in Uganda highlighted the value that innovative, high-impact campaigns can have. Their ‘Pothole of the Week’ competition to find the worst pothole in Kampala recently went viral. UNICEF‘s five core innovation principles, meanwhile, offer a great way to think about the guiding values underlying tech development. Using these principles, any tech should be user-centred, open source, sustainable, built for scale and ready to learn from failure. The value of user-centred design was a core topic throughout the day. Tangere Infotech in India, for example, are trialling a system to improve the efficiency of complaints mechanisms in some of the country’s poorest communities. For decades, an inefficient system of paper complaints have resulted in problems going unsolved and complaints being lost in a vast, paper-heavy system. The new system still allows citizens to present paper complaints, which are then immediately scanned and tagged for follow-up. This allows complaints handlers to track complaints through the system and – in theory – provides citizens with a method of feedback and redress. On the partnership front, there was heated debate about who should and could act as useful partners. Trying to find government champions can offer a really useful way of working, especially in countries where individual ministries may be unresponsive, overworked or sceptical about the value of tech.
- Day Two (creating a conducive environment): Policy is central to the way in which ICT-led projects operate. Cost, barriers, infrastructure, energy supplies, NGO funding regulations – all of these are central to the success and failure or projects, but navigating them can be extremely difficult. In the NGO world there is, perhaps, a tendency to view government as a hindrance rather than a potential ally. ‘Bureaucracy’ isn’t generally a word with a lot of positive associations, but understanding the way in which governments work is critical, albeit often overlooked. Similarly, coordination of multiple projects is notoriously difficult. In vast countries with overstretched public sectors, it can be difficult to join up different initiatives into a coherent whole. Here, government can play a decisive role. Of course, the balance between ‘coordination’ and ‘surveillance’ presents myriad problems, particularly in countries with histories of repression.
- Day Three (reflection and conclusions): With an event like this, it’s often hard to come to firm conclusions. In fact, they tend to throw up more questions than answers. During the final day, however, we did get around to drawing up some guidelines or principles. Reducing the distance between service providers and citizens is crucial if services are to be made more effective. There also needs to be a clear and unambiguous definition of rights and responsibilities when it comes to service delivery. Both service consumers and providers need to know where they stand.
All in all, it was an incredibly productive conference with a group size small enough to allow for focused discussion, yet large enough to capture a wide range of experiences. It will be interesting to see how transparency and accountability are fed into the post-2015 framework. In an era of big data and machine readability, the opportunities are almost boundless. Whether the political will and commitment exists is another matter…