Technology Salon: How can New Technologies Make All Voices Count? The Challenge of Engaging Citizens

Tech Salon logoThis morning, I was fortunate enough to be squeezed into a Technology Salon (@civicagenda) in London.  The event focused on the issue of citizen engagement and making all voices count through the power of new communications technologies. It was an absolutely fascinating discussion which largely focused around some of the key challenges remaining and devising potential solutions to them.

The general consensus was that there were few examples of stand alone initiatives which have successfully achieved impact at scale.  One of our grantees, TRAC FM was cited as an example of a project with good regional and to some extent national reach in Uganda.  

A key challenge noted was in ensuring inclusivity.  As an example, TRAC FM has reached 60,000 people, but found that only 10% are female.  Literacy was also cited as a tremendous barrier-tech projects often focus on SMS or web-based solutions, which exclude between a third and a half of the population in many African countries.

It was also recognised that it is incredibly hard to incentivise citizens to report on an on-going basis.  Short-term reporting around a particular event such as elections was viewed as more plausible.  We were reminded that many citizens may fear submitting reports and also have little trust in government solving their problems.  It was suggested that there is a need to better understand how citizens ordinarily use their phones in order to address some of these issues.  A role for intermediaries and community ‘helpers’ was also noted.

Substantial discussions pursued around how to engage with governments (ideally at the design phase), help incentivise them to respond to citizens and build their capacity to do so.  Experience with the Open Government Partnership has shown that long-term sustained engagement is a real challenge.  It was suggested that media engagement can contribute as well as utilising already available government services such as libraries.  Embedding tech solutions into current government workflows has also been shown to be effective, as exemplified by See, Click, Fix in the USA.

It can also be helpful to demonstrate how such strategies reduce inefficiencies and support the every day work of civil servants.  As an example, our grantee Lungisa has helped Cape Town’s City Council to hold subcontractors to account when they haven’t delivered on their obligations.  We were however reminded that government engagement isn’t always appropriate (for example when highlighting corrupt practices).

People also highlighted a need to engage with offline communities such as churches and community groups and questions were raised around how to incentivise collective action.  Social movements must be engaged.  We were also reminded to consider civil servants and politicians as distinct groups.  People also spoke about the importance of engaging with local government, as it is at this level that most citizens are affected.

We were reminded that we can be myopic in our approach and that many government’s have been doing a fantastic job in developing solutions more successfully than external stakeholders.  As an example, the Philippine government was able to set up a Twitter hashtag, emergency hotline and SMS shortcode for reporting within days when a disaster struck.

We were elegantly reminded about the need for realism.  Using Tanzania as an example, we were told about the difficult situation on the ground where politicians are dealing with limited and unstructured data, few citizens outside rural areas are well informed about what is happening and government and media houses have limited budget and capacity.  It’s worth us considering whether expecting government to respond to individual complaints is realistic and whether rather, we should be considering getting a representative viewpoint and responding to this.  Twaweza‘s mobile survey was cited as an example of an attempt to do so.  This example reminded us of the importance of engaging policy makers when disseminating key findings and ideally offering viable solutions to challenges identified.

We were also reminded that even in the UK, where there is lots of data available, unfortunately, due to politicisation, often the evidence can be ignored.  We are all aware that the famine in Somali was predicted 6 months before it happened and still, we weren’t able to react in time.  There is little evidence that much has changed as a consequence of Kenya’s Open Data Portal.  This highlighted a need for more relevant and timely data and an active tech community and civil society who can interpret the data and use it to stimulate campaigns and achieve impact.  We must also remember that tech and data can’t solve all problems.  No amount of data on traffic will tackle the issue of poor road infrastructure.

I was delighted to hear a point made about Foundations and charities also needing to be more transparent and held to account about what they do.  This initiative we’re exploring may help to contribute towards this.

As always, we spoke about remembering that tech is only a tool and that true solutions require a deep understanding of local context (usually best understood by locals), theories of change, communications and programmatic design.  Or else we risk just doing bad development faster!