Technology fostering greater accountability but also aiding repression and surveillance

11 January 2018

Major findings from the five-year Making All Voices Count (MAVC) programme highlighted in its final report Appropriating Technology for Accountability: Lessons from Making All Voices Count suggest that the role played by technologies in improving accountability and government responsiveness, as well strengthening citizen empowerment, has been very mixed.

Arab Spring to #MeToo – the changing technology and accountability backdrop

Established in the wake of the Arab Spring and the launch of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in 2012, and now publishing its final findings in 2017 against the backdrop of the #MeToo and the #TimesUp campaigns and a new wave of protests in Iran which have harnessed technologies to mobilise citizens, MAVC’s aim throughout has been to contribute to enabling ‘all people, including the poor…to engage and call to account public and private institutions on policy issues that matter most to them’.

The programme, implemented by a consortium consisting of Hivos (lead agency), IDS and Ushahidi, issued 178 grants (72 innovation projects, 38 scaling projects, 7 tech hubs, and 61 research projects) for work on themes of citizen engagement and voice, inclusive governance, and open and responsive government, in which a wide range of kinds of technology were used.

The report’s findings point to areas where technologies have made a real and positive difference to service delivery through cheaper and quicker generation of real-time data by both governments and citizens. For example, the TIMBY project in Liberia used an online platform to enable reporting of illegal logging, and Trac FM in Uganda gathered inputs from many thousands of people to inform local government decision-making using SMS polling and radio programmes. However, the report also draws attention to the ways that technologies are being used to close spaces of engagement through surveillance and monitoring. An example of this, reported in an IDS Bulletin article, is the state use of malware to monitor the activities of advocacy and campaigning groups and which ultimately led to the withdrawal of Mexican civil society (pdf) groups from the OGP national platform.

Tech optimism vs tech realism

Over the course of the progamme those involved have witnessed a tempering of initial optimism amongst those working in the sector – academics, civil society and donors – around the role that technology can play in improving accountability.

While technology can offer innovative solutions, these need to be adapted to specific contexts, informed by user needs and research, and to take account of digital infrastructure and accessibility. As the report underscores from the outset, less than half of the world’s population is online, and growth rates in the number of users have been falling rather than increasing over the past few years (Internet Society), counter to expectations when the programme was designed and launched.

Findings also emphasise that better and/or more data, information and knowledge alone cannot improve accountability, or change behaviours, weaknesses and norms – such as discrimination and corruption – that underpin unaccountable and unresponsive governance. Among the 55 projects MAVC supported that incorporated new citizen- or government-generated data, effectiveness was limited in many cases because of excessively positive assumptions about how much people would trust the data, how pivotal a role the data would play in decision-making, and how many people would actually look at or use it.

However, the programme also found exciting examples of how technologies can open up new spaces for engagement between states, civil society and citizens and support social mobilisation and collective action by connecting citizens. For example, the Trac FM International Common Matters programme in Uganda partnered with five CSOs to run two-month, strategically designed, issues-based campaigns in Trac FM’s model of combining radio debates with SMS citizen polling. Over 66,000 people responded to SMS polls over the course of the five different campaign cycles. The aggregated responses helped CSO’s to engage lawmakers which resulted in policy reforms.

Offline activities still matter for improving accountability

The report also draws attention to the fact that technologies can improve communication and information flows but they cannot overcome an absence of trust or change social norms. This was demonstrated in the Suara Kita project in Indonesia where those involved in the project described how even once social media channels with citizens were opened they needed to carefully ‘nurture’ the communication by repeated responses and encouragement, in order for people to become ‘braver’ in approaching them. As the report authors argue, new technologies must be coupled with innovative offline activities to ensure they lead to improved accountability and empowerment outcomes.

Read the full report

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