Understanding ‘the users’ in Technology for Transparency and Accountability Initiatives

25 October 2013

The use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has risen dramatically since the turn of the millennium, in particular among people in countries of the global South. 

Man on his mobile. Panos / Mark Henley

This has fuelled great enthusiasm among the aid, development and technology communities over the past decade to apply Technology for Transparency and Accountability Initiatives (T4TAIs) in order to deepen democracy and improve developmental outcomes. Funding agencies, engaged activists and governance scholars are looking closely at their impact and effectiveness. In particular, concerns have been raised that not enough attention has been paid to the people expected to take up and use T4TAIs.

A new IDS Policy Briefing highlights that if T4TAIs are to be accessible, effective and contribute to their stated goals, it is critical that understanding if and how ordinary people currently use T4TAIs and the constraints on their taking action is significantly improved.

The Briefing draws on a learning study undertaken by Hivos and partners which is a step in this direction.

Lessons learnt

Drawing on the experiences of the T4TAIs in the learning study, there are clear lessons to be learnt in terms of informing the design, implementation and evaluation of future initiatives. These include:

  • Among the myriad T4TAIs currently being implemented, few are demonstrably transforming governance and accountability. This may be not because they lack any transformative impact, but because they are presently not demonstrating it well.
  • T4TAIs' active participants are often the 'usual suspects' – men, urban dwellers, and people with higher levels of education and/or access to information.
  • It is not always certain that marginalised people actually want more direct means of engaging with their governments. The people who are meant to be ‘sensitised’ and brought in are often time-poor – especially women – and also may have historic reasons to expect little responsiveness from their governments.
  • The gender bias in uptake of both M4W and TRAC FM draws attention to the risks of T4TAIs unwittingly 'empowering' only some kinds of citizen, which could further entrench discrimination and social exclusion rather than increase accountability and equity for all.
  • There is evidence that many organisations put insufficient thought and resources into publicising their initiatives, and that this contributes to low uptake. Targeted outreach to particular user groups is an element of particular importance in the theories of change of many T4TAIs.
  • Response, feedback and interactivity are important determinants of uptake and sustained use. Among users there is a desire to see that the information they contribute is being used in some way.

Where next?

The briefing outlines a number of policy recommendations for designers, practitioners and funders to improve the impact and accessibility of T4TAIs. Recommendations include:

  • Integrate T4TAIs into people’s ways of doing things. Practices and technologies that are already embedded in people’s daily realities are more likely to be adopted.
  • Gather more information about potential and actual users, in both design and monitoring and evaluation phases, so that various dimensions of social exclusion (gender, age, disability) can be addressed.
  • Develop more clearly articulated theories of change and outline realistic levels of expectations about behaviour change at the outset.
  • Address the trade-off between the goals of amassing detailed information on uptake and participation and protecting users’ privacy.
  • Improve the capacity of those designing and implementing initiatives to conduct applied research and action research, within the context of their own practice, on ‘users’ as inputs to better programme design and monitoring and evaluation.
  • Consider how initiatives might be monitored and assessed and the costs of demonstrating impact, when designing programmes that will need to be evaluated.

Read the full four-page Policy Briefing which includes details of two case studies and the full set of policy recommendations. 

Image credit: Mark Henley / Panos