ICTs for better citizen feedback: Is anybody responding?

Improving service delivery through digital solutions is a key area of e-governance initiatives. ICTs are touted as a means to give citizens a voice by channelling and communicating their concerns to local administrations. But an equally important aspect is often overlooked: The influx of citizen inputs also needs governments that are ready to respond.

Focus on strategy first – not technology

In preparation for an upcoming work ICT4D work assignment, I have been exploring the question how ICTs can support citizen-state feedback communication for improving service delivery.

Eager not to reinvent the wheel and learn from good practices, I came across an invaluable source of information that helped me with conceptualising an informed approach: the research programme Making All Voices Count which explored innovative approaches to promote accountable, responsive governance – mainly through the use of ICTs.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfL2X-5yRKg[/youtube]

The programme published a series of learning reports that investigate why many initiatives that aim to promote citizen feedback via ICTs do not meet expectations (Herringshaw, 2017, 2018). One key take-away from the reports is that the such initiatives are most likely to be impactful if they consider three strategic questions before implementing any ICT solution:

  • What is the vision of success by key actors in the initiative?
  • How do we tailor ICTs to enable citizens to give feedback?
  • Is government capable and willing to process and respond to the feedback?
Agree on a joint vision of success

“The use of ICTs may have the potential to support change […] but only when the political goals of key actors are pre-structured to support this.”

(Herringshaw, 2018)

It is important to agree on a common definition of what ‘success’ for the intervention looks like among all stakeholders. Herringshaw (2018) outlines how such visions of success can vary widely among key actors – along two dimensions.

Firstly, success can be defined in relation to the kind of change that stakeholders wish for the ICT solution to achieve. For instance, they can be more functional and instrumental in that citizens are seen as ‘users’ meant to give feedback on how well services are functioning. Or they can be more transformative considering citizens as ‘shapers’ with influence over the improvement of service delivery. Finally, there could be an implicit wish for ‘no change’ where ICTs are introduced as a pretence of improvement without any real will to change existing service delivery systems.

Secondly, success can be defined in relation to the envisioned relationship between governments and citizens. For instance, this could relate to the type of participation that is sought (or not) and the extent of including (or excluding) citizens to decision-making processes.

This aspect took me by surprise because it made me aware of my own – slightly deterministic – optimism with regard to ICT4D interventions. It is easy to be blinded by the potential of ICTs to give citizens voice – and forget how important the underlying power structures within government are.

 

Tailor ICTs to citizen needs on- and offline

“It has been most difficult to include the most marginalised and least powerful – those that might most need to use [ICTs] to get a productive response from government.”

(Herringshaw, 2018)

It should be obvious to ICT4D practitioners that digital solutions need to be tailored to their intended users. Yet, all too often the hype around the possibilities of ICTs leads the charge instead of the needs and realities of the people meant to use and benefit from them.

The research by Herringshaw shows that there are several aspects that we should take into consideration. For instance, ICTs need to adapt to local infrastructures and digital skills of citizens. Do they use smartphones or feature phones? What are their mobile phone habits? Getting answers to these questions will require us to involve citizens in the design process of the ICT solution. Moreover, the research showed that ICTs work best if they complement existing processes and are introduced with a mix of on- and offline outreach activities. For my assignment, this means that we are exploring SMS-based solutions and need to work closely with local forums to engage citizens in the design process.

Another aspect to consider is the structure of the feedback mechanism. For instance, should it allow feedback from individual citizens that is logged and transferred? Such solutions need to consider citizens’ perceptions of government because should they lack trust of even fear reprisal for raising concerns, they will not use the digital solution. Alternatively, citizen feedback could be aggregated and transferred collectively – e.g. via digitised citizen scorecards.

According to Herringshaw  (2018), research suggests that neither approach guarantees success and depends on the context. But there are two general strategies that may support the adoption of the solution: social mobilisation of citizens to use the ICT platform (e.g. by intermediary organisations) and increased efforts to establish trust between citizens and governments.

Ensure government is ready to respond – or scrap it

“When government willingness is already there, ICT-enabled [citizen] voice can help build capacity to respond.”

(Herringshaw, 2017)

Strengthening citizen voice through ICTs will not automatically translate to stronger governance response. This means that just focusing on improving citizens’ ability to voice concerns is not enough. What is equally necessary is to ensure that government partners are both willing and capable of responding to the feedback that will be coming in through the ICT solution.

This is obviously important to consider when developing the theory of change for any ICT4D project. There is a tendency to assume that the ICT-enabled feedback mechanism alone will suffice to improve the citizen-state engagement. Yet what’s required is careful analysis of the government’s willingness and readiness to utilise and respond to citizen feedback. If such commitment does not exist, projects should scrap the ICT approach – and first focus on measures that can create such willingness or build capacity.

One way to go about it may be to identify ‘digital champions’ within government that can create momentum and buy-in from within. This is one of several stakeholder roles that Heeks (2018) considers important for any ICT4D intervention.

Neglecting this can be detrimental not just to the success of the ICT initiative – but to the citizen-state relationship as such. If citizens do engage and provide feedback via an ICT solution but government does not respond, it may fuel disillusionment, mistrust and disengagement (Herringshaw, 2017).

Unpack your assumptions

The bottom-line is that the successful implementation of an ICT solution for improving citizen-state feedback loops will depend less on the potential of the technology than on the citizens meant to use it and the governments meant to respond.

Whereas I may be excited about the possibility of ICTS allowing citizens to have a say in their local development processes – such excitement may be short-lived if the respective government structures are opposed to such participation.

Therefore, one key lesson for me has been to reflect on and unpack my own assumptions. By focusing on the possibility of ICTs in promoting citizen voice, I almost overlooked the structural aspect of government’s willingness and capacity to process and respond. Yet, only if all these aspects are considered and aligned, will the ICT-enabled citizen-state feedback mechanism have any hope of success. Let’s get to work!

Referenced works

Heeks, R. (2018). Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D). London New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Herringshaw, V. (2017). Addressing failure in ICT-enabled ‘citizen voice – government responsiveness’ interventions: unpacking core assumptions and essential components (Making All Voices Count Programme Learning Report). Brighton: Institute of Development Studies. Retrieved from http://www.makingallvoicescount.org/publication/addressing-failure-ict-enabled-citizen-voice-government-responsiveness-interventions-unpacking-core-assumptions-essential-components/

Herringshaw, V. (2018). Increasing citizen voice and government responsiveness: what does success really look like, and who decides? (Making All Voices Count Programme Learning Report). Brighton: Institute of Development Studies. Retrieved from http://www.makingallvoicescount.org/publication/increasing-citizen-voice-government-responsiveness-success-really-look-like-decides/

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