Anita Gurumurthy
Deepti Bharthur
Nandini Chami
Publication Date
September 1, 2017

IT for Change

"Digital choices for democracy can empower or disempower citizens; can present citizens with real alternatives for equality, thereby deepening democracy; or [can] prove costly for both individual citizens and the polity as a whole."

What are the conditions in democratic governance that make information and communication technology (ICT)-mediated citizen engagement transformative? Inspired by the idea of participation in everyday democracy, IT for Change sought to explore how digitally-mediated information outreach, dialogue, consultation, collaboration, and decision-making, initiated either by government or by citizens towards greater government accountability and responsiveness, can promote democratic governance and amplify citizens' voices. The resulting study, carried out with funding from Making All Voices Count, adopted a comparative case study methodology, building its analysis on empirical explorations of ICT-mediated initiatives in eight countries: Brazil, Colombia, India, Kenya, Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, the Philippines, and Uruguay. In each country, a specific digital citizen engagement initiative was selected as an aid to understanding the historical evolution and particular institutional context of e-participation, through the interplay between structures of governance and citizen agency. (Each country case study is summarised individually at the links under Related Summaries, below)

Through government-end and citizen-end analyses, this report presents emerging insights from the in-depth exploration of these case studies, informed by structuration theory (whose central premise is that individual actions, interactions, and the social system are reciprocally active and not independent of each other). More specifically:

  • Section 2 provides an overview of the eight country contexts covered by this research, comparing and contrasting the quality of democratic governance, maturity of e-participation, and status of digital infrastructure development in each context.
  • Section 3 summarises the eight case studies, highlighting their contexts of emergence, key techno-design features, techno-social aspects, and outcomes for citizen engagement. (See also Related Summaries.) In short, the initiatives they focus on include:
    1. South Africa - Non-governmental organisation (NGO)-initiated participatory mapping initiative deploying FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi platforms that is focused on creating an evidence base on disaster risks and infrastructural hazards faced by informal street vendors in eThekwini Municipality, Durban to promote dialogues between vendors and municipal authorities
    2. India - Online grievance redress system developed by the State Government of Rajasthan to channel citizen complaints on accountability in service delivery
    3. Philippines - Open data initiative of the Government of the Philippines that seeks to enhance government transparency for democratic accountability
    4. Netherlands - Ons Geld Burgerinitiatief (Our Money), a citizen initiative that used online and offline strategies to mobilise public opinion to lobby for a shift in monetary policy
    5. Spain - Municipal Action Plan (2016-2019) co-created through the Decidim Barcelona platform as an exemplar of the many participatory citizen engagement initiatives undertaken by Barcelona City Council, part of the larger movement attempting to create a network of Open Cities
    6. Brazil - ICT platforms used in the public consultation processes around the Marco Civil da Internet (Internet Bill of Rights) (2015) and copyright reforms (2016)
    7. Colombia - Urna de Cristal (Crystal Urn) online web portal set up by the government that allows citizens to raise queries /concerns to any government department / agency and request grievance redress, and provides an e-consultation space
    8. Uruguay - Open Government National Action Plan that aimed to combine creatively offline and ICT-mediated strategies for citizen dialogue, consultation, and collaboration to create a new institutional culture that furthers accountability and responsiveness
  • Sections 4-7 present emerging insights, sharing findings on institutional mediation structures, ICT mediation structures, and citizen agency through the lens of emerging norms, meanings, and power relationships.
    • Section 4 examines the impact of ICT-mediated citizen engagement on the norms, rules, and conventions that underpin the state-citizen relationship, focusing on the implications for democratic accountability.
    • Section 5 traces emerging visions of citizen participation in the neoliberal e-government paradigm. It examines digitalised governance systems to try to understand the new meanings that are shaping citizen engagement.
    • Section 6 explores the different ways in which the techno-design of ICT-mediated citizen engagement hard-codes political intent / visions of e-participation. It also explores the intended and unintended outcomes of such codification, and the ways by which techno-design creates new routines of state–citizen interaction.
    • Section 7 looks at the interplay of institutional mediation structures and ICT mediation structures with citizen agency. It focuses on how citizens, through their appropriation of ICT-mediated citizen engagement, constitute and reconstitute institutional systems of democratic governance.
  • Section 8 includes a set of reflections on the directions coming from this research for public policy interventions and recommendations for making digitally mediated citizen engagement transformative.

In brief, the researchers found that "in all contexts, states have been keen to deploy ICTs for citizen engagement, in order to create and leverage political capital. Ideas of transparency and openness have become privileged norms....Simultaneously, the meaning of citizen participation is being rearticulated. Imaginaries of the 'responsible citizen' and the contributing citizen volunteer are finding a place in national policy documents. Citizen participation is also acquiring other meanings, thanks to digitally-mediated networks and alliances that democratise civic action and civil society..."

Furthermore, they learned that "intertwining structures of democracy and technology unfold differently in each context. While positive consequences for citizenship are evident in this flux, these depend on particular historical conjunctures. The digital promise coincides with a trust deficit being experienced by citizens the world over, as many democratic institutions fail. This deficit can potentially deepen, if governments do not go beyond the rhetoric in their e-participation endeavour. As states and their legal-policy institutions, especially in developing countries, are mostly in a catch-up mode, techno-structures and their default rules seem to shape the boundaries of citizen participation."

Some of their findings and conclusions include:

  • "[D]igitally mediated citizen engagement practices do not always derive from the idea of equal citizenship." For instance, while the Marco Civil e-consultations in Brazil were "rich in deliberation, process outcomes were finally shaped by political actors and lobbies". Similarly, online engagement in the case of Rajasthan Sampark in India involved a platform found to be "a veritable black box until grassroots social movements argued and pressed for a design that was more accountable".
  • "The expansion of communication networks and proliferation of social media has democratised political expression and civic association, but narrowed exposure to oppositional viewpoints..."
  • "Digital switches in the hands of the political elite and colluding business interests can aid the blatant exploitation of citizens and an unchecked abuse of power."
  • In developing country settings, "[n]ot being heard is the norm; a listening state is an exception. Even with higher rates of Internet penetration, citizens often lack the trust to approach government or lack the sophistication needed to make use of online avenues, leading to an alienation from the digital promise."
  • "[T]he technicalisation of citizen participation can take away from the idea of collective claims, reducing participation to individual transactions with the state..."
  • "With rapid digitalisation, the human element often becomes displaced from interactions in the virtual space, one that is not yet clearly coded with rights and / or re-coded in ways unfamiliar to citizens....The result is the disenfranchisement of those who have been historically marginalised."
  • "Prerequisites for online participation can undermine or open up a diversity of views in online spaces of deliberation. [S]hort message service (SMS) or 'texts' delivered in dominant languages can marginalise indigenous populations from participatory initiatives."
  • "The spatial architecture of digitally mediated citizen engagement determines outcomes for democracy, given the way social norms and practices can restrain and inhibit the participation of socially and economically marginalised groups in online public spaces."
  • "When ICTs are used in governance processes, shifting meanings, norms and power equations create new challenges for older guarantees in democracy. Contestations around freedom of expression and association, and rights to information, to vote, to be heard, to access public services and to redress, are evident in many contexts."
  • "As participation becomes digitally recast in new ways, new rights - such as the right to Internet access / connectivity, to digital literacy, to anonymity and to personal data protection - are implicated."
  • "Techno-solutionism without strong institutional norms is at best an incomplete antidote and at worst an accountability nightmare. For instance, without a mooring in a robust right to information, open government initiatives in the Philippines are not adequate to unleash the transformative possibilities for active citizenship."

In light of these findings, the researchers present recommendations on how public policies and programmes can promote ICTs for citizen engagement and transformative citizenship. In brief:

  1. Calibrating digitally mediated citizen participation as a measure of political empowerment and equality (e-participation as a right), which looks like this:
    • "Digital participation is backed by socio-institutional listening frameworks, including the right to be heard, and institutional support and facilitation by intermediaries for citizens who may need assistance.
    • E-participation visions are grounded in clear norms and systems that communicate the value of digitally mediated participation for citizen rights and democracy.
    • The digital public goods necessary for digital engagement - including technological tools, procedures and standards and organisational architectures for coordination of process and implementation of outcomes - are prioritised and invested in.
    • Capabilities of government actors and citizens are built through digital literacy programmes in which the goal of participation is central."
  2. Coding for democracy (techno-design as socio-political), which involves:
    • Putting in place well-thought-out digital and organisational processes, standards, and protocols on hardware, software, platform, data, and information for ICT-mediated engagements.
    • Creating design principles for websites / platforms / portals, including for online voting, deliberation, and transactions with government agencies.
    • Making open, accessible, and auditable techno-spaces by ensuring that participation protocols are open and transparent, allow ease of access to citizens, and address the needs of those citizens having disabilities or access and literacy barriers.
    • Engaging citizens in the process of techno-design through citizen consultations, with dedicated resources for e-participation and support for techno-capabilities.
  3. Ensuring that the rule of law upholds democratic principles in digitally mediated governance (the need for laws and policy frameworks), which means:
    • "Fortifying legal frameworks on rights to be heard, to information, to free expression, to grievance redress, to privacy, to bodily integrity and to participation and public services, to comprehensively cover the digital.
    • Creating new laws and guarantees on Internet access, digital literacy, data protection, algorithmic transparency and the right to explanation, for meaningful and empowering citizen access to technology.
    • Building the capabilities of the judiciary to protect and promote citizen's rights to participation and to produce competent, ethical and independent jurisprudence.
    • Putting the last person first by creating capabilities for inclusion, investing and maintaining offline alternatives, and offering facilitated access.
    • Centring public interest in e-government arrangements and third-party involvement through transparency in contracts, protection and safeguards of citizen and public data, and audit of partnerships."

In conclusion: "This study found that despite the marvels of digital technologies, the ability of citizens to influence governance decisions and contribute new initiatives is, at best, indirect and limited. This does not mean that alternative visions and norms about citizen participation are not emergent. Agents within political systems - political leaders, bureaucracy, judiciary, new political parties - and citizen agents, the world over, are constantly creating and recreating digital democracy and the democratic digital through their conviction and creativity....These instantiations...keep our hope for transformation in social and technological structures alive."


Email from Making All Voices Count to Soul Beat Africa on September 19 2017; and research report summary [PDF] - both accessed on September 20 2017.