"When government willingness is already there, ICT-enabled voice can help build capacity to respond. But generally, unless pre-existing government commitment to respond is in place, voice through the platforms will not create it, and response rates will remain low."
This programme learning report presents and discusses findings from Making All Voices Count (MAVC), a grant-making programme that has supported tech for accountable governance initiatives and research. It focuses on information and communication technology (ICT)-enabled interventions that focus on raising citizens' voices with government, especially feedback platforms in the global South. They aim to make it easier for citizens to feed in their views, needs, ideas or complaints by giving them the digital means to do so. However, MAVC highlights that many such interventions do not deliver on such expectations. In analysing why, this paper draws on three comparative studies of a range of citizen voice-government responsiveness interventions from the MAVC portfolio. These studies clarify the need to unpack what might seem like very basic assumptions and the core components essential to their success.
The three comparative studies are as follows: One analysed seven projects in the rural water supply sector (Welle et al. 2016), one focused on seven interventions in the health sector (Hrynick and Waldman 2017), and one compared 23 feedback platforms across a range of sectors (Peixoto and Fox 2016). The report presents a summary table of core components to assist with such planning and analysis, and highlights the need to:
- Separate voice, processing, and response and the causal links between them - Overall, Welle et al. summarise a key finding: "The focus on the ICT-based reporting side did not manage to overcome the lack of responsiveness from the side of the service provider or government."
- Distinguish between 'individual citizen' and 'collective civic' voice - Much seems to rely on the capacity of intermediary organisations to act as social mobilisers, both online and offline. Hrynick and Waldman's study also seems to suggest that offline collective mobilisation is crucial in developing the commitment of both government and citizens before interventions begin. And once established, offline collective mechanisms that continue to build relationships and trust between citizens, intermediaries and government seem vital as interventions progress.
- Unpack the 'black box' of different entities and actors within government - "Government" is a complex collection of individuals and groups, each motivated and constrained by varying and complex arrays of formal and informal norms, incentives and relationships. And it is necessary to address the fact that these actors, and the forces operating on them, constantly change over time.
- Distinguish between the willingness versus the capacity of all the key actors (of citizens and government at a minimum, and often also intermediaries and donors) - For example, in looking at the "social design" of ICT reporting systems (i.e., their consideration of social context), it is necessary to look at both: (i) citizens' capacity to voice their views: issues like access to and control over mobile devices (especially for women), connectivity, literacy and numeracy, digital literacy, time demands, and costs of messaging; and (ii) citizens' willingness to voice their views: issues like worries over being identified when reporting service failure, low levels of trust, low expectations of response, prevailing apathy, preference for existing relationship-based reporting processes, and power imbalances.
Acting on these findings would entail those seeking to design, implement, or fund voice–responsiveness mechanisms to:
- Ensure adequate understanding and building of levels of government willingness before doing anything else.
- Take the time to understand both citizen willingness and citizen capacity to voice their inputs, individually and collectively.
- Address the likelihood that government willingness will fluctuate over time.
This paper focuses on ICT-enabled voice and feedback platforms to improve service delivery. However, according to its author, the analysis, findings, and recommendations may also be applied to other interventions that aim to strengthen the flow of citizen voice into government and to improve government responsiveness. For example, the checklist of core components (see page 9) may provide practical guidance during the planning and evaluation of participatory budget, policy, and strategy-making processes.
MAVC website, December 15 2017. Image credit: MAVC