Author: 
Tiago Peixoto, Ed.
Micah L. Sifry, Ed.
Publication Date
August 21, 2017
Affiliation: 

World Bank (Peixoto); Civic Hall (Sifry)

"[I]n contrast with the deluge of blog posts and tweets praising technology’s role to promote smarter and more participatory governments, one finds limited evidence on the effects of technology on citizen engagement practices." - Tiago Carneiro Peixoto

From the World Bank, this book is comprised of one study and three field evaluations of civic tech initiatives in developing countries. The study reviews evidence on the use of 23 information and communication technology (ICT) platforms designed to amplify citizen voices to improve service delivery. Focusing on empirical studies of initiatives in the global south, the authors assess two aspects of civic tech: (i) whether technology facilitates the participation of individuals who are traditionally excluded or if, to the contrary, it further empowers the already empowered, and (ii) the extent of government responsiveness to citizen voice and the ways in which the voice-responsiveness deficit can be narrowed (requires looking beyond the mere creation of more civic technologies alone).

Noting that little is known about the extent to which ICT platforms designed to amplify citizen voices in order to improve public service delivery lead to actual response from governments, Tiago Peixoto and Jonathan Fox in Chapter 1 start by providing a conceptual distinction between the two ways that civic tech platforms can mediate the relationship between service providers and users: (i) upwards accountability, which occurs when users provide feedback directly to decision-makers in real time, allowing policy-makers and program managers to identify and address service delivery problems, but at their discretion, and (ii) downwards accountability, in contrast, which publicly calls on service providers to become more accountable, and depends less exclusively on decision-makers' discretion about whether or not to act on the information provided. This distinction is meant to support precise analytical focus on how different dimensions of such platforms contribute to public sector responsiveness.

Peixoto and Fox also examine the relationship between uptake - understood as the number of users or participants in a platform - and the responsiveness of public service providers. The authors document a number of cases with high uptake and low responsiveness, and vice-versa. They also examine nine other factors that are expected to have an effect on responsiveness from public service providers, such as disclosure of feedback, combination of online and offline action, and partnerships between civic tech platforms and public service providers. Although none of the factors examined can be considered a "silver bullet" for civic tech platforms to engender responsiveness, in all of the cases that present a high level of responsiveness, the government is either leading the process or playing the role of a partner. Peixoto and Fox summarise their findings by suggesting that while civic tech platforms appear to have been relevant in increasing service providers' capacity to respond, most of them have yet to influence their inclination to do so. Finally, the authors put forward six propositions for discussion about the prospects and limits for civic tech as a means to engage citizens in the achievement of more inclusive and better public services.

Each of the field evaluations takes a multidisciplinary approach. From traditional qualitative interviews to mobile-based and random intercept web surveys, the different chapters present different ways in which data can be collected and analysed. In brief (summarised from the introductory chapter, by Tiago Peixoto and Micah L. Sifry):

The first evaluation looks at U-Report in Uganda.

  • What it is: Created in 2007 by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), U-Report is an SMS (text message)-based platform running weekly polls with registered users on a broad array of issues connected with UNICEF's agenda, ranging from attitudes towards women to access to polio vaccination. The results of the polls are widely disseminated through the project's website and through diverse mass media outlets, including newspaper articles and radio shows. As the primary policy audience of U-Report, UNICEF provides Members of Parliament (MPs) with a weekly digest of results and access to the platform in order to reach out to their audiences. The number of registered users, often referred to as "U-Reporters", has grown steadily since its launch, reaching 300,000 users in Uganda. But there is a dearth of data on who the users of civic technology solutions are.
  • What the evaluation shows: When it comes to the age of U-Reporters, the demographics are well aligned with UNICEF's objective to engage Ugandan youth. However, the data suggest that U-Reporters are substantively more likely to be male and from privileged backgrounds in terms of education and professional occupation. However, U-Report was never intended to run representative (i.e., probabilistic) surveys. In addition, it appears to provide a cost-effective means to quickly survey evolving problems. The evaluators found that the combination of technology with traditional channels of participation demonstrated a greater potential to promote inclusiveness than the use of the technology alone. They "found no compelling evidence of U-Report as a platform that helps Ugandans hold their governments or leaders to account....As with many civic technology initiatives, the lack of a clear link between voice and response remains a challenge." That said, "[t]he U-Report team has developed a unique expertise in mobilizing large-scale participation through mobile phones. The challenge remains in translating that participation into more tangible results for those who need them the most."

The second evaluation takes a closer look at MajiVoice, an initiative that allows Kenyan citizens to report, through multiple channels, complaints with regard to water services.

  • What it is: Officially launched in Kenya in 2014, MajiVoice is an integrated solution that facilitates the submission and handling of complaints by water services customers. Beyond the traditional walk-in centres, MajiVoice enables customers to report problems via telephone hotlines, SMS, social media, and a dedicated online platform. Once reports are submitted, a web-based task management solution assists water providers to process and handle the complaints received, and customers can track the status of their reports.
  • What the evaluation shows: Since its implementation, the number of complaints recorded has risen from 400 reports per month to 4,000 reports. Resolution rates have increased from 46% to 94%, and average resolution time has been reduced by half. The authors point to an obvious yet underestimated fact in the civic tech space: For any technological innovation that enables citizens to report problems, there must be corresponding non-technological structures that ensure responsiveness to these reports. A further consideration is the role that technology actually plays in citizen reporting solutions. The overwhelming majority of reports are submitted via traditional means; the main role played by technology is that it provides an internal management solution that facilitates the handling and monitoring of complaints, mainly received by traditional offline channels. "This seemingly trivial finding calls for a more nuanced view on the potential usage of technologies between citizens and their governments or service providers. In some cases, the issue of transaction costs may be overestimated, and offering alternative channels of participation may not be the most - or only - effective way to use technology."

The third evaluation examines the case of Rio Grande do Sul's participatory budgeting (PB), which allows citizens to participate either online or offline in defining the state's yearly spending priorities.

  • What it is: Originating from the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989, PB refers to the participation of citizens in the decision-making process of budget allocation and in the monitoring of public spending. Experts estimate that up to 2,500 local governments around the world have experimented with PB, which has been associated with desirable outcomes such as increases in tax revenue, improved service delivery, and reduced infant mortality. In 2001, ICT in PB was adopted, with the goal of increasing citizen participation. The municipalities of Ipatinga and Porto Alegre enabled their citizens to submit their demands for budget allocation via the internet. In 2014, over 1.3 million people took part in the process, corresponding to 15% of the total population in the state of voting age. Since then, the use of ICT to facilitate PB processes has gone beyond the Brazilian context.
  • What the evaluation shows: The introduction of i-voting (a process that combines both offline and online voting) does bring new participants to the process, with nearly two-thirds of online voters stating that they would not have taken part in the vote if i-voting was not available. However, parallel to this, the study shows that introducing i-voting does not lead to a substitution effect, meaning that for the most part, those who voted offline will continue to do so, despite the introduction of i-voting. While the overall introduction of technology generates an increase in turnout, when compared to offline voters, online voters are substantially more likely to be male and from privileged socio-economic backgrounds. The extent to which online voting might affect PB's goals of social justice and pro-poor spending remains an empirical question that only further research can answer. "A growing literature in the fields of decision-making and epistemic democracy suggest that as the diversity of participants increases, so does the quality of decision-making. In this respect, a sound hypothesis is that the combination of online and offline channels leverages the collective intelligence of the Rio Grande do Sul's PB. In other words, as more cognitive tools, perspectives, heuristics, and knowledge inform the voting process, the more likely it is that voters will make superior choices."
  • In discussing this evaluation, Peixoto and Sifry continue: "Some more practical lessons are also worth highlighting....In comparative terms, the online voting process is significantly less vulnerable to fraud and manipulation. These findings have already prompted changes in the offline voting process, with the state of Rio Grande do Sul undertaking a series of new measures to reinforce the security of the offline voting process. The evaluation also underlines the importance of outreach and communication efforts to mobilize participants. While the uptake in Rio Grande do Sul's PB is high by any standards, the evaluation shows that the majority of participants in the state do not take part in the process precisely because they are not aware of it. For civic tech initiatives where popular mobilization is an important intermediary result, the case of Rio Grande do Sul also highlights the needs of understanding why citizens do not participate."

In short, the authors together seem to find little evidence that tools for "citizen voice" translate into "citizen teeth" to prompt action on the part of governing officials. To put it another way: There is a wide chasm between uptake of these tools by the public and institutional impact. Reflecting on the chapters, Peixoto and Sifry write: "To conclude, the challenges of inclusiveness and government responsiveness are not exclusive to civic technology and are certainly not new. Rather, they are the backdrop against which institutions and democracy have evolved throughout history. Whether civic technology makes a difference or not will ultimately depend on the extent to which it addresses these challenges as they are manifested today."

Source: 

World Bank Group Open Knowledge Repository and "A book about the role of civic technology for the public good", by Tiago Carneiro Peixoto, August 31 2017 - both accessed on September 7 2017. Image credit: World Bank