At the recent Global Partners Forum 2017 in Washington, DC, civil society groups gathered to review the field of social accountability. In a session titled Civic Tech: Is Technology Transforming Social Accountability? a panel representing experiences from Africa and Asia assessed recent uses of technology to enhance the social accountability of governments to their citizens.
Moderator Aleem Walji, CEO of Aga Khan Foundation and a member of the Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) steering committee, opened the discussion by asking, What is the role of technology in social accountability?
Panellists responded by noting the larger context of limited access to technology. Luther Jeke, from iLab in Liberia, noted that while 60% of Liberia is between 15-35 years old and eager for technology, less than 10% of people are online. “Context matters a lot,” Jeke said. “Civic tech is not just about building wonderful applications.” Jeke’s colleagues use lower-tech channels for connecting people, ranging from radio to town hall meetings. Harriet Agyeman, with SEND Ghana, echoed this with examples from Ghana, where internet penetration is not strong: community development relies on face-to-face interaction but tech tools allow people to complete surveys using voicemail, SMS and online responses in local languages.
The panel also recognized the emerging fact that many governments are also quickly adapting to connective technologies, in some cases with the aim of manipulating the narrative. With that awareness, Joy Aceron, a research fellow at American University, noted that “if we want technology to be transformative, we need to be mindful of strategic gaps.” She offered three action guides for this:
Enable collective action, often using simple means.
Use state reforms. Open platforms are often underutilized, but they can shift the power dynamic toward accountability.
Address the dangers and threats that technologies can pose, particularly related to privacy and security.
“What made the most difference, we found, is who sets the agenda and who designs the technology,” Aceron said of the work in the Philippines. “Peopleware before software.”
Walji re-iterated that idea of peopleware before software, adding, “Intent matters.” When begun in 2012, Making All Voices Count, the grand challenge started by the DFID, USAID, SIDA and Omidyar Network, might have assumed that increased transparency would foster accountability. “It’s more complicated,” he admitted.
Fletcher Tembo, director of Making All Voices Count, summarized how the program began with great enthusiasm for what technology could accomplish. As the program concludes at the end of November, he too recognized the limits of access, saying, “We need to think about who is not in.”
The Interface between Governments and CSOs
Tembo also recognized that governments sometimes use technology to change the narrative. There are more players in the ecosystem for social accountability now, Tembo noted. “What is still missing is bringing actors together in meaningful ways so change happens.”
When governments demonstrate an authentic desire for change, the commitment comes most effectively from the top. In the U.S., the 3-1-1 smart government movement connected citizens to their local services, with varying results. In New York, Walji noted, the mayor embraced the tool “as a way to listen, with intention to respond,” and commitment from the highest level. The process also requires CSOs with strong skills for engaging and connecting with their constituents. Walji noted that recognition reflects the Aga Khan Foundation’s experience and drives its emphasis on strengthening CSOs with those capacities. “Our theory of change is, unless CSOs start with those capacities, they’re not going to be able to act for the people they represent.”
Where We Go from Here
On where we go from here, participants agreed that harnessing technology for citizen power is key. “Now is the age of big data,” said Aceron, noting that typically that term gets applied in the private sector. She noted that in its default state, technology often moves toward individual behavior. How do we engage it for collective action? In other words, “How do we leverage knowledge to build citizen power?”
One step in that process, Tembo said, is to assess more thoroughly what is working where.
One questioner observed that the dynamic in the sector “sounds almost like a race: to dominate the use of technology for social accountability or to control the narrative.” Aceron agreed. “The challenge now is really linkages,” she said. Collective action can generate data across sectors, to assist collective problem-solving. “That’s where we should be moving.”
“There’s a lot that we’ve learned,” Walji concluded. “There are new technologies on the horizon. I’m sure we’ll be talking about them in a few years, more than likely. But I don’t think at that time it will be any less important to build strong local civil society organizations.”
The Aga Khan Foundation is a donor and partner of the Global Partnership for Social Accountability in its support for civil society and capacity building.