Civic tech platforms provide an important means for citizens to communicate with governments. Nowadays, you can look up your MP’s voting record from an Internet café in rural Kenya, or send an SMS message directly to your municipal health authority about drug stock-outs from a mountainous village in Guatemala.
Recognizing this trend, Omidyar Network partnered with the MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB) last year on a collaborative research project to understand how ICT interventions can bridge the gap between citizens and government. Our premise: The fact that civic tech platforms provide new and easier ways for citizens to voice their concerns to government does not necessarily mean that citizens will actually take advantage of them.
The on-going collaboration involves five research projects with practitioners in five different countries—the US, Guatemala, Kenya, Uruguay, and Liberia. Each project starts with researchers and practitioners working together to identify research questions that provide operationally useful information to the practitioner, as well as knowledge that can be used by a broader community. MIT GOV/LAB then designs a series of relatively short, small-scale experiments and matched case comparisons, often in conjunction with qualitative process tracing. Each iteration builds on the findings from previous rounds of research and aims to test which operational and design choices are most effective in improving citizen engagement and government responsiveness.
Early results suggest that civic tech organizations do well designing platforms that are easy to use and accessible to citizens in a variety of contexts such as urban and rural settings. However, uptake of parliamentary monitoring and service delivery platforms by citizens remains low, especially among marginalized and under-resourced groups.
The findings also suggest something more problematic: Increased volume of citizen feedback through ICT channels does not necessarily translate into improved government response. In other words, more input is not resulting in better outcomes.
The problem may rest with the thoroughness of citizen feedback received by government through the ICT channels. Government officials often are already aware and understand the issues or desires expressed by citizens; however, this “thin” citizen feedback is not actionable. For example, research conducted on a deployment of Ushahidi by the Guatemalan health NGO CEGSS (Centro de Estudios para la Equidad y Gobernanza en los Sistemas de Salud) health officials showed that they often already had the information that citizen users were providing through the SMS-based complaint platform. Before they could take action, what officials really needed was “thicker” information about the context and conditions of the problem.
The findings suggest a need for greater understanding of government as a customer in need of the right tools. We have found that often platforms don’t take into account how government officials and decision-makers perceive, use, and respond to these technologies as tools to help them not just identify problems, but to assist in solving them as well.
How do governments use the feedback they receive? What information do they want, but don’t currently get? Why don’t they act on the information they already receive? What format do they find the most useful? And, what types of officials are the most likely to use what types of ICT technologies? These are some questions that organizations need to address further.
Recognizing these implications, organizations may also want to think about developing and testing civic technologies – something akin to customer feedback systems – that help government officials respond more effectively to citizen feedback. Also, in addition to partnering with other players in the ecosystem such as civil society groups and telcos, organizations may need to partner with local governments to provide incentives for citizens from rural and marginalized groups to participate in the decision-making process. Critical mass around the adoption of these platforms will help create opportunities for innovation. This includes the development of new technologies that organize and prioritize a greater volume of feedback, as well as platforms that allow governments to monitor the quality of feedback to maximize constructive engagement.
Insights into the answers of some of these questions will be addressed in phase two of our research collaboration. This phase will test whether different iterations (modifications to the platforms) can help increase citizen engagement. In these situations, it will also explore alternate mechanisms to drive government responsiveness while suggesting ways for organizations to work more effectively with governments.