At the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2010 in Santiago last week, I was able to gather a wealth of information and ideas regarding the use of ICT for accountability. In a session on this topic I had the chance to discuss with people who actually implement citizen media projects on the ground and shared their experience and insights. A number of very interesting and useful ideas came up:
Accountability needs "bottom-up transparency". Many governments in developing countries do not have the capacity for gathering data that they could then publish for citizens to hold them accountable. Supporting government capacity may not be the only and not even the most efficient solution: Several participants of the session introduced projects where it is the citizens themselves that provide information about public services.
In East Africa, the project Twaweza is getting citizens involved in gathering information on water, health, and education. The project uses mobile phones because the Internet isn't prevalent in the region. The information that is needed to hold governments accountable is gathered bottom-up, by those that eventually use it to hold their governments accountable. This neatly circumvents not only government's inability to provide access to information, but also their unwillingness.
Information needs to be organized. Do you know this situation: you're looking for information on a specific topic, let's say donor's spending on health interventions in East Africa. You google the relevant search terms - and get a looong list of results. Hundreds of websites provide snippets of information, and not only does every donor organization have its own website, every single project has. And every single project uses different terminology, has its data in different formats etc. You would find out all there is about health projects in East Africa if you had a month and two researchers sifting through the information. Assuming that you don't have this luxury you put your head in your hands and wish for a central information source, some sort of data gateway that organizes the relevant information and puts it all into one place. It is not feasible for citizens to dig their way through the data chaos to finally get a more or less comprehensive picture of what's going on, which can then be the basis for holding public officials accountable. NGOs and donor organizations working in a given region on similar topics could collaborate on providing information gateways for the sake of enabling citizens to demand better quality public services.
Information needs context. It's not sufficient to actually find the information you're looking for, say, on water quality. I don't know how to interpret prettily colored and nicely animated maps of water resources with a legend consisting entirely of acronyms. I suspect I'm not the only one who's not an expert in this field. Providing highly technical data on its own is unlikely to help citizens with anything. In order for people to understand information on government services, the information needs to be put into context. Someone needs to explain what the different colors on the map mean, needs to spell out the acronyms, and needs to provide benchmarks for me to know at what point the quality of the water becomes unacceptable.
Accountability needs sanctions. What if you know that the water quality in your district is bad - and there's nothing you can do about it? What if you know that your child does not get the textbooks she's supposed to get from her school - and there's no one you can complain to about it? Accountability is only effective if citizens have means to enforce their demands on the state. Information alone will not guarantee accountability. Citizens need mechanisms that allow them to not only assess the quality of public services, but to also do something about deficiencies.
Accountability needs a Community of Practice. It's not rocket science that it's not efficient if a lot of people work on the same issues without talking to each other. A community of practice for accountability is needed not only to focus efforts to strengthen citizens, but also to provide the organization of information and the context for it. And as I realized at the Global Voices Summit, there is a mountain of expertise out there, and we would all benefit from exchange.
Accountability needs multiple platforms. Putting all the data on the Internet, even if it's on a central gateway, will still exclude most of those that really need the information. The digital divide is a fact and it does not seem likely that broadband will pervade Africa any time soon - maybe it never will. That brings other ICT on the stage, in particular mobile phones. But accountability needs a multi-platform approach: Access to information needs to be provided through all relevant communication channels. That can include the Internet, probably should include mobile phones, but will also include community radio and the local priest.
The amount of knowledge and experience gathered in Santiago at the Global Voices Summit was impressive. The discussions were substantive and provided many insights both from a practical and a conceptual perspective that I haven't found anywhere else yet. And I was delighted to find that CommGAP's main ideas on ICT and accountability have all been confirmed by the experience of citizen media activists and development practitioners.
Picture credit: Flickr user Auntie P