With shiny apps hogging the mobile spotlight these days, one could be forgiven for forgetting about SMS (“Short Message Service” or text messaging). But although apps often disguise themselves as universally useful, their data and hardware requirements preclude their widespread use in poor countries. Amongst the world’s poor, SMS is still king. Given the World Bank’s mandate to serve the exactly that population, and in response to demand from staff, I recently attended a 2-day Frontline SMS training here in DC.
The training took place on the 2nd floor of the OAS building, otherwise known as the “OpenGovHub.” The hub hosts many organizations working at the intersection of data, governance and development, including Ushahidi, Accountability Lab and Tech4Dem. Though only one block from the World Bank, it definitely has a Silicon Valley vibe - open offices, young CEOs, bumperstickered laptops and standing desks abound. Thankfully, this open and informal environment carried right into the training, giving participants the chance to experiment with the software and engage in candid discussions with Frontline’s leaders. Two days of training, only one Powerpoint presentation. I know, right!?
On the second day, I was particularly struck by a question posed by Frontline CEO Laura Hudson. In explaining the design tenets of using FrontlineSMS, she asked us: “What decisions can you make that exclude the fewest voices?” That’s a question the Dispute Resolution & Prevention team wants all staff designing grievance redress mechanisms for their projects to ponder as well.
When equipping a project to receive and respond to complaints, it’s important to remember that all modes of communication contain tradeoffs that exclude different types of people depending on the type of message they have. Face to face prevents true anonymity. Mail is slow. Phone calls can become expensive. And just to prove that the nice folks at Frontline didn’t seek to brainwash the class, SMS is no magic bullet either! It can’t be used directly by those unable to read or write and it’s difficult for the elderly and disabled to type on a phone.
But it does have certain qualities which make it ideal for handling complaints:
Affordable - In most countries, sending an SMS is incredibly cheap and receiving one is free. Compared to a phone call, where cost to the user varies depending on the length of the call, SMS is predictably inexpensive, with a set rate per message.
Asynchronous – Hotlines and complaint desks are great, but are limited to their hours of operation. SMS enables people to complain at all hours, day and night. Just like real life!
Digital – If a task team is receiving and responding to complaints and (smartly) wants to track the data, this becomes very important. SMSes are machine readable and don’t need the extra level of data-entry that a phone call or paper form would require for monitoring and evaluation.
Anonymous – Without having to come in to fill out a form or call in and use one’s voice, SMS enables a low barrier to entry that is difficult to reproduce in other modes.
SMS feedback has unique aspects which make it worthy of inclusion into any grievance redress mechanism and I encourage you to consider adding it to your project. And in case you’re worried about the technical details, the set-up isn’t hard. You probably don’t need a consultant. You’ll need to buy the right hardware, sure, but DRP can help with that. The really hard part is using that feedback to effectively resolve complaints, drive decisions and improve results. Fortunately, we’re happy to help with that too.
To learn more about FrontlineSMS, please visit http://www.frontlinesms.com. For assistance in setting up a FrontlineSMS uptake stream in your project, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. To visit our website, www.worldbank.org/disputeresolution