Published on The Water Blog

6 ways to strengthen consumer voice in water and sanitation sector through ICT platforms

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Source: Akvo FLOW

A new study was recently carried out by the Water Global Practice’s Water and Sanitation Program on how to unlock the potential of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to improve Water and Sanitation Services in Africa. The study suggests that promoting public participation and creating a system of transparency and accountability is critical to improve water and sanitation services to the poor [1] – as identified in earlier studies on the characteristics of well-performing public water utilities. The experiences and lessons learned from the study indicate the following six key ways on how to support the design and implementation of ICT tools to strengthen consumer voice and citizen engagement in the water and sanitation sector.

1. Co-design ICT applications with consumers.

In order to create user-friendly systems that respond to local needs, the system should be structured through a co-design approach where the representatives of customers are part of the ICT design team. This approach is particularly important in order to minimize the design-reality gap which often hinders the unique social dynamics that play a significant role for technology acceptance and potential adoption [2].

2. Identify and use the preferred method of communication for consumers to ensure that reporting is not limited by the tool

  • MajiVoice is a platform for communication between citizens and water utilities in Nairobi. It was determined early on that users preferred calling instead of using SMSs (short text messages) to report problems with water service delivery, or to report the lack of information about water service problems from utility providers. Majivoice now allows users to call in addition to sending SMS messages.
  • NextDrop is a platform developed in India which provides information about water delivery. During the initial pilot of the platform, older users had problems using the SMS system as it required reading and understanding specific code lines. This issue prompted NextDrop to adopt an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system that accepts voice inputs and provides voice responses.
3. Manage the quality of information.

Information sent by citizens often has to be verified for validity because the data sent is normally composed of many parts and needs to be interpreted before taking action. For example, a complaint submitted through the MajiVoice platform needs to undergo a validation process before a technical team is sent to address the complaint. The design of the system should allow for a verification process.

4.  Ensure the system is responsive and that applications are connected to a clear mechanism of action that can respond to feedback and complaints.

According to the World Bank Social Accountability Sourcebook, the most crucial and challenging element of a social accountability strategy is to be able to elicit a response from public officials and achieve real change [3]. In the case of MajiVoice, the team made a considerable effort to achieve near instant automatic confirmation by using text messages. These messages were meant to give customers an immediate feeling of receiving a “response” with reassurance that their complaint was taken seriously, as well as the ability to track the response. More importantly, the MajiVoice system was firmly integrated with the utility customer care department, which in the majority of cases successfully resolved individual complaints.

Each submitted data point (i.e. complaint) is assigned to utility staff members for action. Kenyan utilities are subject to binding service provision agreements (SPAs). The SPAs legally oblige utilities to respond to complaints of particular categories in a given time. If they fail to respond, the regulator is empowered to take enforcement action up to a withdrawal of licenses. This clear mechanism of action gives the system a major advantage over social-accountability mechanisms that collect feedback, but fail to achieve concrete action beyond publication and discussion of data.

5.   Ensure that consumers have the same access to data as the institutions they are trying to hold accountable.

Opportunities for improvement are missed when consumers do not have access to the same data used by water service providers. Projects like NextDrop, M4W, MajiVoice and M-Maji give users a platform to voice complaints and access service delivery data.
6.  Establish trust:
  • Trust that privacy of data and anonymity will be protected.
​​ In Uganda, the M4W (Mobiles for Water) project aims to improve water and sanitation in rural parts of Uganda by enabling access to information by various stakeholders and players. The M4W project uses SMS messages and web applications to collect information. Before M4W was implemented, users had to write a signed complaint letter outlining their grievances to the Village Local Council official. This complicated process never protected user identity/privacy and was a time consuming procedure involving several meetings. M4W was able to simplify the process by implementing anonymous SMS reporting, which also helped consumers feel more comfortable when voicing their complaints.
  • Trust that government agencies or service providers will respond to reports.
One of the key challenges of providing a system to address citizens’ complaints has been the inability of governments and service providers to adequately respond to these complaints, thus making the system irrelevant. Low expectations of government services based on prior unresponsiveness create a lack of motivation for users to report issues. It is crucial to establish the capacity to respond to queries prior to implementing a system. Service providers and government agencies can gain the trust of their customers and constituents through timely acknowledgement and response to reports, even when a solution is not immediately possible. Projects like MajiVoice, NextDrop, M4W and WQR (Water Quality Reporter, an ICT tool for monitoring drinking water quality and water sources) are all clear examples of applications where reporting is linked to responsiveness.
  • Trust in the service provider.
It is important for the service provider to provide feedback if a problem has been resolved. The feedback can be received through a tracking number that allows citizens to follow up, or an automated response indicating when the problem will be addressed. In the case of NextDrop, it has been reported that trust between customers and water providers has increased thanks to feedback delivery and reliable information on water supply and distribution. 

[1] From findings of the study on ‘Unlocking the Potential of Information Communications Technology to improve Water and Sanitation Services’ by Mouhamed Fadel Ndaw, Sr. Water and Sanitation Specialist
[2]  Social Dynamics of Early Stage Co-Design in Developing Regions - Divya Ramachandran*, Matthew Kam*, Jane Chiu†, John Canny*, James L. Frankel# 
[3]  World Bank Social Accountability Sourcebook 


Fadel Ndaw

Senior Water & Sanitation Specialist

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