ICTs for Governance: Closing the Feedback Loop

After a month plus in with U-Report at UNICEF, I can full-heartedly say my knowledge of ICTs or Information and Communication Technologies within development, and governance specifically, has increased ten-fold. I have become immersed in a land of technical innovations that are helping to empower citizens through increasing access to information, monitoring service deliveries, tracking corruption, and bolstering citizen participation. Organizations such as U-Report are all among the list of initiatives to enhance the four focuses above. And as our technology races ahead, the list will continue growing.

Within this realm, there is a need, however, for the social, political and economic implications of these technologies. We live in a society today where there is a clear digital divide, not due to the technologies but due to the overarching structures in which they find their existence. The premise is that as our technological capacities grow, we should also aim to allow access to the information that can be provided by them to grow. ICTs in governance, particularly, strive towards inclusive information networks where everyone can be empowered by the provision and the exchange. This should then be used to cultivate an individual or community’s own social, political, and cultural developments.

So how does ICT fit within development, specifically governance, to bring about individual and community empowerment? I could devote a new post every day to an organization that harnesses the power of ICT in their program design but I am not interested in the innovation or the new fancy app, per say. For me, as someone who is becoming invested in the monitoring and evaluating side of things, I am interested in the impact, the effect. How have ICTs been used to facilitate a two way interaction between government and citizens?

UNESCO defines ICT as “forms of technologies that are used to transmit, process, store, create, display, share or exchange information by electronic means This broad definition includes such technologies as radio, television, video, DVD, telephone (both fixed line and mobile phones), satellite systems, and computer and network hardware and software, as well as the equipment and services associated with these technologies, such as video-conferencing, email, and blogs.” Anddddd breath. Wooh.

ICTs clearly encompass a large range of technologies therefore of course one may find an exception to some of the claims I will be making ahead. But remember that the focus here is on how the provision of citizen feedback data through the use of ICTs impacts government decisions and governance.

Aside from a small handful of examples, closing the feedback loop between a citizen and a government official through these platforms has been difficult to measure with an evidence based approach. At least within my own searching, there is not too much quantitative literature out there which has linked the correlation between the two. I had the opportunity to attend iHubs Research Lab’s Presentation this afternoon on exactly this; ICTs 4 Democracy in East Africa. Varyanna Sika, Governance Researcher at the lab, summarized and presented the findings of their research in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. The aim of it is to look at ICTs and find out where this linkage is working. And if it is working, are these practices transferable? Their findings can be broken by stakeholder…

Citizens: Eager. Willing. Ready. But they are discouraged when they engage with ICTs and no action is taken afterwards.

Governments: In these four countries, the governments are trying to make information available but it is not meeting the expectations of the people. Whether it be too basic of information, information that may become public but it was already held as knowledge by the citizens. A big reason for governments is, as it always seems to be, money.

Civil Society Organizations: CSOs seem to be the most innovated, using websites, apps, podcasts. They are going one step above the governments but the issue is that many times it is not contextualized to the community and jargon or a lack of relativity stands in the way.

Developers: According to the study, they have found prominent design – reality gap. Developers want to make it flashy and fancy and use all their coding and programming skills. But this is not always want is in demand and has hindered some use. They recommend gathering more input in the design process by users.

I sat through the rest of the presentation and patiently waited for them to discuss the link between citizen feedback using these platforms and the government decision making. I asked if in their year study they came across this linkage. How are these other initiatives measuring impact? The answer was not as concrete I would have liked because the reality of the process isn’t that clear cut as I would like. With something like group decision making at the government level, you cannot always systemically prove that A led to B.

The take-away here is that ICTs in governance will not solve governance problems or improve the system. They are only a tool that the people within the system can employ and utilize effectively to create the change. In terms of my focus of ICTs in development, it is kick starting the movement of providing information to then use that information for the greater good. The provision alone is not what will enact change but rather what people do with that information and how they make it into knowledge.

For ICTs regarding development, the greatest challenge that faces the effectiveness of these technologies is the ability to close the feedback loop. But what does that mean, exactly? I break down a feedback loop into four stages; evidence, relevance, choice, and action. The evidence stage refers to the capturing and collecting of data. The next stage relevance is making this raw data somehow context specific. But information is useless if we don’t know what to make of it and that is why choice is necessary, a stage that shows the potential possibilities of use of the data. The next is action. This stage marks an individual or group using the data to enact a change or create a policy for example. This action can then be measured and the feedback loop continues with each new development.

There are two main actors with ICTs for Governance; the citizens and the government. So what is needed then is a two way information track between the two. The goal is to have citizens provide information through ICT platforms – that information is received by the government – that information becomes knowledge of the government – the government incorporates that knowledge into their processes – the government receives more feedback on these programs and thus the feedback loop continues. The difficulty remains discovering how to do this and in terms of this summer project, how to measure it. The next post will address the idea of measuring impact and how one can even go about it by focusing on how we de·fine (dĭ-fīn′) impact.



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