Can inclusive technology help make governance more participatory?

12 January 2017
Author: Amy O'Donnell

At the latest Bond Tech for Dev group meeting, we discussed how data and analysis can be turned into real action. We explored themes around the role of technology in civic activism and civic spaces by looking at four case studies that show how technology is used in participatory governance.

Design for for men?

When sharing an online training designed to assist with the implementation of the UN standards on the treatment of women prisoners, Nikhil Roy from Penal Reform International highlighted the importance of involving women themselves in the design from the outset – after all they were a key audience.  The elearning has been translated into Arabic, Chinese, English and Russian and has been used in multiple contexts. 

Not only are women less likely to own technology and more likely to face barriers to its access, the way the technology is used by those women also plays a kay role in its adoption. Creating a level playing field for the inclusion of women involves ensuring tools are set up in a way that is inclusive, which means wide representation of the target audience in the design team. 

Digital footprints in closing civil society space

The context of closing civil society spaces has implications for the ways in which technology is used, not least the additional risks in an individual’s digital footprint.

We need to be clear from the outset who data will be shared with so individuals can give informed consent when sharing their data. Oxfam’s responsible data policy offers a helpful frame to ensure the protection of individual privacy while promoting individuals’ ownership over their own data. 

From individual to collective interest 

Citizens are usually more likely to take part in governance processes when they can see how processes have an immediate impact on their lives – for example, fixing a streetlamp outside their house. In these cases, it is also often easier to identify a “duty bearer”, e.g. getting a council to fix the streetlamp for them, so it is clear what needs to happen to fix a problem. 

In contrast, there are fewer successful participatory governance processes which explore issues for citizens advocating in the collective interest.  Jonathan Cassey from Practical Action shared examples of citizens using mobile phones to get things fixed, namely natural resource governance in Sri Lanka and water service governance in Kenya.

These decentralised approaches show citizens acting in the collective interest by using technology in way that doesn’t bypass important value chain actors, but allowed a link to informal vendors and engineers to deal with issues. This has interesting implications for how technology can play a role in facilitating different dialogue in collective prioritisation and troubleshooting. 

From automation to personalisation

Focusing on Mali, Ken Kitson from One World discussed a tool for election monitoring and engaging citizens with local government decision making. This opened up a conversation about the “sweet spot” of technology versus human-driven process in different models of governance processes. When we introduce technology, a process is no longer fully human-operated. But the human role is always still there. Tech can be independent and fair as long as we are conscious and upfront about its human influence or bias. 

Questions CSOs need to ask

Unsurprisingly the usual themes of appropriate tech incorporating online and offline came into the conversation and discussions about stakeholder involvement, as well as the usual questions of scale and sustainability.  Inclusive technology can be a complement and a catalyst to social development, but it can’t stand by itself – CSOs always have to be asking: how does this affect the relationship to the duty bearer? How can participation lead to better governance? 

Find out how your organisation can use mobile technology to innovate at the Bond Conference on 20-21 March 2017.

About the author

Amy O'Donnell
Oxfam GB

Amy O'Donnell is ICT in programme lead at Oxfam GB, advising on the application of ICT to support programming.