Use only where and when needed: The role of digital technologies in responsive and accountable governance*

By: Joy Aceron

Technology has always been part of our lives as human beings, though I am not sure if we have ever been this puzzled, bothered and intimidated by what the new technologies in our midst are for and how much of what we do is due to them. I can imagine, however, that every single time a new technology comes out in the history of mankind, there is some sort of panic, fear, doubt and/ or curiosity among us humans. In time, after we have figured out what the ‘new thing’ is and what it is for, we are then able to master it, seamlessly integrating the new technology as a normal part of our daily lives.

Digital technology is the latest ‘new thing.’ It came at a time when civilizations are grappling with a lot of problems and questions. As expected, we turn to this new technology to help us grapple with the challenges of today. One challenge is advancing responsive and accountable governance. If there is a clue that the experience of humanity vis-à-vis technology in the history of our time could provide, it is this: that technology can certainly be of help to humans, but what it can do is still dependent on humans. At the end of the day, humans are the makers and users of technology.

First, dangers and pitfalls

I used to be a skeptic towards what digital technology can do in advancing responsive and accountable governance. Such skepticism came from two fronts: (1) the use of technology in governance packaged simply as just another trend and buzzword in the transparency-participation-accountability field perpetuated by those at the top; and (2) the dangers that I sense from the dramatic changes brought about by digital technology, particularly social media.

They say that we are in a ‘post-truth’ world today, where what is true or false is no longer based on facts and deliberative processes, but on the number of clicks and shares. False information becomes truth by simply being viral, with polarized environments inciting interests to further sow the confusion.

Social media contributed to this condition. The dangers in the use of social media for advocacy campaigns is my takeaway in getting to know an initiative called “Fees Must Fall”—a campaign initiated by students in South Africa who were calling for the lowering of tuition fees. Through the use of social media, the campaign spread like wildfire involving other sectors, including politicians.

What the campaign was able to achieve remains debatable, but what was striking to me is the idea of how the use of social media for campaigns could lead to messages taken out of context. Every post on social media can be shared and used by anyone who may have his/ her own framing and interests that could be different from the original intent of the post. The rapid way social media disseminates information could ‘decontextualize’ messages. The fast flow of information reaching the faceless many leading to a decontextualized information that can easily be appropriated by anyone. This is a serious pitfall especially in campaigns where context is key to the message.

The other danger of digital technology is how an over-reliance to it could lead to the structural exclusion of those who have no access. In the case of the Philippines, Malu Mangahas of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), shared that only about 50% (47.13M out of 101.47M) of Filipinos have access to the internet. An effort using digital technology that is originally intended to reach out to more people could actually lead to the exclusion of a big number of people, conditioning discourse and individualizing engagement. An ongoing study of IT for Change (2017) that looks into what digital technology is doing to citizen voice is informative of these kinds of exclusionary dangers that digital technology could pose.

My other skepticism is the heavily top-down approach that I see in the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the work on TPA in the Philippines. My sensing is that it has been largely donor-driven. First of all, anything that is top-down is bound to fail. Especially in politics and governance these days, it is best to start where the action is at: on the ground and addressing the challenges that are being grappled with by those involved. The use of ICT in the Philippines funded by donors in the recent past has been, by and large, unsuccessful because they were not organic, an agenda set at the top driven below by funding incentive. The use of ICT was encouraged (or imposed using the incentive of money) without first understanding how and when it will work in a given context. As a result, citizen use and government response in ICT-enabled initiatives in the Philippines were largely dismal. The recent reports by the World Bank (2016) and Brookings Institution (2017) point to several ICT initiatives and their shortcomings.

What exactly does technology contribute to citizen action and how

Like any other technology, digital technology can contribute in advancing responsive and accountable governance. The question is what exactly does technology contribute and how? 

A related literature that has done a meta-analysis of 23 ICT-enabled citizen voice platforms provides a quick answer to this:

“ICT platforms can bolster upwards accountability if they link citizen voice to policymaker capacity to see and respond to service delivery problems. This matters when policymakers already care. Where the challenge is how to get policymakers to care in the first place, then the question is how ICT platforms can bolster downwards accountability by enabling the collective action needed to give citizen voice some bite.” (Peixoto and Fox, 2016)

This conclusion underscores when and how digital technologies can make a difference: by enabling collective action and citizen voice. 

How exactly does this look like in practice?

After learning about eight (8) initiatives using digital technology during the  group discussions and about three (3) more during informal gatherings in the MAVC Learning Event, I have identified two practical and specific ways digital technology contribute to enabling collective action and citizen voice: (1) in enhancing organizations’ efficiency in organizing and communicating internally; (2) in mediating for the voiceless/ silenced. 

Contribute to efficiency in organizing

Grassroots is an application co-developed with Freedom Park, a community that fought since early 90s for their land and other rights. Grassroots is a simple convening app that informs individuals of a meeting or event to which the recipients respond – whether they can attend or not. The Grassroots app, according to Freedom Park leaders helped them in organizing meetings more efficiently. Because they had the app, they said, they were able to save from doing what they usually did in the past to convene big meetings: fliers, megaphones, etc. They used their savings to provide assistance to those who couldn’t go to the meeting because of sickness, for having nothing to buy food. The community said that the app enabled them to increase the attendance in their meetings and enabled them to organize meetings more efficiently and frequently.

Efficiency matters to poor organizations. If scaled up, what is saved could mean bigger impact. In this case, digital technology is able to connect citizens that are already connected in doing what they regularly do (such as meetings) faster and more efficiently.

New mediation for the voiceless and silenced

One key challenge in accountability is that existing mechanisms for reporting and feedback do not work. This is due to many factors: cultural, because they were coopted/ captured/ corrupted, because they are non-existent/ neglected. As a result, there are voices that are not heard or silenced.

Digital technologies can be used to mediate for the voiceless and silenced, serving as an alternative mechanism to generate voice and feedback and make these heard. With technology, new dynamics are created in an existing power structure that perpetuates impunity and abuse.

Three initiatives can be examples to this use of digital technology. The initiative of Southern Cape Land Committee (SCLC) that supports the land rights for South Africa’s farmers in South Africa by generating feedback from farmers whose voice are otherwise unknown and unheard of because they live in ‘a local authoritarian enclave.’ The Global Citizen’s Initiative has set up an application that allows reporting of children victimized by rape.  Through the use of digital platform, the Acehnese Civil Society Task Force (ACSTF) ensured that the voices of victims of war are not left out in the continuing peace process.

Technology fills the gap, so know what is the gap

What is most critical in ensuring that technologies contribute to responsive and accountable governance is the sharp analysis of the gap that the technology could fill in.

Technology fills a gap. Initiatives that are tech-based alone does not make up a citizen action for accountable and responsive governance, because technology alone will never lead to accountable and responsive governance. It never helps that technology starts from scratch and from the point of view of technology.

The best way to illustrate this is by contrasting two initiatives: Yowzit vs. Grassroots.

In the case of Grassroots, the application is what the community needs. It helped that the application was co-developed with the community which not only ensures that usefulness and relevance of the technology, it also builds a sense of ownership, key to sustaining use. 

Meanwhile, Yowzit, an application that is like Yelp for public services, started with a wrong analysis. A deeper analysis of the problem would have made the developers of Yowzit realize that the problem is that feedback from citizens are not being addressed. There is also no means by which to check whether feedback is being addressed. This means that their effort to add a space/ tool to generate feedback is not solving anything. It probably helps provide more reliable third party feedback, but the more basic problem is getting the government to respond.

Here, the more useful technology could have been one that makes the response public or tracks response of government to feedback. Feeding in more feedback that will not be responded to could in fact contribute to the image of a weak, inefficient, unresponsive state, which could also be an objective (as it is for some ideologies), if that’s what the app is meant to do. 

Pathways in an ecosystem of strategic action

One of the objectives of the learning event is to reflect on the different “pathways” that digital technologies could contribute to responsive and accountable governance. These pathways are: ‘information’ for change, ‘feedback’ for change, ‘naming‐and‐shaming’ for change, ‘conducive innovation systems’ for change, ‘connecting citizens’ for change, infomediation’ for change, ‘intermediation’ for change. These pathways are generated from the proposals submitted by the grantees.

A quote from a participant captured by the Learning Event Report (2017) perfectly summarizes the realization during the learning on the pathways:

"No single stream of change tells the whole story of tech-enabled approaches to responsive, accountable governance … The differences between the streams are often blurred, and the sequence of change is important to outcomes. Different strategic approaches to change are needed at different stages as initiatives unfold and develop."

The discussion made me appreciate the pathways as parts or components of ‘strategic’ citizen action (See Aceron and Isaac 2016; Fox and Aceron 2016) on responsive and accountable governance where technology plays a part. To make a sustainable change in the way governance is done, the different elements have to be combined. The success of the combination of these activities/ pathways vary depending on the context, purpose/ goal of action, capacity of actors and the strategy itself. All of these five elements form part of an ecosystem of strategic action that enable accountable and responsive governance.

Below are the tips and insights to consider on the five elements in the use of digital technologies for accountable and effective governance:

1. Actions and approaches

Responsive and accountable governance is a great challenge especially in the context of impunity, abuse and corruption. One action or set of actions alone will not be enough. Technology can play a part in advancing responsive and accountable governance by filling a gap and playing a specific and practical purpose for each of the following actions or approaches:

  • Information: technology can help address the issues of access, dissemination, credibility of information and multi-sectorally agreeable data;
  • Feedback: technology can facilitate feedback generation and can add pressure to generate response;
  • Connection: technology can aid in facilitating and in providing spaces for connectivity and communication;
  • Naming and shaming: technology amplifies pressure;
  • Informediation: technology links information and users;
  • Intermediation: technology helps generate response.

What is the combination of activities and approaches and what technology can help amplify/ address depends on the environment and the overall goal/ purpose of the action.

2. Environment/ Context

Context is key. What issue is being tackled, what is the legal-institutional environment, what are the gaps and opportunities? These are some of the contextual questions that must be addressed before applying technology to an initiative. There are different contexts in every country, every locality, every levels of decision-making and every issue.

The Preito and Fox paper (2016) points to “ institutional design and a strong sense of commitment to organisational mission at the top” which determines responsiveness to citizen feedback. This is part of context.

The Brookings Institution (2017) report also echoes the importance of context in securing responsiveness in data initiatives: “Despite ample data on numerous indicators, however, little of what is available appears to inform decisionmaking…This is because, even with such a strong foundation of data, the country faces political, financial, and organizational barriers to effective data use.”

3. Purpose of the technology viz the overall goal of the initiative

It is important to be very clear about what kind of effect or value-addition does technology provide and how, given the overall goal of the action or initiative.

On scaling, it is important to underscore that what is being scaled up is not the technology. What is being scaled up is the action or a component of an action, of which technology is just one of the components. What activity is being scaled up and what kind of scaling up will technology enable? 

Which pathways are most appropriate varies depending on the overall goal. Informediation and intermediation seem to be most promising for goals involving policy or program implementation, where there are rudimentary elements of responsiveness on the part of the government. However, for issues involving deeply entrenched power structures (e.g., land rights), technology can best be utilized as support to organizing, coordination, convening (internal organization), like in the case of Grassroots.

4. Actors, capacity, interests

The degree by which technology can contribute to action vary depending on how much of a variety of other factors come into play. Two of the most important dimensions to consider are the capacity of actors and the strategy of the action.

It is important to recognize that in the use of digital technologies, there are at least five key actors who are at play: citizen/ grassroots/ mass-based organizations (that varies depending on its form and purpose), tech developers, intermediary organizations, government (which can be further unpacked into branches, departments, political leadership and bureaucracy, etc.) and donors.

McGee and Edwards (2016) underscores the role of different actors, especially donors in the strategic use of digital technologies for governance:

“The gap between recent evidence and contemporary practice also begs questions about the responsibilities and accountabilities of other actors in this field. Practitioners need to stop responding to tech hype and technology evangelism and start looking for robust evidence and careful analysis on which to ground their work. Funding agencies need to critically consider the disjuncture between the funding modalities they favour, and what we now know about what works. Aid modalities tend to favour relatively short-term, linear, discrete, tech-savvy interventions, ‘tactical’ rather than ‘strategic’ to use Fox’s terms, oriented towards quick and attributable results. What we now know work better are relatively complex, strategic, multi-stranded, politically-savvy long-term processes, whose impacts might be about stopping the situation from getting considerably worse, rather than about ‘fixing it’ (Fox 2014).”

5. Strategy of citizen action

Again, the user of the technology in a strategy matters most. How organizations build power, how they organize themselves, what actions and combination of actions they take to achieve their objective, what opportunities they take advantage of, what challenges they opt to address or ignore and how they employ technologies in their overall action/ initiative form part of that strategy.

The recent research report of Aceron and Isaac (2016) highlights the importance of citizen-led strategy for reform. The Going Vertical report points to the importance of strategy to meaningful engagement – a form of self-aware citizen action that involves thinking whilst acting, and vice versa. This kind of citizen action, needed now more than ever, is grounded in an analysis of power.”

Final thought: some more dangers and pitfalls

Technology is not neutral. Just as technology can contribute to public good (democratization, accountability, responsiveness, etc.), it can also be used to perpetuate impunity and accountability deficit. There are also uses of technology forming pathways for the status quo. What is the agenda of the government or other actors in using technology? Technology can perpetuate the same sordid situation by serving as a distraction to work that matters most. It may also legitimize certain work, information and data that camouflage or protect abuse, impunity and corruption.  

How we are situating the use of technology in what we do could make it so powerful. It matters, therefore, who owns it. If it is learning from us and it is being used in connection to what we do, who owns it? It matters who sets the agenda. Who owns the technology ultimately determines how it will be used.

Finally, the what-if question: What if there are not digital technologies - would we still be able to achieve what technology contributes to our work?

I am not sure. I don’t think anybody can be certain. What I am certain of is that if there’s no digital technology today, it will be invented. That’s progress. And it cannot be stopped. However, as shown in history, no matter what it is, humans are still able to harness it. If those advocating for responsive and accountable governance are at all to harness digital technologies, they must own it.

*This is a reflection piece on the Making All Voices Count (MAVC) Learning Event that took place on March 22-24, 2017 in Pretoria, South Africa that attempted to reflect on “how and when, under what condition and context, does technology play a part (if it does at all) in achieving responsive and accountable governance?”



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Aceron, Joy and Isaac, Francis, editors. 2016. Going Vertical: Citizen-Led Reform Campaigns in the Philippines. Making All Voices Count. 2016.

Fox, Jonathan and Aceron, Joy. 2016. Doing Accountability Differently: A Proposal for the Vertical Integration of Civil Society Monitoring and Advocacy. U4: Anti-Corruption Resource Center.

IT for Change. Forthcoming. ‘Voice or Chatter? - Using Structuration Framework towards a Theory of ICT-mediated Citizen Engagement.’ Making All Voices Count. See project profile:

Lindsay Read
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