Appropriating Technology for Accountability (IV). Tech as part of the mix (I)

Notes from the Appropriating Technology for Accountability, part of the Making All Voices Count program, organized by Institute of Development Studies and held in Brighton, UK, on 25-26 October 2017. More notes on this event: allvoicescount.

Tech as part of the mix
Framer: Duncan Edwards

Technologies that work to channel or amplify voice may increase the ability of government to ‘hear’ citizens more loudly or clearly, but are not necessarily sufficient to lead to ‘listening’ or responsiveness.

Where there is willingness and commitment tech can assist in gathering, aggregating and synthesising voices and data and helping governments to be more attuned to needs and the realities of service provision and receipt.

Tech may offer different opportunities across the various sites and levels of government.

Technologies may have a role in strategies to gain greater commitment to responsiveness on the part of government where it doesn’t exist already.

The internal dynamics and politics of the state and of bureaucracies are important background conditions.

The ‘social design’ of tech for accountability programming needs to fully address issues of capacity and agency; of citizen and state groupings, and of individuals and organisations.

Technologies can be used effectively to support processes of empowerment; the building of agency, sense of self-worth and confidence, and the status that comes from having experiences recognised and validated.

How far tech contributes to the building of individual and collective capacities depends very heavily on how it is integrated in to wider processes and activities.

We can say that forms of intermediation and interlocution are essential to making a tech-for-accountability effort work.

Some of this intermediation is about connecting the online and digital with offline processes. This is particularly important where the aim is citizen mobilisation.

These processes are even more important given the tendency of tech-enabled feedback mechanisms to individualise and disaggregate experiences and voices.

Although we have known for some time that intermediation and infomediation is key to making tech for transparency and advocacy projects work effectively, it seems that these roles are not sufficiently planned in too many projects and that in particular those that can effectively connect technologists with communities, or intermediaries who are connected to communities, are not engaged at an early enough stage.

Unchecked, digital processes further exclude the already marginalised on the basis of income and material resources, as well as distance from urban centres, gender norms, literacy, language barriers, and so on.

Without addressing inequalities in access we risk creating a world where only online or digitised voices count.

Used in certain ways, tech can be part of processes that reduce marginalisation by ensuring that less-heard voices are heard and given legitimacy.

Technology provides some spaces for those experiencing certain marginalisations —for example LGBT voices— to make connections.

Legitimacy is a factor across the ecosystem of actors – for communities and citizen, intermediaries and NGOs, and for state actors.

Different types of data are seen as more and less legitimate —citizen-generated data is often de-legitimised once it reaches governments, but this is potentially less the case when it has entered ‘invited spaces’ created by governments— for example feedback or grievance logging platforms.

The real or perceived risks of surveillance and reprisal —and distrust in the supposed anonymity of tech systems —presents a significant barrier to many citizens engaging with these technologies and new platforms.

One of the roles identified for intermediaries is building trust; between actors, in the data itself, and in the messages or narratives drawn from it.

Host: Ellen Pieterse, Independent/MAVC
Panellists: Koketso Moeti, Amandla.mobi; Tabitha Hrynick, freelance researcher; Tiago Peixoto, World Bank; Ismael Peña-López, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya

(what follows are my own points, as I could not take notes from my co-panellists’ contributions)

The Internet does not add up, it just multiplies. That is, the socio-economic status of the people using the Internet matters the final outcomes of Internet usage.

In this sense, weaving social tissue is key to level the ground and have strong foundations upon which to build any kind of participatory process. On the other hand, this social tissue enables “bridges” between traditional participation and online or technopolitical participation. Without a thick social tissue, these layers may evolve independently one from another.

But these “bridges” do not happen just because: facilitation is very important for the spreading of ideas and for deliberation to take place. Thus, it is a matter of how technology enables wider and stronger social tissue by making weak ties more relevant, by identifying emergent critical masses, and contributing to the self-awareness of critical masses and trends and patterns.

Technology makes it possible to “hack” the system, circumvent (non-functional) democratic institutions and provide new ways to participate even where there were none. Though it is true that true information is difficult to gather due to too much “noise” (e.g. “fake news”), it is also true that technology makes it easier to “unmask” false information.

Accountability is a matter of nearness. This is why we are witnessing a rise of municipalism. This could even lead to a network of participatory cities if citizens believe that national politics are out of reach, but are nevertheless able to “synchronize” local politics in a wide geographic area. The combination of citizens weaving networks easily while officials succeeding in making them formal and institutionalizing them can be a powerful driver for change.

It is important to note the key role of officials, not (as much) politicians. When we speak about intermediaries between citizens and politicians, it is possible that some of these intermediaries actually are officials from the government.

There is a devolution of sovereignty going on. Successful e-participation projects usually have some devolution of sovereignty embedded in them. This devolution is not only in decision-making, but also in the very same design of the project: meta-projects about the governance of the e-participation project are crucial for its social acceptance and sustainability.

Devolution of sovereignty comes with a requisite: democratic culture. Thus, not only technology skills but democratic or participation skills are required for e-participation projects to succeed. And, again, the existing social tissue becomes more relevant, as it is by leveraging the existing social tissue (e.g. civil society organizations) that the potential of participation can be realized.

This democratic culture or skills can be improved with how to’s, shared procedures and protocols, with the work of facilitators (e.g. officials) or intermediaries (e.g. local leaders and civil society organizations.

But, are these projects really empowering citizens and, especially, minorities? Yes, they are. And we find evidence in:

  • Minorities not feeling represented by civil society organisations.
  • Minorities whose ideas or needs have low momentum or no critical mass.
  • Minorities that usually could not overcome barriers to participation.

On the other hand, technology is not only to empower minorities, but can also be used to boost traditional channels and actors, or be the core of a knowledge management strategy or device.

There is an ongoing debate on whether improving traditional ways of participation or setting up new revolutionary or disruptive ways.

  • Usually, improving the traditional ways works best.
  • But, an avant-garde of pioneers is needed to advance and innovate.
  • We need a place where traditional meets new and new meets traditional.
  • Enabling many types of participation by increasing the granularity of participation works very well as a bridge between traditional and new.

It is not true that e-participation disintermediates, but what we actually see is shifts in intermediation actors. Or even an increase of them, especially if traditional and new ways of participation live together. Intermediaries include technologists, experts in facilitation methodologies, leaders to foster participation and engagement (e.g. traditional organizations), “inside” intermediaries or champions (e.g. government officials). And, of course, actors that can make all this people work together, building bridges (or networks), inviting them to be part of the design of the initiative.

It is worth bearing in mind that most technopolitical movements won’t engage in “thick” ways of participation as they do not adscribe to institutions or hierarchies but networks. They will expect not discrete participation but continuous one, where the cycle of information-deliberation-negotiation-decision-accountability feeds the next iteration in a continuum. Thus, it is not about direct democracy, but about open government.

In this train of thought, institutions don’t have to “act open”, but “be open”. They have to earn legitimacy not in one initiative, but in a whole attitude. This attitude usually shows when the institution does not limit herself to opening data, but the whole process of decision-making, including its protocols and infrastructures (e.g. free software).

Making All Voics Count: Appropriating Technology for Accountability (2017)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2017) “Appropriating Technology for Accountability (IV). Tech as part of the mix (I)” In ICTlogy, #169, October 2017. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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