Technology for transparency, accountability and good governance

I spent yesterday morning at a discussion on the above topic. The issue at hand was the fact that a bunch of groups have been doing government accountability and transparency work for decades, and a bunch of groups are trying to leverage new technology and social media for similar ends — but these two sets aren’t talking to one another as much as they should be.

I noticed two major themes in the discussion. (Few of the insights below are mine, but the event was held under Chatham House Rule so I’m refraining from attribution.)

How to divide up such a big topic?

The conversation ranged from open government data, to the use of mobiles for government service delivery, to citizen reporting on government abuses. In other words: the intersection of technology and better governance is huge. By the end of the event, it was clear that those attending had more to say on these issues.

There were several attempts to divide up the issue into manageable chunks. One rubric involved a distinction between top-down and bottom-up. The first category includes efforts to make data more accessible, use mobiles/other technology to reach citizens, or generally improve the efficiency of government operations through better technology. These could be considered top-down because they generally come from the governments, aid agencies or other institutional actors. The second category, bottom-up, includes grassroots efforts to connect citizens with one another and empower them to hold government accountable. These efforts include Ushahidi-style mapping and citizen reporting.

Another approach for understanding the topic is to think about the impact that new technologies have on current governance processes. Technology might simply make a process more efficient by reducing transaction costs. For example, mobile phones and the internet help make it a lot cheaper to monitor elections, provide government data, or inform citizens about services. But technology might go another step further, beyond mere efficiency, by actually transforming how government works and how citizens interact with one another. This (some would argue) is what Twitter did in Egypt.

Technology isn’t all upside though. It can reinforce bad institutions, or undermine good ones. Technology might help activists organize, but it also helps governments to monitor protests and respond. Another interesting example is the effect that a citizen-managed crime reporting system has on local law enforcement: it could provide a useful complement to the formal system, or it might supplant the formal system and relieve any pressure to improve it.

How do we know what works?

The other big theme yesterday was evaluation. I get the sense that most technology-for-governance interventions don’t receive anything close to rigorous evaluation. This is hardly surprising: governance issues are notoriously difficult to evaluate. As I’ve discussed before, randomized controlled trials aren’t applicable. Even psuedo-experimental methods run into trouble when trying to pick a defensible counter-factual. New technology might make data collection easier, but that won’t allow us to overcome the complexity of understanding governance or how change happens.

None of which should excuse us from bringing more critical analysis to the topic. We need a combination of methods — quantitative, narrative, economic, historical, anthropological, political, and more — to make sense of how new technology impacts transparency and accountability.

One cautionary note: we should resist the urge to clump all of technology-for-good-governance into one category and make a summary judgement. As discussed above, this is a big topic that calls for disaggregation.

[Update: You should also check out Linda Raftree’s coverage of the event — much more thorough than my own.]


P.S. Many thanks to Linda Raftree (Plan International USA) for organizing the event, Katrin Verclas (Mobile Active) and Hapee de Groot (Hivos) for serving as lead discussants, and everyone else who attended. If you’re interested in future Technology Salon events in NYC, contact Linda. For events in DC or San Francisco, go here.