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Context and accountability in Pakistan: a new generation of champions?

Blog | August 25, 2016 | Faran Mahmood

Imagine a democracy where party leaders’ larger-than-life personality dwarfs the party itself, and where candidates are elected solely on the basis of their political or personal affiliation – regardless of their knowledge of issues, answers to questions during televised debates and their political experience.

Imagine a country where voters have no idea about their party’s election manifesto, and where those who do ask questions are left with little clue as to what the party’s actual plan of action really is.

This is Pakistan, the world’s fifth-largest democracy. For as long as I can remember, information asymmetry has been rife, and performance data on how those who hold public office is simply not there… Or at least wasn’t until very recently, when we have seen accountability move to the top of the public agenda.


Making informed participation part of the democratic process

The millennial generation is not only challenging political orthodoxy in Pakistan, but is also looking for a more structured platform to participate in the electoral process: one where people have a right to know before they vote.

Talking to Eshan, a college senior in Peshawar (KPK Province), he told me that the elected representative of his constituency was arrested on corruption charges.

Had I known even a little bit about the representative’s past, I may have voted differently. - Eshan

Another resident of Peshawar, Fatima, a 20 year old girl, says that the Right to Information Act - which enables people to know more about what their government representatives have done on their behalf – is only the letter of the law, and not really acted on. But, even on paper, she feels it is not addressed comprehensively.

This is when the project TrackReps was initiated.

The team aims to address this information ‘gap’ and to get Generation-Y and Millennials, who are uniquely placed to leverage freedom of information laws and ideas that prioritise online open data, to talk about politics in general, and electoral accountability in particular.

New generation = new political platforms?

TrackReps conducted a scoping study to learn more about how Millennials in Pakistan are getting involved in politics. Interviewing 44 people from the target group, the study confirmed that they are not only passionate about voting during elections, but that they want to get engaged between election times, and are actively seeking ways to do so.

So the burning question was: what could be the right medium for TrackReps?

With more than 50% of Pakistan’s population comprising of youth and the majority of smart phone users (35 million) belonging to the 18 to 40 age bracket, a smart-phone application seems to be just the right medium for this group.

According to a survey, getting a smart phone is on the top of a Millennial’s wish list and those who do own one are seen glued to their phones round the clock. So we thought why not leverage this ‘smart phone mania’ and rollout a political accountability and advocacy application on android platform. It won’t reach everyone – we know this – but we want to see whether we can capitalise on a growing trend, and help support this new movement in youth democracy.

‘What gets monitored, gets managed...’

With a motto of ‘democracy in action’ we are providing people a way of putting finger on the pulse that shows how their elected representatives are performing – against what they originally promised when they campaigned for office.

The application aims to make all the data of public representatives, including their legislative performance, just a tap or click away. It’s the first of many steps in making sure we can monitor and then manage how government is performing for us ordinary people.

And we’re not the only ones trying to monitor and manage this – government is too.

What we have learnt from this ongoing exercise is government is also very interested in public opinion on what has been promised vs what has been delivered: of course they are, it’s their ticket to re-election. So, there are potential partnerships to be formed.

We found that contacting civil servants and politicians before the launch of an accountability campaign makes it much easier to get their buy-in and to acquire relevant data. However the challenge remains in bolstering capacity of existing accountability institutions through new relationships, and building a contextualised system of values relevant to both government and citizens. There is also a need to establish formal mechanisms in order to foster a digital culture that leads to greater transparency in electoral affairs.

This is by no means an easy task, albeit not an impossible one, and it’s useful to note - Generation-Y and Millennials aren’t just citizens, they’re government too. And they’re becoming more frequent in senior roles.

Perhaps this really is the time where tech4gov really is possible in Pakistan.


References:

DNA India. 2013. iPhone 'most desired' item on US teens' holiday wish-list: Survey

Express Tribune. 2015. K-P minister, nine others arrested over corruption charges. 

TrackReps team 2015, Stakeholder feedback diagnostics report 2015 (an internal study for preparing concept note)


About the author

Faran Mahmood works for the Track Reps project
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