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Responsibility leads to responsiveness: Lessons on using ICTs to improve water supplies

Blog | October 12, 2015 | Jen Williams

Over the past twelve months WaterAid, Itad and IRC carried out research to better understand why some ICT initiatives improving water supply in rural areas succeed, where others don’t.

In the fourth and final blog of this series, looking at eight ICT initiatives, researcher Jen Williams summarises the results of the research, and discusses how responsibility has led to responsiveness and action.

WaterAid Uganda

WaterAid Uganda

Yes, there are some basic criteria for success...

Six of the eight initiatives we looked at successfully ensured that water point functionality was reported to the relevant local government authority (or other relevant stakeholder) via ICTs.

The factors that contributed to success were mostly basic, common sense points:

  1. GSM reception was reliable in the project area
  2. Mobile phones could be charged
  3. The users were familiar with and preferred using the reporting mechanism (for example, SMS or phone application) over other mechanisms
  4. The costs of the reporting were not a problem for those making the reports.

There was, however, one result that was not expected... Crowd-sourced reporting does not seem to be one of them.

Half of the six successful initiatives we looked at did not rely on crowd sourcing (i.e. public reporting).

Two relied on periodic reporting by salaried government and project staff respectively. One (Smart Handpumps) largely relies on a GMS transmitter fitted inside the handle of the pump which automatically sends text messages about functionality.

Two crowd sourcing initiatives, Maji Matone and Human Sensor Web, were not successful because the citizens had a low level of trust towards the service provider and didn’t believe that actions would be taken if they sent a report.

However, crowd-sourced reporting did work in two urban-based initiatives where customers are paying for their water supply. This is because users are probably more likely to complain to their service provider about faults if they are paying for the service.

Initiatives are more likely to succeed when operational costs are met by the local/national government or service provider

When governments or service providers fund the operational costs, there is increased ownership of the initiative and greater commitment to processing reports. Importantly, this also makes the initiative more likely to be sustainable in the long-term.

Five of the eight initiatives were judged to be successful in report processing, where a relevant government body or service provider receives the report and processes it ready to be acted upon. Where this was not judged successful, processing was done by the implementing NGOs rather than a relevant government body or local service provider.

Important factors that contributed to the successful processing of reports were:

  1. Reliable GSM reception in the local government/service provider office
  2. The government body or service provider has the human resources and knowledge to process the ICT-related reports ready to be acted upon
  3. Clarity on procedures for following up on the ICT-reports once they’ve been made
  4. Operational costs for the ICT initiative are largely met by the local/national government or service provider rather than by an NGO.

Water points are more likely to be repaired when service providers are responsible for both processing of reports and repairs

Where a service provider or local government is responsible for all stages of the reporting and repair process, they are more likely to take ownership and commit to ensuring the initiative works successfully.

In three of the four successful cases (Next Drop, Smart Handpumps and Maji Voice) the service provider who was responsible for carrying out repairs was also responsible for receiving and processing of the reports.

In contrast, two of the crowd-sourced reporting initiatives, M4W and Human Sensor Web, were not successful in ensuring that repairs took place in response to citizens’ reporting.

Through QCA analysis, we found that the most important factors for ensuring that water point repairs actually took place in response to breakdown reports were:

  1. There are sufficient funds available for repairs, either within the community or from the local government or service provider
  2. Operation and maintenance responsibilities are clear to all parties. Therefore, if the community is responsible for funding the repair of their own water point through water user fees, the community needs to be aware of this rather than assuming that the government is responsible.
  3. Spare parts are available for carrying out the repair
  4. A mechanic is available for carrying out the repair
  5. Accountability mechanisms are in place for making sure ICT reports are acted upon by those responsible for delivering those services.

Next Steps

The full report of our learnings so far is available here to download.

For the next stage of our research, we plan to look at two of the eight initiatives in more detail. Mobile Phones for Water (M4W) in Uganda was successful in processing reports despite many of the expected success factors not being present. We would like to better understand the dynamics that led to this successful reporting.

The second initiative of focus will be SIBS in Timor Leste, to better understand how data collected by the government WASH facilitators is processed and used at both national and local government levels. We hope this field research will give further insight into the different factors that impact on successful reporting, processing and action on ICT reports about functionality.


About the author

Jen Williams is an international development consultant
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