Blog | March 20, 2015 | Duncan Edwards

Man throws newspaper

Photo credit: Tian Zhan

This week a new Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) titled “Engaging Citizens: a Game Changer for Development?” was launched by the World Bank in partnership with the London School of Economics (LSE), Overseas Development Institute, CIVICUS, and Participedia. With about 15,000 people already registered it does seem to have generated a lot of interest.

At the launch event at LSE on last night I was invited to join a panel with Vanessa Herringshaw, Duncan Green, Fredrick Galtung and Owen Barder to give my thoughts on the role of technology and innovation in citizen engagement.

I’d start by saying how fantastic it is to see the World Bank’s MOOC on citizen engagement. There is obviously a long history of citizen engagement over the last 30 years which has built up a wealth of knowledge and experience in this area. As we explore how new technologies can be used in citizen engagement we are seeing that new tech-savvy actors are getting involved, but that the existing bodies of knowledge are often not being built upon. It is great to see so much existing work in this field being packaged up to make it easier for new actors to engage with.

When we talk about citizen engagement with or without tech – we need to be asking which citizens? And for what? The programme I work for is called Making ALL Voices Count. It supports innovation particularly utilising technology in citizen engagement and accountable responsive governance. The ALL aspect is really important. Technology has great potential to enable us to reach large numbers of people in new and innovative ways. But does it potentially reinforce or amplify existing inequalities in the expression of citizen voice? Does it create new dimensions of inclusion and exclusion?

  • tech vs. non-tech or low-tech vs. high-tech
  • literacy, digital literacy
  • safety/privacy issues, we need to recognise that different groups, particularly marginalised groups face different risks and levels of exposure to these risks
  • related to safety and privacy, the social trust issue – people thinking their voice won’t make any difference; which might be different, exacerbated or alleviated, when technologies are used to promote, amplify or aggregate voice.

In many cases, technology is being used to individualise the relationship between citizens and governments. Previous governance work suggests collective action is an important driver of accountability.  How do technologies that engage governments with citizens as individuals, sit with this?  How is technology being used in collective action or connective action? Likewise, many technological innovations claim to provide a direct relationship between citizens and their governments.   Is this direct link desirable? Do all citizens want to have a direct link to their governments?  Should we be thinking more about the role of technology in the building of social movements?  What role are these technologies playing in the development of movements between the online and the offline? What are the new risks to citizens in engaging in this way?

With the increase in use of technology and data, we are seeing the emergence of new types and forms of intermediaries and info-mediaries, but what do we understand of these roles? Do these actors and platforms see themselves as playing this role? Even if what is aspired to is a direct link between citizens and state, technology choices can influence how and what can be voiced. How are voices aggregated? Can voices be aggregated? Are they in fact being represented rather than just aggregated? Who mandates whom to represent whom? Who are they accountable to?

Framing matters – We need to think more about the framings of the problems we are looking at utilising technology to address. For example, using more technical feedback loop framings of governance problems, casting citizens as users or consumers of government services may result in technology being used in perhaps more functional information gap type ways. Many of the ideas submitted to the Making All Voices Count programme, frame what are often complex governance problems as simply information gaps – that the only reasons governments don’t improve services for all is that they don’t know some are lacking them and an SMS reporting tool will allow citizens to inform, and as result governments will respond and improve things.

Would more rights based framings let us explore how technology might be employed in more transformational ways? Should we be looking at upstream citizen engagement as Cornwall and Gaventa argued, moving from a framing of citizens as “users and choosers” to “makers and shapers”?

Is tech enabled citizen engagement a game changer?

Whether it can be, depends on what game is being played, and by whom.

For now, I don’t think tech is a game changer, it just opens up new tactics for some actors to play a game that I’m not sure is the right game, or at least not the only game that could be played.

About the author

Duncan Edwards is Programme Manager of Making All Voices Count’s research, evidence and learning component. He can be followed on Twitter: @duncan_ids