Blog | July 5, 2017 | Lanz Baltazar

We need new interventions … [which] make sure that present inequalities do not get reflected in the new technology.

– Dr Emmanuel Lallana, IdeaCorp, Inc.

As digital technology tools continue to feature prominently in development initiatives around the world, debates persist regarding their impact and effectiveness. And nowhere is this efficacy more contested than when advocacy for greater citizen participation in governance is thrown into the mix.

There is a dearth of guidance for development practitioners on how different digital technology tools (also known as internet-connected ICT platforms) affect the performance of tech-enabled initiatives to support citizen participation for accountable governance. This compels practitioners to make choices based on varied notions of ‘participation’ – which range from government consulting citizens, through citizens registering complaints about services with government, to transformative partnerships between citizens and government.

The spectrum of meanings requires different uses of digital technology tools. And beyond the structural and device-oriented discussions, technology also has a human dimension: ‘peopleware’, which describes the roles that different people play, as developers and users of digital technology.

Discussions on digital technology and citizen participation are complex and contested. These require further unpacking so that practitioners understand how to use digital technology tools appropriately and optimally, especially in tech-enabled accountable governance initiatives.

Piecing the ICT puzzle

What is the role of digital technology in bolstering citizen participation? Which factors and conditions determine the use(fullness) of digital technologies in improving citizen participation initiatives? These were some of the questions raised by the Technology for Participation Research Initiative (Tech4PRI) at its peer-learning event in May 2017.

The event aimed to ‘contextualise’ the use of digital technology tools in citizen participation initiatives from the viewpoints of various stakeholders in the Philippines, including CSO staff, development practitioners, academics and government representatives. Speakers shared and reflected on digital technology use in their own projects and programmes, to help representatives from civil society and government better understand the concepts and trends in digital technology and development. Their presentations provided a brief history of how utilising digital technology for citizen participation has shaped and reinvented governance in the Philippines in last decade, as well as conceptual and theoretical implications for the global context.

Unpacking digital technology use and citizen participation

Is posting a comment, or sharing political posts or news online, any more a show of participation than filing a complaint or giving suggestions to [local government units]?

– Mayette Macapagal, learning event facilitator

There are multiple ways to define and understand ‘participation’. From discussions during the peer-learning event, citizen participation was mainly described as: (1) lobbying and advocacy; and (2) monitoring government services and ensuring that feedback from citizens is integrated efficiently.

But how do digital technology tools fit into this picture? One of the keynote speakers, Dr Emmanuel Lallana of IdeaCorp, suggested that “maybe one definition … of participation is joining in activities related to collective decision-making about society’s future. Any time you participate in discussions, events or activities related to deciding about the collective future of your community, that’s political participation, [which] can be online or offline. The reason why we’re focusing on online [participation] is because it is a new channel … it augments, but does not replace, face-to-face [communication].”

Technology is not a ‘silver bullet’ to improve citizen participation…

One of the most animated discussions concerned the challenges that practitioners encounter in using digital technologies in their respective projects and programmes. It was clear that despite the many advantages that digital technologies bring, there remains a digital divide between the connected and the unconnected.

One example is social media. Despite being perceived as a space for political participation, participants noted that many people remain excluded from using social media platforms. Barriers such as accessibility and digital literacy create a divide between privileged and underprivileged classes. Technology, and the social dynamics that it helps to create, sits on top of the realities of citizen engagement and participation. As one participant noted, “the most important problem of digital technology in development [is] not the tools, but the users themselves, who find change very challenging. There is … a need to alter the way we do things … to maximise the use of technology.”

This issue is often overlooked by over-zealous project designers, planners and implementers, and there was a realisation, and a consensus, among participants that technology alone cannot overcome the lack of citizen participation. Rather, improving citizen participation involves behavioural, adaptive and political changes, in addition to the technical issues that digital technology designers must address.

…so how should digital technologies be used?

Prior to the peer-learning event, Tech4PRI had been collecting information and stories about how digital technology tools can increase citizen participation. The preliminary observations were presented to participants at the event, highlighting some emergent themes and concerns identified by project implementers, which practitioners can reflect on when developing new project ideas. We are currently writing up some of the further findings from this project (which will be published in a forthcoming blog post), which include issues such as ambiguity about target users, flawed assumptions about the functionalities and uses of digital tools, and a gap between practitioners and technology developers.

About the Tech4PRI peer-learning event

The peer-learning event was a way for the research team to generate evidence-based guidance from practitioners, to aid those who are designing and developing technologies intended to enhance citizen participation in accountable governance projects. During the learning event, participants were given a set of questions to explore their views and perspectives on the components, actions and conditions to consider when deciding if technology is necessary for a project. They also reflected on the issues, concerns and lessons that had arisen from their experiences of managing projects with digital technology components.

The participants analysed and summarised these issues, then identified steps to address them. There was a consensus that technologies for citizen participation initiatives must always be user-centred and, more importantly, should be designed based on a sufficient understanding of the technological knowledge and capabilities of intended users in each context. This will help to ensure that they are appropriate – and therefore effective.

The Tech4PRI team is currently finalising the research and intends to sustain the exchanges and discussions from the peer-learning event through its new peer-learning network. Resources and materials will soon be published online. For updates, please visit the Tech4PRI website and / or like our Facebook page.

About the author

Lanz Baltazar is research associate at Tech4PRI.