Blog | July 12, 2017 | Hilary Martinez

Digital technology platforms that support citizen participation can increase transparency and accountability in local governance systems, providing new ways for citizens to participate, broadening their access to information, and increasing feedback between citizens and local government units.

However, there are still challenges with digital technology, which hamper their uptake and the promotion of transformative governance. Our Making All Voices Count practitioner research project Technology for Participation Research Initiative (Tech4PRI) is looking into the experiences of CSOs in the Philippines with using digital technologies and citizen participation. This includes reflection on our own experiences with our innovation project, Check My Barangay, a grass-roots citizen participation initiative.

Digital technology use in the Philippines, starting with our own experience

Early in our research, we observed that most CSOs expect digital technology tools – which we define as internet-connected ICT platforms such as websites, mobile applications and social networking sites – to solve a host of citizen participation problems.

Our own experience is a case in point. As the implementers of Check My Barangay, we made a number of digital tools available to encourage citizens to participate in local governance, including a barangay (village) website and a mobile application. These were intended to supplement – rather than replace – traditional, face-to-face modes of participation, such as attending barangay meetings, joining community-based organizations (CBOs) and participating in barangay projects. But despite the initial excitement among barangay residents about these new technologies, most reverted to traditional means of informing, engaging and collaborating with their local government unit.

We observed that most community members were unfamiliar with the functions of the new platforms. In response, we held training sessions and drafted an information dissemination strategy to increase their awareness of how to use and operate these technologies.

Eventually, however, we realised that training can only do so much. The lower-than-expected use of the digital tools was underpinned by infrastructural and systemic constraints; demographic and socio-economic differences among the intended users resulted in further challenges. As a result, pinning project objectives to the use of these technologies by citizens would have led to some citizens being excluded.

Next, we interviewed other practitioners who implemented projects and programmes that focus on increasing citizen participation in local governance. Specifically, we wanted to find out how they included technology in the design of their projects. The following are some early observations from these interviews.

Internet connectivity is a common constraint

The Philippines has a 58% internet penetration rate, ranked 23rd globally, according to the We Are Social 2017 Digital Yearbook Report. Many of the Manila-based practitioners we interviewed consider a project website to be the “perfect” tool for information dissemination, with Facebook often the social networking site of choice.

Yet internet connectivity remains a challenge for citizen participation projects outside of the capital, Manila. Despite this, most of the practitioners we interviewed still insist on using web-based technologies to supplement their offline activities – even where internet connections are unreliable. By contrast, initiatives outside Metro Manila treat mobile phones as the more effective device to mobilise people and disseminate information.

Ambiguity about target users

While all citizen participation initiatives identify ‘the public’ as their main beneficiary, not many specify their target users beyond this. Among the cases we studied, this holds true for many interventions that aim to improve information dissemination and increase transparency. In some cases, practitioners ‘imagine’ their users, either based on observations from previous community engagements or general impressions about the community.

Flawed assumptions about the functionality and use of digital tools

We noticed a pattern in the way that information was used to support the design of projects using digital tools. Practitioners select these tools based on their assumptions about the function of each technology based on past experiences, or based on their ‘feel’ of a particular tool; they are not selected through evidence-based research. But these assumptions require updating and nuancing, because contexts vary.

Social acceptability is important – but training does not always increase uptake

The uptake of digital technologies largely depends on its social acceptability. The commonest approaches to increase this that we observed were information campaigns and training sessions. However, socio-economic differences and gaps in technology literacy among target users constrain people’s participation in training sessions – meaning training is not always fully effective.

There is a gap between practitioners and technology developers

Across the cases observed, most project implementers outsource the development of their technology platforms. Yet issues arise when they are left to manage their platforms after the contract with technology developers ends. When platforms inevitably break down or become outdated, implementers may: (1) reuse old platforms; (2) develop new platforms through new contracts; or (3) learn to develop platforms themselves. But this remains a gap nevertheless, and has implications for the logistical and technical sustainability of projects that depend on digital technology.

Learning and research are critical

These findings demonstrate that it is imperative to know more about intended users, and ensure that this knowledge figures in the design and selection of technologies – as this will help to improve uptake. This must be done as part of project design and planning: project implementers need to conduct feasibility studies and background research about their target users and proposed technologies, and then pilot-test the planned technologies – another step that most practitioners fail to complete. Another issue is that project proposals submitted to funders often lack proof-of-concept, whether proposing existing or new technologies. Documenting past lessons about technology use can serve as a baseline for new projects, demonstrating that lessons have been learned.

Searching for answers to familiar questions

Despite these many challenges, there remains a consensus among practitioners that digital technologies have the potential to facilitate and bolster citizen participation. But being confronted with familiar issues on digital and social divides in technology use, seems to suggests a failure to learn from experiences, either personal, or the experience of others. Therefore, we ask: why are these issues still persistent for digital technologies and citizen participation initiatives? And what are the options for CSOs that seek to promote meaningful participation more efficiently and effectively? We will reflect more on these questions in the final phase of our research.

About the author

Hilary Martinez is research officer at Tech4PRI, which is implemented by the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific (ANSA-EAP)