Hot on the heels of the World Development Report 2016, which argues that digital technologies have fallen short of their potential to improve growth, opportunities and service delivery, the latest Institute for Development Studies (IDS) Bulletin 'Opening Governance', sounds a warning to digital optimists who believe that opening data alone will lead to improved governance and accountability.
Opening Governance, published last week, presents a rich collection of articles which include case studies from Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, South Africa and Tanzania, and a detailed review of how and if ICT platforms can improve public service delivery. Digital technologies can offer new opportunities for citizens to understand how their government is working, to see more clearly how public money is being spent and to challenge governments to be more accountable for how – and to who – they are delivering services. They can enhance the impact of opening governance processes, where something is already taking place and there is existing political will to become more open to citizens. However, they cannot, in themselves offer the solution to the problems of contemporary democracies.
Some of the contributing authors to Opening Governance find that, at best, digital technologies used to improve accountability and transparency have proven well-intentioned but ineffective, for example because chosen tools were not appropriate for the intended users.
At worst, the financial and technological capacities of the state to surveil and persecute citizens is often far greater than the ability of citizens' to hold it to account.
Technological solutions looking for a problem to solve?
The author’s argue that problems of citizen empowerment and government (or other institutional) accountability should be viewed as political, institutional or cultural problems, and not treated simply as a technological or informational issues.
Edwards and McGee, responsible for the Research, Evidence and Learning component of Making All Voices Count, call on development practitioners to remain vigilant around technological hype and look for evidence. They urge donors to critically consider funding the types of initiatives we know work – relatively complex, strategic, multi-stranded, politically-savvy, long-term processes, whose impacts might be about stopping the situation from getting considerably worse, rather than about ‘fixing it’ (Fox 2014).
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