Date added: November 16, 2017

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In recent years, government and civil society organisations have increasingly deployed digital tools in their efforts to increase the participation of citizens in various aspects of governance. The term ‘civic tech’ is often used to describe this at the city governance level; however, as this research also considers initiatives that aim to extend citizen participation in global, national and corporate governance, the authors use the term ‘citizen participation technologies’. Examples of such technologies include interactive government websites, open data portals, online participatory budgeting platforms and text and instant messaging tools.

Much of the existing research on citizen participation technologies takes the technology as its starting point, focusing primarily the identification and analysis of technical barriers to adoption and assessing opportunities for technical improvements.

The authors argue that this techno-centric gaze obscures non-use and the reasons that many citizens remain excluded. Instead, this research adopts a human-centric approach, selecting specific user groups as case studies rather than specific technologies, and identifying the contextual social norms and structural power relations that explain the use and non-use of citizen participation technologies.

Qualitative data gathered from semi-structured interviews and focus groups are interpreted through the five ‘A’s of technology access (availability, affordability, awareness, ability and accessibility) and the conceptual lens of the Power Cube, (a means of analysing the different spaces, levels and forms of power that are in play when change processes are attempted). The authors use these methods in order to ask: which forms of power, operating at what levels, and in what sorts of spaces, affect the use and non-use of citizen participation technologies?

This research leads to three recommendations to designers of digital development initiatives who wish to be inclusive of marginalised and excluded citizens:

  • prior to implementation, obtain, through access analysis, a clear understanding of which technologies and levels of connectivity are available and affordable to marginalised and excluded groups
  • through power analysis, obtain a detailed understanding of which forms of (hidden and invisible) power need to be addresses in programme design
  • based on that analysis, design for equity by building awareness, ability and accessibility components into the implementation of projects, as well as countering the effects of hidden and invisible power by including elements that raise awareness of governance issues and enhance the political agency of those previously marginalised and excluded.

By seeing beyond the techno-centric gaze and incorporating these social and political considerations into their theories of change, future digital development initiatives can improve both their levels of inclusion and their overall efficacy.

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