Chapter 3

The Importance of Strategy: What we’ve learned from Impact Case Studies

Introduction

Today, adopting technology for use in transparency and accountability organisations is relatively cheap and easy. The Internet has already helped the movement deploy web-based maps, mobile technologies and interactive media to improve governance, streamline public service delivery and uncover corruption. New technologies enable citizens to get closer to the policy- making process and allow campaigners to build and mobilise grassroots networks, amplify their advocacy and rapidly increase the scale of their activities. However, in this dizzying flurry of activity it’s quite easy to get absorbed in the potential at one’s fingertips and be blinded by the glittering promises of technology utopia.

In 2010 the Transparency and Accountability Initiative commissioned research to examine when and how technology was working to bring about change, and, crucially, where it was not. Impact case studies for middle income and developing countries was the result. For a full version of the report, including the case studies, see http://www.transparency-initiative.org/reports/impact-case-studies-from-middle-income-and-developing-countries

By studying seven cases in middle-income countries we came across some interesting patterns, which helped us draw some broader lessons about the usefulness of tech. The main things we learned from the Impact Case Studies were:

  1. Technology interventions that quickly produce dramatic increases in accountability are rare.
  2. Slow and gradual impact from a transparency technology project is more probable than one of a ‘revolutionary’ pace. Tailored and strategic implementations are more commonly successfully.
  3. The intended users for technology projects are often described as the general public, but often they are only used by the organisation itself and its closely connected stakeholders.
  4. While an organisation can control the tech platform and its own strategies, it can not control the socio-political context. However, it can’t ignore the socio-political context either.
  5. Advocates increase the likelihood of success of a tech project when they proactively create connections between targeted information, users and decision-makers.

Three categories of technology interventions

We observed three different ways in which organisations used technology. Some groups targeted the general public directly with their tool, some targeted intermediaries such as the media, and some tailored their tools to specific audiences.

The first category consists of ‘Homerun’ interventions where technology produced dramatic increases in accountability. These types of interventions occur because they fulfil a latent desire that is present in a community.They provide functions that allow for actions that
were previously unavailable. Widely known online examples of ‘homeruns’ are Wikipedia, Google or Facebook, where the technology effort all by itself enables a large impact and an immediate adoption. Often they are technologies we didn’t know we needed before we used them, which then become the things we can’t live without. This includes hardware as well: smartphones and tablets have become ubiquitous in developed countries relatively quickly. Impacts such as these are what most people expect technology projects to bring, however, through our study we found that this level of impact is exceedingly rare. Lessons from these projects might not be the most relevant to the majority of transparency and accountability projects.

The second category involves interventions that complement traditional media efforts, such as investigative journalists. They often aggregate and analyse information about public officials and public monies that can be accessed and used by the public in general. Two examples of this from Impact Case Studies are the Fair Play Alliance and Mumbai Votes, both of which take existing data and information and repackage it via websites so that concrete ‘allies’ can use it. They rely on expert intermediaries (infomediaries) to work with unlocked data. Successful impacts as a result of these kinds of interventions are more common than ‘home-runs.’

The third category category consists of technology interventions that are designed to support and complement tactics that are part of an organisational or campaign strategy. These types of interventions rely on the ability of organisations to understand their own capabilities, the audiences they are trying to reach, their role in making change possible and the environment in which they will operate. We feel these interventions have the most potential on impacting accountability. The other chapters of this guide provide more background on this approach.

Knowing who your information providers and users are will help your technology intervention to succeed.

Target audiences for a tech project can vary. A common mistake that transparency organisations make is believing that the users of their information will be the general public, when it’s more likely to be people who are closely connected to the organisation. This is especially true with organisations that are trying to expose the motivations behind public decision making, as data on these issues need to be scraped from a variety of sources and then analysed and reported on by investigative journalists before they can be understood by the public at large. However, it’s different when the general public can be engaged in gathering data around issues that have an impact on them directly, such as public services they rely on or products they have purchased. In this situation, the public at large is more likely to try and use the information that is made available.

Transparency and Accountability advocates need to pay attention to socio-political contexts in order to achieve success

Understanding the socio-political context in which your campaigns exist is critical to the success of your interventions. The following questions should be asked when planning and implementing technology projects on the subject of accountability:

  • What are the needs and interests of stakeholders? Why should they connect with and consume the information provided?
  • What capacity do stakeholders have to receive and be engaged by your information and then act? This can depend on factors such as local infrastructure, literacy rates and economic status. Be aware of your audiences’ habits when it comes to consuming information.
  • What would influence key groups to act? What are the connections and lines of influences between your various audiences?
  • Will your organisation be a principal user of the information? Or will it be providing support to those who do use it?
  • How will opposition targets react to and resist your accountability efforts? Will they refuse to provide relevant information, or distort it? Will they find loopholes in the rules to circumvent accountability?
  • If your project has the intended effect, how will those results be publically or socially valuable?
  • Which area should receive your greatest mind-share when you are planning a tech project?

The figure below demonstrates how context ought to occupy the greatest ‘mind-share’ in your consideration of which factors affect your planning, followed by organisational strategy, then finally by platform considerations.

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Organisations working on transparency and accountability issues are acutely aware of the need for planning strategies that address political constraints and take advantage of political opportunities. A technology strategy should follow the same rules.

Transparency Action Cycle

A transparency project is likely to involve three variables: the data that will become the information that people use, the individuals that will make use of the information, and the targets – those people or groups whose behaviour you are trying to change in order to increase their accountability and responsiveness.

It may start with data that are being made available OR it may be an initiative to obtain the release of data to the public, but the first step for a transparency organisation will be to identify the primary users of the information: are they citizens or journalists? Are they other civil society organisations? You need an understanding of how these users will interact with the information, and also how the transparency project will allow users to do something that they couldn’t do before – often this is simply making data that are already public available in a searchable format. How will the information be used? In media articles? In a court of law?

What is the intended outcome of your action? Do you want to educate the public about government transactions? Are you hoping to expose misconduct? What will the reaction of the targets be? How will this project lead to greater accountability and responsiveness?

If your project is successful, it will probably lead to more data being released, and you
will then have to think about the providers of that information. Where is the data coming from? How will you engage with those entities and persuade them to produce and provide data that can be aggregated and put to use by your audiences?

As more information is released, the cycle will need to be repeated, and your organisation should continually be re-evaluating the uses that the data are put to, your own actions and your desired outcomes.

When you think about your tech project are you asking all these questions? Are you making assumptions that are unlikely to come true without a tonne of work? Is there anything you could do differently?

Have a realistic vision of the impact of your technology project

As the connections described in the section on socio-political context (above) demonstrate, it’s important to monitor your progress and to understand how your goals and impacts may evolve as you implement your project. The successful model that the research found to be most common, and the model that Fundamentals is suggesting, is one of gradual impact rather than one that is ‘revolutionary’.
Evaluating the success of your intervention at each step along the way, and using the information thus gained to fine-tune your expectations, will allow you to make the greatest possible progress in reaching your goals.

Further recommendations to achieve success:

  • Use developers and consultants that share your values and understand your goal. They are more likely to understand the socio-political contexts.
  • Always strive to communicate with funders as stakeholders and partners.
  • Assure that your tech project is implemented with the same openness and transparency that you seek from others.

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Conclusion

As mentioned above, we know that more gradual and evolutionary tech projects, based on strategies that take into account socio-political contexts, are more likely to be successful. Other key factors to consider are the constraints and opportunities of your stakeholders to be involved with the project itself.

Here are the cases that were examined:

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  • Cidade Democrática (Brazil) is a collaborative action platform that enables citizens, organisations and governmental institutions to report problems and propose solutions related to matters of concern in Brazilian cities. The idea underlying Cidade Democratica is that citizens should assume responsibility for their streets, neighbourhoods, and cities, take an active part in local problem-solving, and promote political causes. The platform covers a wide range of municipal issues, from environment and health to transport, education, and planning.
  • Reclamos (Chile) provides an open forum for consumers to share their experience and complain about services they’ve received from either private or public entities. The
    initial goal of Reclamos was to establish a robust complaint resolution mechanism and promote a more responsible corporate and consumer culture. While this goal has not been achieved, the platform did evolve into a large and vibrant community of consumers that manages effectively to put pressure on corporations and compel them to change some of their practices. It is now one of the biggest user-generated content websites in Chile.
  • The Budget Tracking Tool (Kenya) draws information from the Kenyan Community Development Fund and provides online budgetary data for all constituency-level development projects in Kenya. The Budget Tracking Tool automatically responds to information requests and sends detailed budgetary information for specific projects via email or SMS. The Tool is primarily oriented to established NGOs and civil groups that are active in the constituencies and capable of confronting local politicians in cases of potential corruption.
  • Uchaguzi (Kenya) monitored the 2010 constitutional referendum in Kenya. The platform mapped tagged reports of election violations, made by the community. Reports were sent via SMS by citizens and trained referendum observers, verified, and communicated to public authorities. Due to the collaborative and trust-based relations with Uchaguzi, the government responded to the majority of these reports.
  • Mumbai Votes (India) tracks the behaviour of leaders, from all levels of government, both as they run for office and once they are in office. Through using both online and offline mechanisms, Mumbai Votes creates transparency for governance year-round by positing that citizens need information about their officials not only during election cycles but also throughout an official’s career. Mumbai Votes primarily uses a website that includes social media outlets.
  • Kiirti (India) is a platform that aims to facilitate complaint resolution from citizens. Kiirti aims to be a tool which NGOs can adapt to their specific needs and which would allow a technologically advanced Ushahidi platform to be used effectively by many different NGOs, even those lacking technological capabilities. Kiirti has established web-based reporting, as well as digitised phone reporting, and is SMS enabled. Kiirti and Uchaguzi reflect the transformations that Ushahidi underwent after its initial launch during the violent escalation of the Kenyan elections.
  • Fair Play Alliance (Slovakia) is an advocacy and citizen watchdog organisation that uses technology to aggregate large databases and communicate campaigns and information effectively to citizens, journalists, and governments. Fair Play Alliance’s main database
    has recently undergone a renovation and is now entirely Open Source, Open Data, and more accessible. Fair Play Alliance runs specific advocacy campaigns using new media and technological innovations to reach a wide audience.