Notes from Webinar: Getting Citizens Engaged in Your Transparency and Accountability Project

In our June 25th webinar, we discussed key steps organisations can take to engage individuals in their transparency and accountability efforts. Joining us with hands-on knowledge were guests Satyarupa Shekhar of Transparent Chennai and Dave Whiteland of MySociety. You can play a recording of the webinar and slideshow here.

chapter-3_p15The current TABridge webinar series is based on recommendations from our new guide, “Fundamentals for Using Technology” in transparency work. Host and guide author Dirk Slater began the discussion by explaining the transparency-accountability action cycle outlined by the guide, starting with identifying key users for your campaign’s data, moving through locating the data and clearly defining the desired outcomes for the work. Dirk stressed the need to prioritize your intended users and targets and learn about their needs.

He then focused on the question of data and relevance. Using an apple as an example, he showed how different contexts always call for different data. You look at an apple—and the data it generates—differently depending on whether you are buying, eating, selling or picking it.

Guest Speakers:

SatyarupaAs leader of Transparent Chennai‘s City Governance and Open Data Initiatives, Satyarupa Shekhar oversees both advisory and advocacy work, helping leaders bring a more data-driven approach to urban governance.

She explained how their Ward Accountability Project seeks to improve services in the poorest sections of the Chennai. Since the people who benefit from these services often lack homes—not to mention internet access—an important element of Transparent Chennai’s work is collecting and disseminating information offline, using paper forms and reports, among other methods.

“The pavements,” in Satyarupa’s words, are a vital source of information. Her colleagues  gather hyper-local information on garbage collection, or road construction, by asking residents to report on services using printed maps. Transparent Chennai then takes the compiled reports back to city councilors to inform policy decisions for the ward.

Satyarupa and Dirk also noted the importance of closing the feedback loop by going back to community residents after presenting the “pavement-level” information to leaders, so that participants in the data-gathering know what happened.

DaveSpeaker Dave Whiteland is a member of mySociety’s international team, helping groups install and customise the mySociety Open Source code. His said he acts as “a human bridge” between the non-technical and the technical, spending about half his time working with people, and half with machines.

Dave said the key to mySociety’s tools has been a focus on user-centred design, with particular emphasis on solving the “pinch points” that make it harder for citizens to submit data about their communities. mySociety is widely known for the FixMyStreet site that launched first in the UK. And while potholes may seem like a minor issue, Dave said, mySociety has found that solving simple, local problems can be an important first step towards deeper civic engagement.

This same principle of simple entry points applies to site design, Dave said. If you provide users with small, “single tasks,” you can gather data without demanding that citizens have much time, or expertise. Dirk added that by offering “simple rewards” for submission—like the simple chance to see their submission mapped alongside other nearby reports—you can increase overall participation online.

Dirk then described his experience working with the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network collecting data about police violence against women who use drugs, mapping data from six Eastern European countries using the Ushahidi platform. Though the NGO participants have traditionally reported on police violence to bring individual police officers to justice, Ushahidi’s Crowdmap has helped advocates address the problem as a community issue, rather than case by case.

Participants from Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa engaged the speakers in a Q&A session, which you can listen to by playing the archived webinar online.

The knowledge from our guests and the recommendations from our new “Fundamentals” guide are reflected in key principles for citizen engagement, as noted by Dirk during the webinar:

Best Practices for Citizen Engagement

  • Always practice transparency, be clear about why you are asking people to participate and what the goals are.
  • Share ownership: celebrate victories, share learning on failures and acknowledge people’s participation.
  • Don’t broadcast to the people you want to engage, listen and learn from them.

“Final Reminders”

  • Steps to reach your goals will change and evolve.
  • Your understanding of users and their needs will change.
  • You will constantly need to evaluate data and the tools you use to connect citizens.


DirkDirk Slater (@fabrider) has two decades of experience working with grassroots activists and advocates to harness the power of information by gathering, packaging, distributing and protecting it. You can learn more about him and his work at FabRiders.

jessJessica Steimer (@JSteim) Jessica is the training and support manager at Aspiration, where she trains and supports community organisations around nonprofit technology best practices, specialising in business processes for nonprofit communications and technology sustainability.

Content for this webinar was derived from our new guide, “Fundamentals for Using Technology in Transparency and Accountability Organisations. You can play a recording of the webinar and slideshow, or see the full schedule of upcoming #TABridge webinars.

Thanks to Jed Miller for additional event reporting.

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