Why citizens’ feedback is a false issue

The new mantra for the ICT4D community seems to be “citizens’ feedback”. The World Bank has embraced it, the donor community is putting out calls for proposals almost entirely focused on that, conferences on development issues always have a panel dedicated to that. The good news about this, is that it is a good thing that we are finally talking about incorporating “beneficiaries” (for lack of a better word) into our projects.

The bad news is that it seems that those discussions about citizens’ feedback revolve about the involvement of “beneficiaries” only at a later stage, almost ignoring their role on the initial stages of a project design and implementation.

Dennis Whittle, which I had the pleasure to meet in one of these conferences, resumes very well in this post the main questions that the ICT4D community (and others) is trying to find an answer to:

  1. How do government agencies, donors, and citizen groups provide incentives for broad-based feedback?
  2. How do they know that feedback is representative of the entire population?
  3. How do they combine the wisdom of the crowds with the broad perspective and experience of experts?
  4. And, perhaps most important, how do they ensure that the feedback mechanisms are broadly adopted and actually lead to positive changes in aid projects?

Incentives to provide feedbacks

The question about citizen’s feedback is more or less the same question that the crowdsourcing community has been asking itself for quite some time now. When looking at a crowdsourcing project, you normally will see over time that participation in the project assume the form of a bell curve skewed on the right. Plotting time in the X axes and number of people participating on the project in the Y axes, you will see that the initial participation will be low, to increase then until it reaches a critical point, and then decrease again.

Screen Shot 2013-04-28 at 8.57.04 PM

The variables that will affect this distribution are of course related to implementation strategies: the outreach campaign is particularly important in the beginning, while in the long term what become key is the ability to show an impact or to give something in return. This return may be a material incentive, money or information, or “gifts”, or a more substantial return: impact. The first one is difficult to maintain, unless you have a very good business model or endless resources. The second one will guarantee your success, but it is hard to prove and often not really achieved.

How to make sure that feedback are representative

This is a very important issue and it can be broken into two different issues. One is related to whom is engaged in the process. Most organizations that try to implement citizens’ feedback mechanisms use civil society organizations as a subject representative of the citizens. The problem here lies on the fact that depending on the context civil society organizations may not be representative of all the citizens and may have their own agenda. Most often they gather around one specific topic and for this reason represent only one sector of the population. By definition, in this case who is represented is only the sector of the population that is aligned with the vision of that specific organization.

The second issue is the fact that when using technology for citizens reporting, like SMS or mobile phones, or the Internet, only citizens that have access to that technology or knowledge on how to use it will be part of the process. Most often women and elders are left outside of the equation. Even more often, the illiterate part of the population and the poorest, which have no access to the Internet or mobile phones for example, are also left outside. In this case the people that will really be part of the feedback mechanism are the richest, most literate and most educated. Which normally are also the one that are less affected by whatever issues the feedback mechanism wants to address.

The Crowd vs the Experts

Ask-an-expert-1

Several people lately have been questioning if citizens’ feedback are always needed or good. While I really do not have an answer to this, this issue looks to me less related to whom is right or wrong, and more related to a clear lack in education and 2 ways communication systems. If you ask me if I can take a Tylenol while drinking vodka, I will tell you no, and the reason is that I read the instruction on the Tylenol box and I know it is dangerous to do that. I am not an expert or a doctor, but I know that because I trust the expert that is giving me that information. If I don’t know anything about that, I may tell you that yes, why not? The ability of the experts to show evidence of what they say and decide, is what will make the crowd more informed and able to make the decision. It is also what may lead the experts to figure out that maybe they were wrong. If this ability is lacking, then the crowd may have a different idea on what the solto to a problem is. The same happens if the crowd does not trust the “experts”. The trick here lies in the evidence and in the trust, not in the talking, or in the assumption that just because you have a PhD you are expert in a specific issue.

Ensuring effectiveness of citizen’s feedback mechanisms

There is only one way to assure that feedback mechanisms have an impact, and that way is that the mechanism needs to lead to a result. Now how does it get to a result? Well this is the 1 m dollar question. A feedback mechanism leads to result if there is a structure and a clear goal behind the project. Collecting feedback without knowing what to do with it, or even worst, without knowing how to incorporate it into an ongoing project is completely useless.

Results-Next-Exit

The real question is, if I get the feedback and it tells me that my project is not working or that people are not happy with it, will I be willing and able to change my project? How will I do that? Will I be able to say: hey this is not working we should stop and start again from the beginning? Or to change entirely the way the project is being done? The fact that there is alost no conversations about what are we willing to do with feedback, is worrying me.

Why this is a false issue!

Don’t take me wrong, those are very legitimate questions and I do understand what lies behind asking those questions. But to be honest, I think that the very fact that we are asking those questions is a demonstration that we are missing a very important point: citizens’ feedback mechanisms will never work if citizens are not part of our project design and embedded into the ay we work. Until we will keep designing a project, implement it, and then ask people to give us feedback, we will never get to the point where people will trust our mechanism or where we will have a real impact. Once we have already put in motion the machine of project implementation there is no way back. Donors will not be willing to re-fund entirely a project that has been already implemented, we would be less willing to accept criticisms after we have worked so hard to start a project, and most importantly, “beneficiaries” will not trust our system once they see that they have not even been asked if they wanted the project in the first place.

Don’t take me wrong; I know that this is difficult. I have been there. Involving communities in the very first formulation of an issue is not easy and sometimes it is not even possible. If we had to ask people in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia to vote if they want or not projects to protect women, I doubt we will ever do any projects in that sense. On the other side, we need to stop using this feedback mechanisms mantra to avoid talking about the real issue. We are still very much working in a totally hierarchical system, where we decide, we involve in the project only the local partners that agree with us, we decide who are the voices that count, and after that we add a feedback mechanism to label our project as a participatory project. The truth is that to create a feedback mechanism that works people need to trust you.

TrustYou need to cultivate and create a relationship. And you do it only by working with communities since the very beginning. “Beneficiaries” are not stupid. They have seen our feedback mechanisms before. They have answered tons of surveys, got our SMSs, called our hot lines, participated in our focus groups, filled our forms, etc. But they know they are not part of the system. The very fact that we need to “create” a feedback mechanism means that we do not even have a channel to talk to them, and for them to talk to us, in our projects.

But there is also another issue that I want to raise. A lot of those projcts are being implemented in places where the goal is to “to enable citizen engagement and government responsiveness”. There is a huge focus on having people providing feedback for government lead initiatives or to increase transparency. But this also a false issue. First because if an NGO (or the World Bank) needs to create a feedback mechanism for citizens, it means that there is no institutional way already embedded into the government for citizens to report on service delivery. If this is the case, wouldn’t it be much better to invest money into making sure that those system are part of the way the   government think and create policies, rather than into creating an external system that will ultimately lead to the same results – the ultimate responsible of those services (the government)  ignoring the voice of their citizens. Because let’s be honest, when there is lack of those intuitions is not that the government does not know that citizens are unhappy: most of the times, they just do not care. If on the other side those institutions exist already, then why are we duplicating a system already in place, instead of reinforcing the existing one?

But also the transparency issue seems a false issue to me. The fact that we ask people to report on the services provided to them – being it from NGOs or from the government – does not mean that we are transparent at all. We can even publish the feedback, but still transparency is a totally different issue. If we really want to be transparent we will need first to focus on two other issues: open data and real M&E. This is transparency to me; we need to start inside the NGOs world, not outside it.

Wanna be transparent? Even before you tell me how happy your beneficiaries are, I want to know where your money is coming from, how you are spending them, who is evaluating your projects, what is the impact – and here I am not talking about if people are happy or not, but if you actually achieved to change anything at all-. Open all your data, then we can start talking about transparency.

This is the problem. This is the question we need to ask: are we using feedback mechanisms because we have not been doing our job in the first place? Is this a false issue to hide the real issues behind the way we do development projects?

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One Response to Why citizens’ feedback is a false issue

  1. Hi Anahi,

    Thank you for your thought provoking and insightfull post. Much of what you are suggesting is similar to the lean Startup process. This process has been followed by technology startups such as Google and others to ‘get a product to market’.

    In the ‘development scenario you describe..in Saudi for instance, I agree, it is not easy to engage all the stakeholders and develop based on their continuous feedback.

    ‘The ability of the experts to show evidence of what they say and decide, is what will make the crowd more informed and able to make the decision. ‘

    This equates to validated learning in Lean development. You have made assumptions about how users of your mobile app will act, invited user participation and usage of the live application and now you have the results. You have tested your assumptions. Yes, users are prepared to pay $5.00 for an SMS telling them when the train is coming. Carry on doing what you are doing.

    My sense is that much of the stimulus behind the current push for citizen feedback comes from the need to upgrade legacy systems. The opportunities afforded by the ubiquitous adoption of mobile phones and the spread of Internet connectivity is driving this desire to adopt Lean methods.

    What I would like to see more of is some kind of development dashboard driven by open data. This development dashboard is what would be on the home page of an organisation and show what it’s impact is and would quantify how an organisation is addressing MDG’s.

    This would consolidate the efforts of ICT4D software developers and mean that more funding could be spent on understanding the needs of users and empowering them through citizen science to describe these needs. I like the work that http://www.mappingforchange.org.uk/ , http://taarifa.org/ and Process Excellence at World Vision is doing in this space.

    Thanks again for the post Anahi.

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