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What we’re getting wrong about accountability and citizen empowerment

Designing actionable citizen feedback systems: Lessons from Paraguay’s reAcción

Lea una versión en español en la revista Quantico de reAcción.

This blog is based on a speech delivered by Open Contracting Champion, David Riveros García, at the World Bank’s inaugural GovTech Global Forum focused on “Governance in the Digital Era” this May. David is the founder of reAcción, a grassroots anti-corruption civil society organization that empowers young people in Paraguay to fight for government transparency and social accountability. This is an edited version of his remarks.

I work in anti-corruption, leading an organization that focuses on the education sector in Paraguay. In terms of technology, we developed an app, FOCO, that allows for the national monitoring of Paraguay’s most important fund for education infrastructure, worth about $90 million annually. We integrate data from the Treasure Ministry, the Ministry of Education, and the National Public Procurement Agency so that people can provide feedback and know whether or not the funding is reaching the neediest schools in their municipality, according to the Ministry of Education’s prioritization list.

That’s really just context, because at the end of the day when we talk about all this technology, what we really want in terms of fighting corruption is accountability. Most e-governance technology that attempts to turn citizen feedback into actionable recommendations, is really about upward accountability. In other words, it happens in the bureaucracy and it is not public.

But if we want to improve service delivery, the evidence is mounting that downward accountability is what allows us to reduce impunity, reduce corruption, and provide better services. Basically, this happens because both citizens’ demands and feedback are public along with what the government does or does not do as a result.

When we get feedback from citizens, we also have to question, who are the people providing feedback? In general, we know that this feedback is more likely to come from middle and upper-middle-class people. The priorities, then, that we would take from that feedback is different.

The first point we should remember is that we cannot romanticize citizen participation. For the people that need to be heard the most, it’s not even about the digital divide, it’s about their capacity to contribute. There is a very steep learning curve for a lot of citizens just to understand what they can ask of government – what works and what doesn’t work – and to then provide feedback about service delivery. In countries like Paraguay where the minimum expectation of citizens is so low – it’s really low – anything the government provides seems like a blessing. Services delivered may be below the dignity level, but citizens might be amazed to receive anything at all. A situation in which the maximum expectation of citizens regarding their government’s performance is still below the minimum of human dignity becomes a structural challenge to any intervention. We have to remember that when assessing and acting on feedback.

Secondly, citizens do not have the time, especially those from poor and vulnerable communities. As many of you already mentioned, distrust in government responsiveness further hinders engagement. Why would I spend my time trying to use technology that I don’t really understand, to comment on a policy that I might not comprehend entirely, if experience tells me the government won’t do anything about it?

Ten years ago, when I was 22, I was here at another conference and the message from the World Bank was, “We have been spending a lot of time giving government ears and we have forgotten to give citizens voice.” As we talk about the issue again here today, I’d urge us to take citizen voice beyond mere expressions and make it a catalyst for action; I’d urge organizations like the World Bank to commit to investing the same amounts they assign to technology development on citizen training and mobilization 

In reAcción, we have this saying as well that, “Technology should not save us the trouble of being citizens.” Technology should reduce intermediation costs so that we can spend more time mobilizing the grassroots and engaging in informed and sustained collective action. We could have developed the FOCO app in 2014 already. But we learned by looking at other amazing apps that are fascinating by design, that when you develop an app that is fascinating, but there is no demand, but more importantly, no capacity in communities to use it, to demand and to use that intermediation, they die.

In reAcción, we had an important precedent to FOCO from which we learnt. In 2016, we developed the official app for the Healthcare Ministry. It allowed citizens to know where the public medicines were, the services at each healthcare facility around the country, and the times doctors should be providing those services. It became the most downloaded app, even though back then it was only Android applications and mobile interfaces were not that good. It worked so well, and people were reporting so much, that the Healthcare Ministry shut it down. So try convincing citizens after that experience that their feedback is ever going to be actionable and valued.

FOCO was the second app we developed. We all assume that people would be interested in monitoring the school lunches their kids receive, or the infrastructure that is critical to their education long-term. Yes, we have confirmed over eight years this is true, but they are there because of sustained intermediation – another word that we should apply a lot when we talk about civic technology. If we don’t reduce those participation costs, the citizens whose participation we need the most will remain excluded.

Government usually designs great applications but they disintermediate the relationship between citizens and front-level bureaucrats. When that happens, citizens manage whatever comes and is managed, and whatever fancy technology we apply to the feedback process is not going to change the power dynamics of the grassroots level.

Governments usually design great applications, but sometimes, unintendedly, they disintermediate the relationship between citizens and front-level bureaucrats. And when that happens, whatever comes and is managed, and whatever artificial intelligence or machine learning processes that we apply to the feedback, is not going to change the power dynamics of the grassroots level. 

And those dynamics are the most important ones. So that whatever citizens are doing is not only a question of credibility to the local governments and representatives, or the phases of the apps, but they also become actionable so that the central government can enact service improvements as a result. 

It is only by sustaining collective action in the long term, that we can increase the political cost of inaction and see results. This is not only what the academic literature is showing us, it is what we have experienced in reAcción in the past eight years.

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