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The London-based Transparency & Accountability Initiative published a report in which they investigated the impact of information systems and information technology use in 7 case studies of organisations in middle-income and developing countries. The main focus of the research is technology interventions that are attempting to increase the accountability of public and private organisations through technological transparency strategies. Cases in Brazil, Chile, Kenya, India and Slovakia were examined.

In the research three categories of technological intervention were identified:

  1. ‘Home run’ cases in which a technological intervention almost by itself produces dramatic increases in accountability, because it unleashes the latent wishes of individuals by allowing them to take significant actions that previously were impossible without the technology. This image, or type, is perhaps the most common mental paradigm for technological change more generally.
  2. Interventions that complement traditional media efforts – especially investigative journalism – by making information about politicians, other officials or governmental activities generally available. This strategy is to improve accountability by improving the quality of the public sphere.
  3. Technological interventions that are tailored to advance the very specific agendas of particular non-governmental or governmental organisations by amplifying their capabilities and strategies. In this category, success depends upon a successful marriage between particular technologies and the capabilities and efficacy of particular organisations that seek to utilise them. Most of the potential for technology to have an impact on accountability lies in this third category.

The researchers (Archon Fung, Hollie Russon Gilman and Jennifer Shkabatur) state that the introduction and use of ICT does not automatically increase transparency and participation, and recommend that it is crucial that the socio-political context is taken into consideration. They formulate four questions about context are particularly important:

  1. What are the motives and incentives of potential users of the technology platform? For issues concerning public accountability, mass users often lack the incentives to acquire and act on information about corruption and malfeasance or even about budget misallocations (except in hyper-local instances), whereas organised users such as journalists and reform NGOs may be highly motivated to acquire and act on this information.
  2. What are the capabilities of motivated users? Technological platforms should be tailored to the capabilities of potential users. SMS is better than the web when internet penetration is low. Kiirti, for instance, failed to find many NGOs with the capability to utilise its platform.
  3. Does an ICT intervention reinforce the strategy of potential users? NGOs deploy particular strategies, and some ICT intervention may or may not fit with them. For example, a report by the Carter Center on the utility of Ushahidi platforms notes the difficulty of combining crowd-sourced reports with professional election monitoring standards.
  4. Which organisations are efficacious with respect to accountability problems? Progress on accountability requires an organisation or coalition to possess the authority or resources to affect the problem. ICT helps when it is attached to such efficacious entities. For example, the most successful Kiirti deployment involves a transportation authority with the regulatory power to sanction problematic auto-rickshaw drivers. Uchaguzi is effective in part because it has worked with election regulatory bodies in Kenya.

The research concludes with 6 recommendation:

  • Funders should focus their energies on the second and third categories of intervention.
  • The first category of ‘home runs’ is difficult to identify and opportunities are rare.
  • In the second category, ICT interventions succeed when they serve as (i) highly credible sources of information that is (ii) of high interest and utility to (iii) journalists and political and advocacy campaigns.
  • Interventions in the third category are more likely to succeed when those who create the technology are embedded in local NGO networks, so that they understand the motivations and strategies of organised users and can tailor their efforts to fit them.
  • It is important for those who fund and support technological transparency interventions to help technology entrepreneurs and activists  by pressing them to:
    Lay out (i) what their initial assessment of the context is; (ii) what information the ICT platform will provide and who will provide it; (iii) who will use that information and why; and (iv) how that use will result in gains for accountability;
    Periodically revise their contextual assessment and theory of action. In all of our cases, organisations that were successful evolved because they responded to errors in their initial theories of action.
  • Funders should not impose particular assessments or theories on NGOs or technology entrepreneurs. NGOs are generally better situated to make these difficult assessments.

The research is interesting because it confirms that ICT is not a magic bullet and will only work as the appropriate solutions are designed and implemented. The research would have greatly benefited if it had used the Appropriate ICT Framework. This way it would have been able to put the results in context.

The conclusions and recommendations, especially the strong emphasis on local technology providers, are very much biased by the countries that were included in the research. All countries in the sample have a relatively well developed ICT – industry. Most in the countries in Africa still lack this and need external support to develop appropriate solutions. A close learning relationship local and external ICT experts will develop better results in these contexts.

As a whole, the research is well worth reading and recommended for ICT4D experts. The whole report can be downloaded directly from the website of Transparency & Accountability Initiative.