Over the past two decades, a growing body of research suggests links between ICTs and economic growth, social development, and higher levels of democratic participation (Avergou 2008); some researchers have characterized ICT-enabled feedback loops as a pivotal part of the development process itself (Hudson 2012). Indeed, the rapidly decreasing cost of digital devices has dramatically increased opportunities for citizens, CSOs, governments, and other players on the feedback chain to observe, monitor, inform, evaluate, and advocate. In parallel, as the use of ICT grows, and rigorous study around tech-enabled interventions deepens, we’re discovering best practices for development actors to make full use of ICTs and facilitate stronger feedback loops in programming.
The potential for new technologies to bolster feedback loops is game-changing.
Based on Souktel’s experience deploying digital feedback tools in more than 30 countries, we’ve learned three key lessons that can significantly improve the use of ICTs to promote participation and engagement.
- Design with ICT models in mind. In Souktel’s experience, few implementers understand how to design dynamic feedback strategies that are rooted in technology. Adding in a token ICT component after the fact does not make full use of the value-add of these tools. For example, if an implementer decides to replace Excel-based data collection with a mobile data collection app because they learn that data collection apps are widely used in the country/sector/donor community, they’re choosing ICTs for the wrong reason. The app’s contribution will be limited at best.An app can fulfill multiple functions beyond basic data collection: on-demand content, push alerts to community members, personalized learning, and more. The success of ICTs requires a holistic design strategy. If – from program inception – a feedback strategy is designed to enhance multiple stages of the feedback process , the value of ICT can be maximized: enable the capture of video images and audio clips; allow for ‘report back’ options to communities; or enable networking between community members. By integrating ICT models into feedback process design at the very start, feedback loops are strengthened much more comprehensively.
- Design with the users in mind. At Souktel, we see many implementers make false assumptions about their user bases: they misjudge levels of access to technology; they overestimate literacy levels or underestimate language divisions; they don’t fully understand how users interact with technology; they aren’t fully aware of the channels and platforms their target audience is using to communicate. Even within the same country, or town, we find significant variances in tech use habits among program stakeholders: for example, government officials rely on web-based platforms, CSOs prefer text messaging, and young constituents communicate via instant messenger.For an effective and inclusive feedback strategy, implementers must reach as many different constituencies as possible at the same time. Limiting platforms – for example, using digital tools only accessible to wealthier community members- exacerbate socio-economic and political divisions. Instead, successful implementation requires a user-centered design process for ICT development and selection. By including comprehensive, community-led design and user testing in program delivery, feedback loops are guaranteed to be more inclusive and effective.
- Understand human capital needs. Implementers under-estimate the level of effort needed to keep digital feedback services functioning well–both during the program period and beyond. Feedback mechanisms such as digital mapping or crowdsourcing tools require a cadre of dedicated on-the-ground partners to collect and input data; citizen to government (“C2G”) mechanisms need a team to manage the citizen feedback process. We encourage implementers to realistically assess what human resources are necessary to close feedback loops, and devise a plan to fulfill these needs. In many cases, the use of incentive structures–which can range from small amounts of mobile credit to full-time work contracts— help ensure that adequate human resources are in place.
Maggie McDonough – US Director of Programs & Strategy, Souktel Digital Solutions
Maggie is an accomplished international development specialist with 15 years of experience in the development and aid sectors. She currently serves as the US Director of Programs & Strategy for Souktel, leading program design and implementation with clients in North America. In addition to her expertise in the mobiles for development (M4D) space, she spent over 10 years at leading non-profit IREX, where she managed media development programs and global new business development–serving most recently in IREX’s Education Programs Division. Prior to IREX, Maggie worked at IFES (the International Foundation for Electoral Systems) on programs which focused on civic education, political party development, and election administration–and at USAID’s Europe and Eurasia bureau. Maggie holds a BA in history from the University of Michigan and an MA in International Affairs from the George Washington University.