Identifying Responsibility for Citizen Action
How many times have you heard an American say, “I think the government should do X!”? The United States government is comprised of over 4 million people. This isn’t lazy speech – it is a sign that nobody really knows who is responsible.
Over the last month, I have encountered an equivalent statement in Eastern Africa: “I want the world to hear what is going on in the community so they can help.” These words may reveal the reason citizens in the developing world do not rigorously search for service delivery organizations that can help them: participants do not think of a concrete organization or person that they can actively pursue.
The GlobalGiving Storytelling Project asks, “Tell us about a time when a person or an organization tried to change something in your community.”
Yet aid organizations do occasionally make efforts to gather constituent feedback. Through GlobalGiving and as part of Feedback Labs, I have been asking citizens about their experiences in feedback-giving. Marc Maxson, also at GlobalGiving, compiled a list of hundreds of people to contact and for the last month I have been calling them up. I started contacting the local scribes involved in the GlobalGiving Storytelling Project – a feedback program itself aimed at collecting real experiences of citizens in Kenya and Uganda – and asked, “Why did you get involved in this program?”
This is where the dreaded response was usually heard – a desire for help with no agency assigned.
I then asked the follow-up question, “Who would you want to read/hear about these stories?”
I tried a few different formats of the question such as, “Who would benefit from reading these stories?”, “Who would you like to see these stories?” and “Who would you share these stories with?” Here, I learned that most respondents did not name a singular, tangible institution. If I failed to ask, “What specific person or organization do you believe can help?” individuals rarely gave answers that named a specific change agent, such as an NGO, local leader, or government ministry.
And while the preliminary data are based only on the first 50 interviews of over 200 attempted phone calls, the numbers from all 58,000 stories in the storytelling project consistently reflect a similar trend:
Of the 57,191 stories collected in Kenya and Uganda from 2011 to 2013, only 16,624 (29%) named a specific NGO as the agent the story was about. 8,007 of 57,191 (14%) were vaguely about organizations, as they used words in the story that implied an organized group was carrying out the work. Even though we explicitly prompted them for the NGO name, over half of the stories were about community efforts, needs, and problems but omitted a direct connection to an organization.
What never came up is, “I want x organization to hear about it, so they can address this issue.” This seemingly subtle difference in responses implies a major implicit problem: citizens don’t know who or what is not serving their needs.
Transparency Is Not Always Accountability
Marc recounted attending a meeting at the iHUB in Nairobi where the accounting department of the World Bank was introducing a new open data portal to Kenyan web and mobile app developers. Pulling a quote from Business Daily Africa news article, the World Bank had good intentions:
“We are committed to transparency in development, and we want to make the Bank’s financial information more re-useable, accessible and useful to citizens, civil society and journalists,” said Mr. Prasanna Lal Das.
They released the data and asked Kenyans to build apps to put information in the hands of citizens. He remembers a Kenyan asking the obvious question at data launch:
Suppose I build an app that shows the money the World Bank has disbursed into this village? Will you release the name and email of the person responsible for responding if a citizen has a question or wants to report about fraud they witnessed?
The spokesperson didn’t think sharing specific names and emails would be feasible. And in the 18 months that has passed, they haven’t shared any.
But that is the killer app. It isn’t just about flow of information; it is about systems for that information to land on the desk of the person who can do something about it, since it is becoming apparent in our research that very few people have been given information about who is in charge and how to access them.
Mind Over Mechanism
Our experiment exposes a new complexity in fixing feedback loops. Feedback loops are not simply about enabling information flow between entities, but changing a mindset about “telling the world” versus one person being responsible. If a specific agent does not come to mind, then a feedback loop is probably not going to work.
Questions such as, “Who exactly is the government?”, “What is civil society?” and “Who are the community actors that matter?” lead to the greater fundamental question:
How can you act for change if you cannot identify somebody specific to turn to?
These are the types of issues that Feedback Labs can address.
By Harold Giwa-Amu, Research Assistant, Cornell University and Feedback Labs
In Conjunction with Marc Maxson, Innovation Consultant, GlobalGiving