Policymakers in Tanzania, as in many neighboring countries, regularly make decisions for the entire country with little access to the experiences and realities of a large majority of citizens. The world of policies (and politics) and the world of ordinary citizens are miles apart – except during election time when politics and populism are brought suddenly close.
This makes it difficult to know whether policies are properly implemented or actually working. At the same time, citizens do not have an easy way to know what is going on in their country, and to compare their situation with others’.
The disconnection between policy decision-makers and citizens is a complex and entrenched problem. Fixing it in the long-run requires responsive government institutions with effective monitoring and accountability mechanisms, and a data-literate, vocal press – in other words, the creation of institutions very different from the current ones.
This might seem like a pipe dream. Complex problems require complex solutions. But there are nudges and triggers that can open a space for dialogue between citizens and policy makers.
Voices of Citizens
In February 2013, Twaweza, a citizen-centered initiative, launched the first national mobile phone survey for Africa as part of its mission to create an informed citizenry that is capable of causing large-change in East Africa without waiting for governments, politicians, donors, or citizen sector organizations to do it for them.
Twaweza’s phone survey, called Sauti za Wananchi (Voices of Citizens), creates a mechanism for collecting citizens’ observations and opinions in a representative, quick, and efficient manner, and it provides a platform from which these voices can be broadcast in a timely and effective manner. It focuses on topics that are directly relevant to key service provision in the sectors of education, health, and water. Given the frequent nature of the surveys and the quick turnaround time of analysis, current hot topics can also be addressed.
To set up the mobile phone panel, 2,000 Tanzanians were randomly selected and invited to become Sauti za Wananchi respondents for two years. Mobile phones and chargers were distributed to respondents who agreed to participate in monthly surveys.
So far, Twaweza has conducted five rounds of Sauti calls. Topics have included the educational outcomes of secondary schools, citizens’ access to information, and the availability of essential medicines at primary-level clinics.
Sauti respondents took on the role of citizen monitors for some of these rounds. For example, 196 Sauti respondents visited their local health facilities and reported back for a round that focused on essential medicines. (For more information about the technicalities of the survey, see this link).
Twaweza also provides a broadcasting platform where data that is collected during each of the monthly survey rounds is analyzed and summarized in a “brief” – a summary with data visualizations and accessible language. Each brief has been launched in press conferences that have been covered by the mainstream print and broadcast media in Tanzania. The briefs are also posted online (for example, see a recent article in the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen).
Each month, we really can tell a government minister that there are 2,000 Tanzanian citizens on the line, answering questions relevant to their daily lives and investigating the service-provision standards in their neighborhoods. It’s a big accomplishment, but the big question, of course, is – so what?
Yes, we are broadcasting the views and feedback from Tanzanian citizens, but are any policymakers listening? How do we ensure that the minister picks up the phone, listens, and uses the data for policy decisions?
Is it our job to generate the data, make it understandable, and widely available to the public – or is it also to actively bring the data to potentially interested parties, and to broker the use of that data? We have not answered that question fully for ourselves – but in seeking the answer, we are developing a system of more closely monitoring what happens to this data.
We are currently exploring the following actions (some of these actions are simpler than others):
1) Tracking the delivery of the briefs, and monitoring for media coverage.
2) Analyzing the publicly available recordings of parliamentary discussions to track whether discussions include references to data.
3) Interviewing a group of selected key audiences (such as ministry officials in relevant sectors, parliamentarians, some donors, and citizen sector organizations) to better understand whether the kind of information we offer is relevant and useful, and whether it has been used in decision-making and how.
Each month, there are 2,000 Tanzanian citizens on the line – answering questions relevant to their daily lives, investigating the service-provision standards in their neighborhoods, voicing their opinions. To close the loop, the Minister has to pick up the phone and use the data.
By Varja Lipovsek, Learning, Monitoring and Evaluation Manager, Twaweza
and Rakesh Rajani, Head, Twaweza