Are we there yet? The Journey of Digital Citizen Engagement

By Professor Caroline Khene, Co-Director

That is a question that many people should actually be asking. If we thought that the existence of a MobiSAM platform/website/Facebook page to report an issue was enough, we are all far from the truth. MobiSAM is only at the beginning when it comes to developing a joint evolving relationship of social accountability and government responsiveness. This is illustrated in Figure 1, which shows the dimensions of ICT (information and communication technology) enabled citizen engagement, where citizen engagement is facilitated along the four dimensions of Information, Participation, Collaboration, and Empowerment (Gigler, Bailur, & Anand, 2014). Traditionally, the view was that ICTs were a platform to provide information to citizens – this process has mainly been characterised as having a one-way flow of information from government to citizens (and also vice versa), which is the first dimension of ‘Information’. For example, when reported service delivery issues remain as open or assigned on the MobiSAM platform for several days without any feedback (in the form of comments from government, or that the issues were resolved), this unfortunately means citizen reports simply remain as just information. This does not contribute much to the intended purpose of MobiSAM, which is to enhance and enable two-way communication and engagement between citizens and government.

Dimensions of Citizen Engagement: Embedding ICTs (Gigler et al., 2014)

When two-way communication begins to develop between citizens and government, the use of MobiSAM in citizen engagement transitions to the dimension of ‘Participation’. Here citizens actively participate by reporting on service delivery issues, as well as commenting on various issues reported (which has been commonly observed on Facebook). Furthermore, the municipality also provides feedback on reported issues, whether in the form of comments on the progress of addressing issues, or an indication that the issue has been resolved. MobiSAM is attempting to develop this dimension further through infomediaries in each ward called ‘ward liaisons’, to encourage citizens to use MobiSAM, as well as report issues on their behalf. The MobiSAM team is also working closely with the municipality to build more effective responsiveness to reported issues. Progress has been made, but the journey continues.

MobiSAM is currently active with the first two dimensions of Information and Participation – this is where we are at now. However, we would like to see citizen engagement develop further to a level of strong social accountability and more effective joint decision-making between the municipality and citizens based on MobiSAM generated data and information. In this case, the dimensions of stronger ‘Collaboration’ and ‘Empowerment’ need to be reinforced, in order to realise the true outcomes of social accountability and government responsiveness. MobiSAM relies on partnerships with civil society and NGOs to mobilise and build the capacities of citizens to practice active citizenship, but also support engagement platforms where government and citizens can jointly discuss a way forward based on any challenges on service delivery. For example, this was clearly demonstrated by the joint multi-stakeholder effort through the Kowie Catchment Forum to communicate and create awareness of the existing water crisis in Grahamstown. The Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) has also partnered with MobiSAM to train three of its staff members on Social Accountability Monitoring, in order to also train citizens to actively use MobiSAM data and information in supporting joint decision-making.

Achieving the dimensions of Collaboration and Empowerment is paramount, however, MobiSAM does not work in isolation of contextual challenges. Technology does not bring about change in itself. In other words, technology to support social accountability and government responsiveness cannot make up for the lack of human intent and capability. It can actually lead to creating more inequalities between groups in Makana Municipality, depending on who has access to the technology, capacity to effectively use it for its intended purpose, and the motivation to use it (Toyama, 2011). This actually applies to both groups, that is, citizens as well as government. A summary of the key constraints and questions we are faced with, and attempt to address are summarised in Table 1 (Gigler et al., 2014). We as MobiSAM cannot address these alone, but need to continuously rely on key partnerships with all stakeholders. When we observe these constraints, they can be categorised under the 3 differentials that Toyama (2011) argues, are significant in understanding how technology can be effective, as shown in Table 2. As MobiSAM (together with its partners), we continue to be aware of these issues, evaluate them, and work around addressing them. This is not a clear cut exercise, but a learning process we all have to engage in. Most importantly, we have to be patient in the slow but sure progress that is being made, but also aware of the constraints that have to be addressed, and see what contribution can be made as individuals in the municipality to mitigate or address these constraints.

Table 1: Contextual Constraints on ICTs (Gigler et al., 2014)

Table 2: Categorising Contextual Constraints


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