For those following events on the civic technology revolution in Uganda, lots have been done in designing tech driven solutions, for increased citizen participation and government responsiveness. The growth in civic tech can be explained by technological advances enabling universal computing and drivers for open data, greater democratic transparency and accountability. Civic tech helps citizens to actively participate in democratic society, including: data access, visualization, resident feedback, public decision-making, amongst other uses. While I can evidently celebrate the existence of hundreds civic tech solutions in the country, I will take a pulse, and focus on the achievements attained through the tech solutions, their sustainability and citizen’s behavior towards them.
While civic tech accelerates citizens’ participation and government responsiveness, we should all agree that it is not an end in itself. In the beginning, we could have painted a picture of using tech to change the world! Perfect picture! However, this picture could be overly optimistic. First, we sometimes never involve citizens in contribution towards designing the tech solutions intended to solve their actual problems; but, we often focus on mobilizing them on using the tech solutions. Second, we sometimes never think of the terrain difference and adaption variations per country. The adaption of tech in USA or Kenya could be so different from that of Uganda hence affecting its utilization.
Over time we have become technocrats who think for the users—on what they want and which solutions would be suitable to overcome their challenges. This is equivalent to thinking for someone on what s/he will order for lunch. Sometimes you could get it right, hence some tech solutions flourishing, but, most times you get it wrong—thus most tech solutions in Uganda failing and closing up.
Why some civic tech solutions work and others fail.
While conducting a tool audit on 9 (nine) of the tech solutions in Uganda, some were found non functional. The reasons for the non functionality range from projects lifetime, users not utilizing the systems, maintenance costs, etc. It was also noticed that when some tech solutions are born, they are supported by development partners for the public’s’ good. However, we at times forget that it’s the communities that must utilize the tech solutions through participation, and its government to do the responsiveness gymnastics.
When these two important ingredients (citizens and government) are passive in the entire process, re-attracting them to actively use the tech solutions and information therewith is equivalent to hitting rock bottom. Further, some of the tech solutions are copied from elsewhere, with assumptions that, “ if they worked in a certain contexts, they could just fit in well in Uganda”. This assumption is misplaced since users and responders are quite different in every context.
It’s also been observed that tools copied elsewhere and re-introduced in Uganda sometimes ignore the design research; an important component in understanding users capacities and capabilities. The tech solutions are introduced as a full complete packages with little or no chances of modification. One thing we often forget is that users and/or responders are never migrated as the tools, nor fit-well in the full packaged systems, thus affecting tech usability for public good.
Duplication? Same data, different tools!
Investigations into civic tech tend to focus on data quality, rather than the human component within the system, or a broader view on the impact and added value of the civic tech solution.
In Uganda, I have realized that many of the tech solutions are within same implementation areas, targeting same people and producing similar data. In my opinion, this is unhealthy competition which could as well be interpreted to mean that, we the civic tech developers, implementers, managers etc are competing on grounds of who has the best tool or receives the most complaints, but not , how we can effectively leverage tech and contribute to increased citizen participation and governments responsiveness.
In Uganda today, we have over 20 civic tech solutions for reporting corruption and almost in similar implementation areas. While some of them have exited the stage, I highly doubt if those existing are really serving their goals especially if the nation is amongst the corruption celebrities according to the Corruption Perception Index 2017. This could be solved by civic technologists coming together to re-strategise and network on how to move forward.
How is tech data utilized
The fact that civic tech platforms provide new and easier ways for citizens to voice their concerns to government does not necessarily mean that citizens actually take advantage of them. With numerous tools in place, one wonders how tech data is used. To some of the people living in areas where civic tech solutions are implemented, tech solutions are never utilized because they got tired of reporting and never receive feedback!.
When the responsiveness is weak and data advocacy is also low, it could imply that we use tech data for our own good. For a few organizations using the tech data, it’s used selectively to serve their goals and purpose. But it’s important to remember that this data is traceable to individuals who made time to report while expecting feedback at the same time.
The missing-link in most of the tech driven solutions is advocacy. Advocacy is one of the best middle men on how tech data could be used to drive policy decisions, improve public service delivery and social accountability. With tech data, an individual could either report a single issue, or start a campaign, or look for others having already reported the same or similar issues. Data availability coupled with evidence based advocacy and storytelling could effectively contribute to governments’ responsiveness. With government’s responsiveness, citizens will feel the impact of their reports, hence boosting their participation in governance processes.
How can we improve the civic tech experience in Uganda for improved participation and more responsiveness?
Collaboration: Uganda’s civic tech fraternity must depend on greater collaboration and coordination. Civic tech, on its own does not enhance citizen- government relationships. These kinds of relationships flourish through advocacy, offline engagements like lobby meetings, board room meetings , dialogues etc. With collaboration, together we can leverage data and technology to enable civic leaders to make better decisions, have a platform for sharing the successes and challenges with each other.
If you have any thoughts on bettering Uganda’s civic technology experience, feel free to share in the comments!
For God and My Country