Close

Support Global Voices

To stay independent, free, and sustainable, our community needs the help of friends and readers like you.

Donate now »

See all those languages up there? We translate Global Voices stories to make the world's citizen media available to everyone.

Learn more about Lingua Translation  »

Technology for Transparency Review, Part IV

In the last post of this series we published our summaries, conclusions, and recommendations for technology projects related to budget and election monitoring. Today we continue our concluding remarks and recommendations with a focus on technology initiatives related to civic complaints. You can see all of the case studies and project listings related to civic complaints platforms by clicking on the relevant filters beneath the map on the Transparency for Technology Network.

Civic Complaints

Throughout our interviews with project leaders a sentiment we heard over and over again is that they are trying to transform a culture of complaining into a culture of solutions, actions, and accountability. Ory Okolloh, a longtime Kenyan blogger and the co-founder of Mzalendo, remarked in our interview:

I spent a lot of my early blogging career sort of highlighting all the ills of the government in Kenya and all the corruption and problems. One day I asked myself, well you’re sitting here with this voice and this platform and all your complaining is not really doing anything to make a difference then how can you – within this space – try to have a little bit of an impact? And I think that’s what drives me. ‘Look, it’s time to stop complaining and start acting.’

In order to act on complaints, however, it is first necessary to organize and make sense of them. Several projects set out to do exactly that.

In September 2008 four Jordanian technologists developed Ishki to collect and organize complaints from local citizens about the public and private sector. Their goal is to eventually expand the mission of the project so that the complaints lead to conversations, solutions, and, finally, to better policies and responsiveness by companies and government officials. Though dormant for most of last year, the site has since relaunched with new features and remains active today. So far, however, we are not aware of any examples in which a complaints listed on Ishki has been resolved, or even responded to by public officials.

Similar to Ishki, Kiirti serves as a single platform to collect complaints from residents of major cities around India. Unlike Ishki, which is built on Drupal, Kiirti uses Ushahidi to accept complaints via SMS and then visualizes them on a map interface. Project founder Selvam Velmurugan of eMoksha says that the platform has led to the repair of a streetlight in Chennai and also the paving of a dirt road. In an earlier review of the project I pointed out the seeming inefficiency of submitting a complaint to a platform which then forwards it to a government agency, but, in her review of the case study, Aparna Ray suggests that “citizens may actually welcome this buffer which facilitates engagement and gives visibility and weight to their complaints and issues.” Still, she encourages Kiirti to become more transparent about its process in verifying, forwarding, and resolving complaints.

Penang Watch goes one step further than Ishki and Kiirti. In addition to collecting and categorizing complaints from citizens, the volunteers behind the site harass city council officials until the complaints are at least answered, if not resolved. Their persistence has, for example, led to the shutting down of illegal shops in Georgetown's UNESCO world heritage neighborhood. Complaints submitted to PenangWatch.net are first verified by a team of volunteers, and then forwarded to the relevant authority and/or individual to answer or resolve the complaint. If there is no response within a week or two then a reminder is sent out. If the complaint is still not dealt with after two more weeks then a profile of the complaint is featured on the website and the negligent agency/individual is “named and shamed” via emails to all council departments and media organizations. Project coordinator Ong Boon Keong says that “roughly 300 complaints are submitted through Penang Watch per year” and that so far they have “been able to settle 50 percent of submitted complaints.”

Unlike Penang Watch, which serves as a bridge between citizen complaints and city officials, Cidade Democratica aims to motivate citizens to come up with their own solutions to civic problems. It's important to note that online, social platforms don't only offer new ways for citizens to interact with elected and appointed officials; they can also create new frameworks to think about how citizens govern their own communities without relying on traditional government structures. Cidade Democratica is a Brazilian platform – with most activity taking place in São Paulo – where users can submit both problems and solutions to those problems. There have been some policy decisions – such as the creation of bicycle paths in Jundiaí – which resulted from discussions and proposals originating on Cidade Democratica. So far successful solutions have depended on government involvement, but in the future one can envision that communal gardens, walking paths, and even recycling programs can all be coordinated by citizens without government involvement.

Recommendations:

Of all the civic complaint websites we documented, Penang Watch has been the most successful in terms of bringing about government action and response. We recommend to all projects that they implement and document well-defined processes for how to deal with submitted complaints. This includes verification, categorization, prioritization, effective communication with relevant government agencies, ensuring response, working toward resolution, and publicly recognizing the work of responsive public officials. These processes can be seen as chronological stages and platforms can identify the stage of each complaint, similar to software issue tracking systems.

We recommend that, as much as possible, civic complaints websites work with and not against government. Penang Watch coordinator Ong Boon Keong is eager to point out that the website aims to improve the local government's performance by “providing it with both positive and negative feedback.” Some observers, such as Archon Fung, worry that that the adversarial nature of many transparency and accountability websites erodes trust in governments and institutions, and presents the government as more inefficient and wasteful than it really is. Indeed, we have found many websites that strive to highlight the worst actions of corrupt officials, but few if any that reward effective performance and clean track records. In the future it is recommended that transparency and accountability websites strike a balance between criticizing poor government performance and celebrating that which is worth duplicating.

We recommend that civic complaint websites investigate whether an anti-corruption hotline service exists in their country. A working paper by Transparency International offers several suggestions as to how civil society can work more closely with such anti-corruption hotlines. Elaine Byrne, Anne-Katrin Arnold and Fumiko Nagano of the World Bank's CommGAP initiative have published an excellent paper advocating for improved communication between government anti-corruption agencies and traditional media. Their findings, case studies, and suggestions are equally applicable to anyone developing or managing a civic complaints website.

It seems likely that the future of civic complaint websites will be increasingly mobile as internet-capable mobile phones become more common in developing countries. We believe that citizens are more likely to file a complaint if they are able to do so immediately from their mobile phone, rather than waiting to return to their computer. Platforms like FixMyStreet in the UK and SeeClickFix in the United States reveal the potential of marrying mobile applications with web-based map interfaces. The SeeClickFix complaint platform has even been adopted by some politicians, such as Bronx city councilmember Fernando Cabrera, who has put SeeClickFix right on the front page of his website. Other municipal governments including Boston in the United States and Eindhoven in the Netherlands have developed their own mobile applications to collect and act on citizen complaints.

However, the creation of so many disparate platforms to collect civic complaints also presents a problem. The most basic objective of civic complaint websites is to provide the most efficient line of communication possible between the citizen who has observed a problem and the public official who is responsible for resolving that problem. If there are multiple platforms, or multiple channels, through which citizens can make their complaints then public officials will have to spend more time searching, reviewing, and prioritizing complaints on each platform and less time responding to and resolving the complaints. We recommend to developers, activists, and governments that whenever possible they avoid the proliferation of multiple platforms so as to decrease the transaction costs of resolving complaints. If this is not possible, it may be necessary to develop aggregators of complaints filed across multiple platforms.

The city of San Francisco has shown one possible model toward open, distributed complaint tracking by partnering with CoTweet to track citizen complaints via Twitter. The San Francisco city government should be lauded for taking advantage of a channel of information where citizens are already leaving complaints about dirty streets, graffiti, and potholes, but the use of Twitter as a platform for complaint tracking reveals a tension between openness and organized prioritization. It is important to communicate to citizens that while a broken streetlight may be their own personal priority, it is likely not the first priority of an entire municipal government. Twitter is not currently well-equipped to organize messages by their priority and status toward resolution, but there is reason to believe that San Francisco's Twitter-based complaint tracker will improve its organization and prioritization of messages over time.

While San Francisco's residents may be eager to send their local government a photograph of a pothole via Twitter, the same program might not be as effective in other communities where expectations of political representation and responsiveness are lower. Stuti Khemani notes that in very poor countries, people may not link events in their personal lives with wider policies. He gives the example of a child dying – something outsiders may blame on a lack of immunization or poor health policies, perhaps due to government corruption that prevents funding from reaching target areas. He argues that local community members may see this death as a fact of daily life rather than as something that could possibly have been prevented by better governance.

This likely helps explain why a SMS-based civic complaint service launched by the municipal government of Pimpri-Chinchwad in India has so far attracted only three to four complaints per day, some of which, officials say, are personal issues rather than civic problems:

Though [Municipal Commissioner] Sharma claims that three-four complaints in a day are not bad, the harsh truth is that every gulli, chawl, building or society in Pimpri-Chinchwad has dime a dozen complaints. Every day, you will bump into groups of citizens discussing a bad road or a cooperative society residents grieving about piling garbage. Stinking public toilets is another major problem. And residents, especially those, living in chawls, have a strong grouse against the state of public toilets where either doors are missing or broken, commodes have been smashed, water is not available or the toilet blocks have not been cleaned for days.

Journalist Manoj More writes that he spoke to a “cross-section of citizens” from Pimpri-Chinchwad and found that “hardly anybody knows that such a system does exist.” Simply building a platform to collect complaints is clearly not enough; such initiatives must organize workshops to educate citizens that they are able to make demands of their elected officials, and that there are concrete processes in place to do so. At the same time, it is crucial that coordinators of civic complaint websites partner with government agencies so that citizens feel they are heard when they participate. We recommend to project managers that they partner with teachers at local high schools and universities to take their classes on “civic complaint finding field trips” so that young people are able to see their community from the perspective of an engaged citizen and prioritize which issues must be dealt with first.

Before donors support the development and outreach of civic complaint platforms, we recommend that they first support more research of how such initiatives can most effectively attract, organize, communicate, and resolve citizens’ complaints by working in partnership with government agencies. We do see evidence that there is utility and rationale for a middle layer of civil society to serve as the broker between citizens demanding better government service and government agencies prioritizing their time and budgets, but there is so far a lack of evidence and inquiry as to how that middle layer can most effectively operate. What incentivizes citizens to participate? How to various government agencies organize and prioritize incoming streams of complaints? How much overlap is there between the priorities of citizens and government agencies? Are complaint services run by civil society organizations more effective than those run by local governments? What are the most effective strategies to inspire response and resolution of civic complaints? What types of complaints must be resolved by government agencies, and what are examples of complaints that have been resolved by citizens themselves? These are just a few of the questions that require more research, ideally from longterm studies that focus on a single municipality over a year.

Finally, while we recognize that software platforms must be adapted and appropriated to function effectively in each distinct environment, we recommend to all activists who are considering the implementation of a civic complaint website in their community to closely examine existing, open source platforms such as FixMyStreet and its sister version written in GeoDjango, which is used by FixMyStreet Canada. Both projects have invested heavily in writing the code to the platforms, which can be used freely by other projects so that they can focus their time and efforts on partnering with relevant government agencies and organizing educational workshops to ensure that the platform is used.

Thanks to Rebekah Heacock for her contributions to this piece.

1 comment

  • The Open311 Initiative (http://open311.org) aims to address many of the issues that you raised in this article. We are establishing an open interoperable standard that can mitigate fragmentation and actually benefit from the proliferation and innovation of different applications and channels that are used for civic issue reports.

    We are also working with government agencies and making sure that the process of developing these tools is one where the government agencies include the public and invite the public to develop tools that work with their systems and their processes.

    We are also working with Ushahidi so that this work benefits the crisis-mapping community as well. Furthermore Ushahidi has begun to establish a practice of working with Universities much like you proposed. Like you said, one of the biggest challenges is educating people that these resources exist.

    See http://open311.org for more information

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »

Guidelines

  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.

Receive great stories from around the world directly in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the best of Global Voices!

Submitted addresses will be confirmed by email, and used only to keep you up to date about Global Voices and our mission. See our Privacy Policy for details.

Newsletter powered by Mailchimp (Privacy Policy and Terms).

* = required field
Email Frequency



No thanks, show me the site