Thinking and working politically with technology: State of the art meets art of the state

June 5, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Gopa Thampi and Nicola Nixon of The Asia Foundation

Why is the much-heralded promise of the data revolution not accelerating development in the way we expected? Why is the incredibly rapid rise of new data sources and methods of analysis paradoxically out of sync with its broader social impacts? No easy answers, but some of the reasons, we suspect, lie in a need for greater attention to the local political dynamics into which digital solutions are introduced.

And it takes time to accumulate an understanding of those dynamics. One of our longest engagements in this field is in Sri Lanka, where for 15 years our sub-national governance program has been supporting progressive reform efforts, deepening citizen involvement in planning and budgeting and ensuring effective redress of citizen grievances with provincial and local governments across the country. The super-nerdy but super-important side of governance: public financial management.

We work primarily with mayors and chairpersons, Chief Ministers of provinces and city commissioners and the staff within the institutions that sit under them – the users. Through these relationships we encourage reform pathways, and data is a very powerful tool that helps these users create new practices within governments not always eager to change.

Using an online Budget Management Tool. Credit: TAF

Within local government, we found a new cadre of directly elected councillors were, for the most part, new to the political sphere.  They carried huge expectations from their constituencies and were keen to show impact.  The mood was buoyant and optimistic, open to new ideas. In war-affected provinces there was also an opportunity to leapfrog an earlier e-governance phase, that elsewhere had clocked up a clunky legacy of physical networks and servers, and transition straight to a mobile platform.

Together, these openings provided opportunities to introduce new ways of doing things in a traditionally bureaucratic process.  For instance, we supported the digitalization of budget tracking, enabled a Tablet-based community feedback mechanism to inform and influence local needs assessments, and piloted a digital census survey of vulnerable groups, all of which were taken up enthusiastically and continue to be used today.

Looking back, we have three key reflections:

Prepare for delayed resistance: Technology is seductive – sleek Tablets, instant results, eye-catching dashboards and striking infographics often induce quick buy-in both from the higher level officials and frontline workers. Yet, the initial shine sometimes wears off when new technology challenges historically opaque structures and practices and the benefits they accrue to some.

In Sri Lanka, for instance, a web-based application that demystifies local government budgets using simple visual cues started exposing sensitive issues like uncollected arrears and costs incurred due to ad hoc political appointments — information that some decided they weren’t too keen to have made visible. The system then fights back, usually in discrediting the technology as unreliable or too complex. Some of our interventions failed because we had underestimated the incentives against change within our institutional partners.

Digital Needs Assessment Survey. Credit: TAF

Understand micro-institutional politics. The introduction of technology and access to new knowledge, especially for frontline staff, can create conflicts. In a very hierarchical structure, the introduction of new tech often means creating equal access to information for officials, including entry-level, younger workers, who are often more tech savvy than their older colleagues. Access to new technologies can be an empowering force that ruptures existing pecking orders.

Young frontline workers are often quick to embrace and master new tools and are well positioned to take advantage of new opportunities. In some places we saw this went very well, in others it created a rift.  In some places it was even necessary to run conflict resolution and team building workshops at the same time as introducing new platforms.

Adapt the tech to the context. Fail fast, learn and iterate. We were able to test the introduction of different technologies while also adapting to address these unexpected consequences in a constructive and forward-looking way. We had the space in which to pilot various options as we moved forward.

Our relationships with the actors,  their perspective on the technology, and – importantly – the incentives that drive their actions  allowed us to be agile and flexible: to understand when to talk up the efficiency of technology to achieve greater transparency and accountability in the long term; to know when to accelerate because the environment was favorable and when to hit the brakes.

When the initial results of the electronic Citizen Report Card survey were shared with political leaders like Mayors and Chief Ministers, their interest was piqued by the possibility of disaggregating feedback across ethnicities and economic categories – they saw this as a good opportunity to reach across to their constituencies. And in post war Sri Lanka, this became a good incentive to strengthen social cohesion and reconciliation.

The positive micro-institutional dynamics and incentives that had enabled take-up were beginning to influence reform momentum up the line. Often it is these that mean a digital solution will succeed or flounder. Like any other policy intervention, data and tech need to be technically sound and politically feasible.  

June 5, 2020
Duncan Green