Bridging the Information Divide - Political Quotient

Posted by Denisse Albornoz at Apr 14, 2014 08:25 AM |
On this post, we will unpack 'information poverty'- a problem lying at the very foundation of the crises that inspired this project and a barrier impacting political action. We interview Surabhi HR, the founder director of the political consulting firm Political Quotient, an initiative that seeks to change how youth interacts with politics in India
Bridging the Information Divide - Political Quotient

Political Quotient is an initiative to provide for a structured interaction between youth and politics in India. PQ is an independent and non-partisan initiative based out of Bangalore, Karnataka

CHANGE-MAKER: Surabhi H R

ORGANIZATION: Political Quotient

METHOD OF CHANGE: Building an information service for citizen grievances, designed to keep elected representatives accountable for what happens in their constituency.

STRATEGY OF CHANGE: Building a new breed of politically conscious youth in India through technology and an interdisciplinary approach to change.

The deeper we delve into this project, the more the ‘information question’ rises to the surface as the decisive factor shaping political participation in democracies. Most of the initiatives we have learned about are focused on providing spaces, resources and opportunities to enable voices, participation and richer exchanges of information and knowledge. Yet, framing these as ‘empowering’ overlooks citizens who are trapped in an information gap or suffocated by an information overflow. People who find themselves in either side of the spectrum, are for the most part discouraged from engaging with this information, participating in public discussions (Jaeger, 2005), and do not have the same political opportunities as people with wider and freer access to information.

As we continue to explore how youth is redefining civic action in digital and information societies, we must thoroughly understand the different ways in which information barriers are affecting political action. On this post, we will go over a short glossary of terms that will help us understand information poverty better- a problem lying at the very foundation of the crises that inspired this project. These terms will be somewhat similar to each other, but will be unpacked from three different points of view, describing the implications of information poverty for social justice, technology disparity and democracy. The glossary will be coupled by our conversation with Surabhi HR, the founder director of the political consulting firm Political Quotient, an initiative that seeks to change how youth interacts with politics in India. Her background in Economics added new nuances to our analysis, as we explore the workings of political action through the lenses of economic theory.

Political Quotient

Political Quotient wants to “build a new breed of politically conscious youth that engages with the political system and equips them with the necessary skills to do so”. They have been running two programs: the ‘Political Internship Programme’ where young people have the opportunity to join party lines and support with legislative research, performance auditing, media management and event organization. And the second program is ‘Politicking’, in which they organize Google hangouts and panels between student leaders, political commentators, and party heads to debate and discuss policy-making and politics.

Politicking

Now PQ is moving on to a new phase, in which they recognize it is not only youth who must be empowered. Similarly to Janaagraha, they also believe there must be an information structure in place to support elected representatives, who have been chosen to govern without the resources to effectively do so. “Things are changing, elected representatives are being held accountable, asked to be more transparent and to be more active, but the honest truth is they don’t have the necessary support to do this” comments Surabhi on the situation that led her and her team to develop a set of services and products to engage people in direct conversation with their elected representatives. These including the following:

a) A grievance addressing service: designed to keep elected representatives accountable for what happens in their constituency. Citizen grievances can be sent by e-mail, smartphone, sms, etc. to the elected representative’s office, where it will reach a multi-platform software that redresses the grievance to the right department; (for example, if the grievance is related to a tree fall, it will be redressed to the forestry department as opposed to staying in the MLA office). The whole process will be transparent, as both the citizen and the MLA will be able to track the status of the complaint, from the day it was issued to the day it was implemented, using technology.

b) A government schemes and subsidies information service: Citizens will have access to information about schemes through digital technologies, and find out if it is reaching the right beneficiaries.

Glossary:

(or crash course on concepts we should be familiar with when discussing making change in information societies)

To understand what information poverty is and how Political Quotient’s intervention in the information landscape will impact political action, will refer to the work of Johannes Britz, Doctor in Information Science and that of Anthony Downs, Economist specialist in public policy and public administration. This choice is inspired by a natural tension in our research as we continue to negotiate: what change ‘should’ look like from the lens of social justice and sustainable development, and what the ecosystem of change actually looks like when we deconstruct the political and economic structures enabling and constraining intents of change.

1.Information poverty:
According to Johannes Britz, : “the situation in which individuals and communities do not have the skills, abilities or material means to obtain efficient access to information, interpret it and apply it.”

Britz believes that information poverty must be addressed from a social justice perspective that considers the social, political and economic consequences of lack of information  for our ability to fulfill our capabilities and freedoms.  He posits a 'fair information society' as an ideal, in which social institutions work towards eradicating the four main characteristics of information- poor societies (See box below)

Characteristics of information-poor societies

1. Lack of essential information
2. Lack of financial capital to access information
3. Lack of technical infrastructure to access information
4. Lack of intellectual capacity to filter and evaluate
    the benefits of information

The third characteristic: 'inefficient information infrastructures' is the main gap, both Janaagraha and Political Quotient, are addressing in urban India. They are both providing services to connect the citizen with their elected representatives; establishing a reliable exchange of information between parties, and as a consequence, more autonomy, transparency and accountability in the governance process.

How does Political Quotient brings us closer to a fairer information landscape in governance? Surabhi responds: “The [grievance addressing] system is using the benefits of filling the information gap to create tangible assets: greater accountability, interaction, participation in the citizen-elected representative relationship and thereby fundamentally changing the way they interact.” 

Following Britz's reading of John Rawls' categories of justice[1]. PQ’s work addresses social justice in the following ways:

  • Recognition and participation: Enhancing the citizen’s ability to file a complaint is in itself an act of recognition of the citizen’s power to affect its own environment and his possibility to participate in the governance process.
  • Reciprocity: The system enables interaction between the elected representative and the citizen, setting forth reciprocity, transparency and a horizontal platform for exchanges where both parties manage the same information.
  • Development of capabilities: Assuming a successful implementation, grievances addressed imply the realization of the power of the citizen and a more functional infrastructure that enables their development as individuals.
  • Distribution and enablement: Assuming all citizens in Karnataka have access to ICTs, this service distributes power and bridges the distance between them and the government.

"In a society where we depend on the creation, access and manipulation of information, [lack of information] questions the fundamental freedoms of people”. Britz, 2004

 

While all these are highly idealistic assumptions, the last one is the most problematic (in a country where the Internet and mobile penetration rate remain as low as 16% and 26% respectively). While information and communication technologies do play an important role in bridging the gap between those who have access and produce information and those who don’t, as Britz outlines, the growth of ICT’s takes information poverty to a “whole new dimension”; in most cases dividing the info-haves and the info-have nots even further. Britz ideal of an fair information society is what we aspire to, yet there are structural limitations in place which might prevent information-based initiatives, such as Political Quotient, from achieving its social justice objectives.

2.Information Poverty
Information poverty can also be thought of as ‘information inequity’, which for the last 20 years has been strongly correlated to the digital divide. From this perspective, we can define it as the “economic inequality between groups in terms of access to and use of knowledge and ICTs.” 

Analyzing information precariousness from the technology perspective brings us to the elements contributing to the digital divide and how they are affecting our ability to be informed by and of digital technologies. According to Britz, the three main elements contributing to the divide are the following:

Factors Contributing to Digital Divide

a) Connectivity: Lack of infrastructure and material access to ICTs
b) Content: Inability to access content because it is unaffordable, unavailable or unsuitable.
c) Human approach: Lack of education and digital literacy to understand and use information and data as knowledge.

This is a paramount consideration for Political Quotient if they aspire to reach all the constituencies in Karnataka; both rural and urban. Surabhi recognizes the firm will have to overcome the socioeconomic barriers that impede a pervasive adoption of her product. “When one travels between rural and urban, the differences are many. Nothing has been done on the ground and there is a lot of potential. What is encouraging is that they want to learn.” This limitation is conflicting with the amount of information the stakeholders of this project need to handle in order to successfully bridge the information gap (between the elected representatives and the citizens) and have it be a “mutually beneficial relationship between the voter and the voted” as they envision:

Information Gaps
Information stakeholders need in order to use this service
Infographic generated using info.gram

While the service PQ is developing seeks to leverage technology to bridge this gap, digital illiteracy might not only prevent citizens from using the system, but could potentially exclude them further from the democratic process. As Shah posits in the project’s thought piece (on increasing the access to ICTS): “the analogue citizen is expected to transition to the emerging new paradigms: earlier categories of discrimination or exclusion are now replaced by technology exclusion.” The team plans to work with their clients (representatives) in digital technologies and organizational skills capacity building, yet an information inequity strategy needs to be put in place in order to guarantee the fulfillment of all the stakeholders’ capabilities -particularly equitable participation from the citizen’s front.

3. Information Poverty:
Information poverty can also take the economic avatar of ‘imperfect knowledge’. According to Anthony Downs, “lack of complete information on which to base decisions is a condition so basic to human life that it influences the structure of almost every social institution”.

Downs' perspective is based on public choice theory, which is “the use of economic tools to deal with traditional problems in political science”. This is a subset of positive political theory, that models voters, bureaucrats and politicians as self-interested. He posits in his work ‘Economic Theory for Political Action in a Democracy’ that political parties in democracies formulate policy and serve interest groups merely as a means to gaining votes.

Surabhi and her team align with this thinking: “Politics is not benevolent; ours is a for-profit model that seeks to engage with the elected representative in providing him a mechanism to ensure that he gets more votes. At the same time, we also engage with citizens in ensuring that their interests and issues are looked into. Our basis is that politicians work for votes and the same should be leveraged to solve problems”. Downs’ thesis is that given these assumptions, a democracy –a political system where the parties compete for the control of the government –can only function to its fullest potential when there is perfect information and information is costless. This is what makes democracy the gold standard of governance and the great model on paper that promises to secure our equality and freedoms.

Yet, democracy does not cease to bring disappointment and a sense of helplessness towards politics amongst youth. The advent of digital technologies has been a glimpse of hope for their political engagement, and this entire research is grounded on the question of how is it they can renew trust and mobilize youth towards civic engagement. A first step towards this direction is assuming the inherent faults in the system, as opposed to focusing on citizen apathy. Democracy has been implemented in a system where there is imperfect knowledge and where there is a high degree of both voluntary and involuntary ignorance [2],. This, according to Downs, means that:

Consequences of imperfect knowledge in governance
  • Parties do not know what citizens want
  • Citizens do not always know what the government is doing or should be doing
  • Information to overcome this gap is costly
“Ignorance of politics is not a result of unpatriotic apathy, rather it is a highly rational response to the fats of political life in a large democracy” Downs, 1957
If information is costly, so is democracy. The highest risk of deeming citizens apathetic is ignoring the information barriers that prevent them from participating fairly in decision-making processes. Political Quotient cannot intervene by encouraging citizens to be informed, but it can provide them with tools to bring them closer to constituency related information, bringing down the costs of both participation and information. As put by Surabhi: “We want to be an ally of the political system. They need to do good. They are there for 5 years and need to do something.”

 

 

Making Change

While my glossary of terms may seem repetitive (I did define the same term three times), I want to make an emphasis on how important it is to unpack our concepts through various lens of analysis. We started this project exploring multi-stakeholderism and partnerships on the ground, however we are naturally moving on to spaces of knowledge collaboration where change is conceived through the amalgamation of different disciplines. These convergences do not necessarily happen in the most visible ways though, and one of the project’s objectives is to identify undocumented yet significant interventions to make change in the landscape of information societies.

Political Quotient’s initiative breaks the following paradigms in the discourse of 'change in the digital era':

 a) It removes the spotlight from the citizen: while the focus of the project is to level citizens-citizen and citizen-government power relations (in terms of access to information), the political firm is focusing on improving the efficiency of the government apparatus, which brings new light to how 'citizen action' unfolds in the context of urban governance.
 
b) Political Quotient’s methods are far from what we see in the ‘spectacle imperative’ where the intent for change is scaled up through visibility in the public sphere. The firm was conceived in the private sector and its work will take place from within the elected representative’s offices. 
 
c) The firm, in the same way as Vita Beans, applies an interdisciplinary approach to the design of its technology. (Fun fact: Political Quotient is working alongside Amruth’s team to create mobile applications for the service; which means the infrastructure will include both behavioural science and economic thinking behind its design. Read one of our previous posts, to learn more about Amruth's approach to change and digital design)
 
d) Technology is indeed framing their understanding of change, but in this case, the question is how technology can be amplified by human behaviour and education, as opposed to how technology determines or amplifies our ability to make change as it is commonly conceived.
 

Not including an analysis of information poverty, and how it both inspires and limits intents of change, devoids the project from understanding the dynamic nature of information and how it interferes in social justice and political action. Furthermore, info-poverty is not a condition characteristic of digital and information societies. Our ability to access information has always determined our dexterity to navigate institutions and infrastructures; indistinctive of what technologies are available at the time. We hope that Political Quotient’s initiative locates not only the information gaps, but also the inherent obstacles the digital divide might represent for their work, and as stated by Surabhi in their theory of change, take them “as an opportunity for a solution. Going from mere ideas to action”. We wish them the best and will follow up on them after June, once the new elected representatives are in office, to see the extent to which information poverty has been addressed through their service. 

Footnotes:

[1] Britz based his categorization in John Rawls work on principles of justice. Particularly on 'A Theory of Justice' a work of political philosophy and ethics where he discusses inequality, distributive justice and his theory of  Justice as Fairness. We did not refer to his work for this post, but it is worth a read in the context of the digital divide and the question of fair redistribution of digital technologies. 

[2] Read more on voluntary or involuntary lack of knowledge in Downs' work on economic theory and political action. Particularly his reading on persuasion, ideologies and rational ignorance -in a context of imperfect knowledge and democracy. Some interesting ideas on persuasion: "Persuasion can only occur in the midst of ignorance; reality is: there are votes who are less informed than others and they need more facts; and we are mostly approached by biased versions of facts" and on rational ignorance: "when information is costly, no decision-maker can afford to know everything [...] ignorance of politics is not a result of unpatriotic apathy; rather it is a highly rational response to the facts of political life in a large democracy".

Sources


1. Britz, Johannes J. "To know or not to know: a moral reflection on information poverty." Journal of Information Science 30, no. 3 (2004): 192-204.

2. Downs, Anthony. "An economic theory of political action in a democracy." The Journal of Political Economy (1957): 135-150.

3. Jaeger, Paul T., and Kim M. Thompson. "Social information behavior and the democratic process: Information poverty, normative behavior, and electronic government in the United States." Library & Information Science Research 26, no. 1 (2005): 94-107.

4. Norris, Pippa. Digital divide: Civic engagement, information poverty, and the Internet worldwide. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

5. Shah, Nishant “Whose Change is it Anyways? Hivos Knowledge Program. April 30, 2013.

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