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Information Structures for Citizen Participation - Janaagraha

Posted by Denisse Albornoz at Mar 12, 2014 02:10 PM |
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In our efforts to understand how change is conceptualized in the digital era, we find a growing emphasis on the role of effective information structures to empower the citizen and the government. We interview Joylita Saldanha from Janaagraha to answer questions around information, participation and e-governance.

The Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy creates information platforms to empower the government. Image Courtesy of Janaagraha: http://www.janaagraha.org/

CHANGE-MAKER:Interview with Joylita Saldanha

ORGANIZATION: Janaagraha - I change my city

METHOD OF CHANGE: Online platforms to enable communication between the citizen and the government.

STRATEGY OF CHANGE:Empower the government -create resources to help them do what the citizens expect them to do.

10 posts into the project, we are identifying the most outstanding patterns between processes of change. One of the themes that comes up often is: information management. How do we translate data to information, and information to knowledge? What is the best way to produce, consume and disseminate information? How does visible information lead to better mechanisms of participation in democracy? As the topic recurs in my conversations with change-makers, I have even reflected about the way that I display the research outputs of this project, and have adapted the format of these articles to make them as interactive and accessible as possible. Why? Because we believe this research is an entry point for a wider conversation around different ways to understand ‘making change’, and in order to produce this knowledge we need different actors to take part in the conversation. Hence, the format of our information must be (visually) persuasive enough to sway the readers into at least reading the article, and encourage their engagement, interaction and participation.

This is also the rationale behind digital information platforms, including e-governance. Governments, authorities and organizations are devising new ways of presenting their information and making their services more accessible and interactive for the public. According to the UNESCO’s definition, e-governance is the public sector’s use of information and communication technology with the aim of:

1. Improving information and service delivery
2. Encouraging citizen participation in decision-making processes
3. Making governments accountable, transparent and effective

What is e-governance?
By the IDRC and IdeaCorp

India has its own  National e-governance plan in place. It’s ambitious in scope:

“a massive country-wide infrastructure reaching down to the remotest of villages is evolving, and large-scale digitization of records is taking place to enable easy, reliable access over the internet. The ultimate objective is to bring public services closer home to citizens”.

Read more on the plan here.

However most of the online services offered on this platform are focused on tax returns, citizenship/visa/PAN/TAN applications or train bookings. The communication direction remains uni-lateral, going strictly from government to citizen. They also host a portal for citizen grievances (link below), in an effort to also tackle citizen to government communication. While the portal has some fancy tools like a 4 colour palette to customize the theme of the site; the interface seems outdated and the ‘Guidelines for Redress of Public Grievances’ has not been updated since 2010.

 Communication Government to Citizen Citizen to government Portal Aadhar Kiosk Portal for Public Grievances Link http://resident.uidai.net.in/ http://pgportal.gov.in/ Interface

At this point, I should probably add much needed disclaimers: my online search might not have been exhaustive enough. There might be other e-governance services (hosted by the government for citizens) I did not cover in my quick google run, or as a foreigner I might be unaware of the right places to look. Having said that, I have been trying to use my newbie experience throughout these posts, to explore the digital immigrant from a different angle. The digital immigrant is not only who was born before the 1990s, but also includes those of us who are technologically challenged and for whom the more complex sites are still wild, undiscovered territories. If these information structures are not accessible enough for someone who intentionally scouted for them for about an hour, it will not be for the user who does not have the time to spare and needs a more reliable and resilient bridge to connect with the government. This problem is at the core of civic participation and as a result, change actors are devising new modes to interfere, facilitate and engage with government information.

Information and Urban Governance

(This section will be revised)

The question on information management is key in the analysis of citizen action in emerging information societies. This project acknowledged from its inception that the information flow of networks is changing and shaping the dynamics of state-citizen-market relationships (Shah, 2014). I will refer to Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, to revisit the information economy, as it has been a recurrent reference in my analyses throughout the project, and it will be a useful benchmark to cross-reference findings in the future. On this opportunity, I would like to highlight his views on the role of information flow in democratic societies:

“The basic claim is that the diversity of ways of organizing information production and use, opens a range of possibilities for pursuing the core political values of liberal societies-individual freedom, a more genuinely participatory political system, a critical culture, and social justice” Benkler, 2006

Enabling a smoother and more transparent information flow, according to his work, has the following effects on citizen’s participation:

1. Autonomy: Access to information enables citizens to perceive a wider range of possibilities and options against which they can gauge their choices. This is particularly important when the citizen participates in decision-making processes.

2. Democracy: The emergence of an information economy, creates information structures that are not only an alternative to mass media, as Benkler states, but I would like to add are also alternative to government-run e-governance platforms that cannot fully cater to citizens' need for participation and debate. Creating an accessible and participatory information structure also creates a space that fosters public discussion, and hence, the expression of our political nature. (Visit Storytelling as Performance Part 2 for a larger exploration of the political in the public space)

3. Human justice: The freedom to access basic resources and services, allows us to fulfil our capabilities in society, including producing our own information, as well as improving our well-being by accessing information about health, education, public infrastructure, etc.

These three characteristics can be very well tied up with the three objectives of e-governance outlined above: wider information delivery, citizen participation and government accountability. Citizens aspire to access information that enables them to make good choices and participate in conversations that affect their livelihoods. For this reason, we find a common goal among the change actors (interviewed in the series), is devising new modes to engage with government-related information that complement or replace government-owned platforms.

Civil Society' and E-governance

One of the best known examples of these initiatives have been spearheaded by the Bangalore-based NGO: Janaagraha. the Centre for Citizenship and Democracy.

Image courtesy of Duke University website

The organization works to improve the quality of life in Indian cities and towns, by improving the information around infrastructure and services; and citizenship. We interviewed Joylita Saldanha, who works for the NGO’s leadership team to learn more about Janaagraha’s views on the role of information for urban governance, based on the experience of platforms such as I change my city.  Her perspective c aught me off guard, as she framed the problem in urban governance from a somewhat unconventional angle:

Joylita Saldanha

• Experience conceptualizing and
building Mobile and Web products in Los Angeles and Bangalore
• Believes technology is a great lever and enabler.
• Sees potential in technology to drive community action at the ground level

Whenever we talk about social change, participation and democracy, we root for the discourse that works to empower the citizen. Janaagraha finds this assumption incomplete. Saldanha suggests it is our role to find new ways to empower the government and help them do their job: "One citizen cannot be always an agent of change so we need communities coming together [...] We want to look at how to get citizens involved, because we can’t keep blaming the government if we don’t participate. We need to help them do what they do".

Read this short interview to get a glimpse of the information structures Janaagraha is building to empower the government.

Interview:

In order to gauge the extent to which Janaagraha is empowering and enabling the government to make information accessible for the public, we will look at how their online platforms are improving e-governance, based on the three characteristics outlined in the UNESCO definition and the three characteristics of effective information economies outlined by Benkler.

Stage 1: Improving information delivery

How does I change my city tackle this information crisis?

JS: Janaagraha wants to improve the quality of life in two ways:

• Improving the quality of infrastructure.
• Improving the quality of citizenship and citizen engagement.

We look at I change my city as something that enables citizens and governments to be more transparent for each other. Janaagraha can’t be everywhere, but technology crosscuts all the programs to allow us to roll it out to other cities.

How does Janaagraha know what information people need?

JS:We have a Net Plus Roots approach:

Stage
Roots: Information transactions at the grassroots level
Net: Information transactions through technology
Process
Reach out to communities and engage with them
• Community outreach and advocacy teams contacts the government
• Get the government and the citizen connected
• Send out citizen reports to government
• Follow up with the government to get responses
• Share responses with the citizens
We take all learnings from  the grassroots and apply them to technology.
• The design/product team in place does customer research.
• Look at google keywords and try to understand what people are searching for
• Disseminate that content with citizens
Example Crisis: Low voting turn out.
Roots intervention:
Look at where people go to enroll for voting and how  we can clean up the electoral role at the grassroots level.
Net intervention:
Jaagte Raho: A portal  People can register online to vote.

Crisis: How to get a driving license in Bangalore.
Roots intervention:
People were not getting them because they don’t know the correct process or what to do. They don’t know the hows or the whys.
Net intervention
We created a section called How To and put the process of
a) How to get a driving license
b) why do you go and get a driving license
c) what are the documents you need to carry.

Right now we are playing the role of facilitator, but eventually we don’t want to be those facilitators. We want these platforms to be bridges between the citizen and the government.

My only problem with this is that an information structure based and reliant on digital technologies will only allow the interests of the middle class to permeate the system. How will information from other groups feed into the structure?

JS: We definitely want to enable access for everyone, but we don’t want a duplication of efforts. If the road is broken; even if one person complains and gets that pothole fixed then the road will be good for everyone to use. At the end of the day what we want people is to participate. From then we can take it to the next level and ask: ok what are we really missing in terms of planning? where are we missing participatory budgeting? where can we involve everybody: not only the urban but everybody. That’s what it takes it to the next level.

Stage 2: Encouraging citizen participation in decision-making processes

How does access to information improve urban governance?

JS: A very basic important aspect of where you live is to find which is your ward who is your electoral representative and what does he do. People don’t even know which ward they are living in, which is their assembly constituency, etc. Engaging with the electoral representative, then engaging with civic agencies. These are things you need to have in place before we start looking beyond this.

And you are facilitating this information?

JS: Yes, we are trying to map out services in the neighborhood and give more information about this. We have Municipal Commissions in Bangalore, and most people don’t know where these agencies are located, so our survey team went out found the offices and mapped them.

We use maps a lot because we make a lot of emphasis in spatial data. We want people to participate: tell us where their the park or playground is, locate it and then we take this information and find out: what is the budget allocated for this park, when was the last clean up, what is the future of this park, etc. At the same time, we want the citizen to tell us about its state and their wish-lists for this park.

You mention spatial data. What is the best way to use it? and who should manage it?

One thing we see when we interact with civic agencies or electoral, is that most of them don’t have a grasp of the analytics to understand what is the ground level situation, and that is where we come in. We have an information structure in place and we make data accessible. This helps representatives understand what are the patterns: a) what are the trends, b) where are their successes, c) where are their failures. Data needs to play a major role in how we take our decisions. It cannot be intuitively thought out.

Stage 3: Making governments accountable and transparent

How can these resources make the government more accountable?

We need more [information] systems in place to identify what is accessible in terms of services and infrastructures. First step is making things transparent; and making elected representatives, civic agencies, citizens -all these people accountable. We believe that accountability and participation goes hand in hand. You need to participate in order to make it accountable. The process of engagement is empowering for the citizen once they realize they can bring about change."

It takes time to get things done; change happens very slowly. And we can’t keep blaming the government if we don’t participate. We don’t lend them a hand, and let’s be honest, we probably don’t have the resources. So, how do we enable the government? How do we empower them? That’s something Janaagraha works for: helping the government do what they need to do.

***********

The next interview will feature Surabhi HR from Political Quotient, an organization working to redefine how youth engage with politics in the digital era.  We will refer back to the characteristics about information economies and e-governance outlined on this post and use Janaagraha's experience as a backdrop, to explore the work PQ is doing: organizing spatial data, improving information structures for the government and bridging communication between citizens and their elected representatives.

Sources:

Benkler, Yochai. The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom. Yale University Press, 2006.

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

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