Roundtable: Towards concerted action on democratic accountability

DSCN4621IT for Change organized a one day round table titledTowards concerted action on democratic accountability in the digital age” on 11 March 2017. The meeting was intended to build upon the momentum of our November 2016 workshop in New Delhi on “Democratic accountability in the digital age.”

The opening session began with a presentation by IT for Change. To set the context for further engagement and discussion, a snapshot of the latest developments in digitalized welfare and data, in and for, governance, along with some possible directions for policy measures from other nations were presented to the group. Several ideas and contestations around digitalized welfare service delivery, citizen engagement and data governance were discussed. At the end of the presentation, two key questions were presented to the group to take forward the deliberations for the rest of the day.


  • What should a digitalized service delivery model that guarantees democratic accountability look like?
  • How can legal-institutional systems for data-in-governance and data-for-governance be designed to ensure public interest and the promotion of people’s rights?

The presentation was followed by a round of inputs and reactions from the participants on the current state of digitalized welfare and the ways in which exclusions were playing out. From the ways in which the Aadhar architecture is embedding itself into the welfare system and creating multiple forms of ruptures, to the wild-west regulatory environment that current data governance systems operate in, participants spoke to these themes from their backgrounds in legal research, civic activism, digital policy research and administrative experience.

A wide range of accountability concerns about the digital governance systems were debated and discussed, in the following sessions on digital welfare and data in and for governance. The round table also allowed for articulation of next steps in the process, which started with the November workshop and the creation of the charter on democratic accountability in December 2016.

Legal scholar Usha Ramanathan noted that there was a disturbing trend of “personalized privatization” in the Indian state that needed to be named as such to be able to confront it. The provision of subsidies were being recast in the language of controlling leakage or making a contribution to the market. The ambition Usha commented, was “to create an Indian silicon valley and efforts such as ISPIRT and India Stack were important pipelines to creating a technological monopoly.”

Several participants brought up the fact that despite evidence about the many irregularities in the Aadhaar system, challenges to it were being summarily dismissed. Further, deliberate campaigns of misinformation were being used to push it as the core platform for governance. Not only was data within the Aadhaar system being linked to more and more welfare systems, but this data pool had become the default property of the state. Further, the welfare system itself was being weakened by a breakdown in service delivery through a replacement with cash payments, thus ending government intervention in vital sectors such as education, health and pensions.


The issue of unproblematic surrender of biometrics to the state was also raised in the round table. In the context of some data governance laws introduced in the presentation by IT for Change, such as the European Union’s Right to be Forgotten, it was observed how even the digitally active and those with skills to understand or grasp some part of these safeguards were often unaware of their rights, and the full implications of what the trade-offs were when they ‘bought into’ the digital. How could the marginalized then grapple with the complications of being online?

The lack of choice with which citizens were being forced into these things is a matter of concern, observed Nikhil Dey from the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS).
He noted that the idea of good governance used by the World Bank, has imposed a notion of ‘good’ that becomes automatically associated with ‘efficient’. The real test is of ‘democratic governance’, which hinges on whether governance is participatory, whether it offers real choice and whether the platforms it uses can be subject to audit.

The issue of demonetisation, the budding financial technology industry (fin-tech) based on the Aadhaar platform and the aggressive cashless agenda of the Indian government were also discussed in the round table. Anjali Bhardwaj, director of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), spoke to the larger question of citizenship in the times of digital governance and the manner in which it created codes of legitimacy and illegitimacy.

She brought up the case of the slums of Delhi where NCPRI worked, where residents were constantly told from the very beginning, “you are illegal.” Control over people’s proof of identity was very common, and local power brokers would just collect voter cards before elections. This alienation was only getting worse and becoming exacerbated through digital methods, especially with forced digital moves such as “going cashless”. People’s citizenship was now even more in question than it has ever been, Anjali noted.

The role of trade regimes and agreements and how they played out in technological choices was raised by IP lawyer, Swapna Sundar who asserted that it was important we had control over digital resources, else we would not be able to control the outcome. She pointed to the fact that the underlying technologies for digital services that drive cashless endeavors are from foreign companies, over none of which we have any oversight, adding that “UIDAI is simply skimming the top. Our bridges, tunnels, transportation systems – there is a complete lack of technological knowledge.”

The India Stack initiative for example had made it very easy for private sector players to get access to the Aadhaar database, without any proper checks and balances, or measures to regulate who had access to this data and to what degree of control.

Some central questions that were broached included the approach to take on data management and retention (centralized versus federated) and that with respect to digital delivery – optimum ways to maintain offline and online systems. Stressing on the need for transparent, open data and information systems at the local level and not gathering what is not needed, Nikhil Dey argued that data management was better done at the local levels. “Whether Chunni Singh got rations is not relevant to the guy on the top,” he said, “but in the village it is relevant who got what.”

Himanshu Damle from the Public Finance Public Accountability Collective noted that there were several lacunae in our understanding of the data ecology, most importantly among them, an acknowledgement of its extreme malleability, which is in a state of flux. He observed that, “our approaches to governing data were in the past.” Data has been intensified, but regulation continues to be approached from a centralized point of view. He suggested looking at options that were more decentralized, such as block chains.

Parminder Jeet Singh from IT for Change also stated that as a society when we were buying into new social systems, the longer term costs of this must be acknowledged to move forward on regulating the digital effectively, specifically with regard to striking a balance amongst the roles of state and corporates in different spaces – regional, national and international. New areas such as Artificial Intelligence and machine learning must be considered when thinking about effective policies to govern the domain.

The round table served as a building block towards creating a consensus around some of the major issues in digital governance systems. In the second half, the strategies for action were discussed by the participants. First, the charter was recognized as an important starting point, and the need to take the work on it forward was also acknowledged as an imperative in the coming months. Connecting with other important networks and coalitions working in welfare sectors was also discussed as an important step. In addition to this, it was also decided that a systematic research study would be undertaken to establish a sound repository of credible and valid data on citizens’ experiences using Aadhaar and the JAM platform for service delivery, through surveys, interviews and public hearings.

Voice in the Indian Context: Furthering Accountability

In India, digital governance regime has brought with it a mixed bag of opportunities and teething pains for the citizenry. On one hand, there is much to be appreciated about a move to the digital. Digital service delivery solutions make sense in a socio-economic scenario where the marginalized deal with innumerable barriers to accessing their entitlements and rights, whether it is an apathetic bureaucracy insensitive to the survival needs of the poor or the countless intermediaries who eat into their dues. Technology can, in theory, bring efficiency, cut down on time costs spent in queues and reduce ambiguities and corruption for beneficiaries.

In theory…

However, in the past few years, the ad-hoc experiments with digital governance point to a very different picture – one in which technology becomes yet another paradigm of subjugation, disciplining and exclusion which invariably hurts the most vulnerable. Governance by networks and rule by data have increasingly meant a state in which human discretion is replaced by automation, private parties take over public sectors and the provision of welfare becomes an exercise in efficiency management.

If the wide spread issues with Aadhar based authentication and the bottle shocks brought on by the demonetization drive are anything to go by, a crisis of governance looms large in the Indian context. What is at stake are not just the futures of the rural poor but the very future of deliberative democracy. Top-down digitalization cannot work if necessary due-diligence, requisite back haul and infrastructure, and most importantly, safeguards to ensure that the millions who live their life unconnected and disenfranchised do not fall through the cracks, are not thought through. There is a dire need for institutional norms, rules and practices that guarantee democratic accountability in such a context. Beyond this, there is also a need to claim the civic-public value of digital technologies so that data and the new possibilities for networking are harnessed towards a robust and vibrant grassroots democracy and citizen empowerment. In a truly Digital India, technology must work for the amplification of citizens’ voice, further the accountability of the state towards its people, and realize the ‘right to be heard.’

Highlights from our November Workshop

Introductory Session of Workshop on ‘Democratic Accountability in the Digital Age’

In order to examine and discuss these shifts in our contemporary democratic fabric, a workshop that focused on emerging technological practices in government and their implications for citizenship was held in November 2016. Titled, ‘Democratic Accountability in the Digital Age’.

The workshop was organized by IT for Change, the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI). The goal of the workshop was to explore the above discussed concerns and move towards a set of principles to enhance and preserve participatory democracy in the digital age. The workshop also aimed to bring together a coalition that could take the work forward in concrete and actionable ways to widen the public debate in this regard and influence government.

Spread over two days, the workshop included a range of panel presentations, discussions and deliberations where a range of digital governance issues were presented, unpacked and contested. These included issues like welfare service delivery under the JAM (Jandhan Aadhar Mobile) model, the need for a robust data governance framework in India, smart cities and the introduction of new institutional arrangements in public administration.

The opening session, ‘Democracy in Digital India: What is at stake?’ was headed by Nikhil Dey from MKSS, Usha Ramanathan, an independent researcher, and Sumandro Chattapadhyay from CIS. Moderated by Parminder Jeet Singh from IT for Change, the panel discussed the impacts of the transition to a digitalized, data-based governance paradigm from the standpoint of democratic accountability and citizen-rights.

The panel recognized the need to understand the dynamics of technological change and challenge the assault on welfare. The lack of liability on part of the government in Aadhar enabled systems, including the fact that there were no safeguards against denial of entitlements and services due to errors/failures was highlighted by the panel members. Usha Ramanathan also pointed out that in the context of Aadhar, privacy was becoming a red herring that could be leveraged to benefit private control and limit transparency. Examining the JAM platform, and the fin-tech industry it has given rise to, Sumandro Chattapadhyay observed that profit shells were being coded as ‘nonprofits’ and in the guise of volunteerism, a revolving door for technocrats had been created that goes back and forth between corporations and government through initiatives such as India Stack and iSPIRT. Nikhil Dey argued that there was a need for digital systems that opened up everything about the government to the citizens for their scrutiny, and a system that ensures downward accountability.

In his lecture on ‘What is new about the new governance paradigm?’, Prabir Purkayastha, from the Society for Knowledge Commons, spoke about the shift to digitalized governance and what it meant for the larger relationship between the state and the citizen, unpacking concepts such as ‘rule by data.’ Defining data as social relations, he made the point that commodification of data was in fact commodification of social relations. In this context, our responses within the context of a nation state framework were inadequate to curb, control or question transnational data monopolies.

While contending that technology was out of social control, Prabir cautioned against activists cultivating a Luddite approach as a response. The fights against exclusions in biometric welfare, he concluded had to be linked to the bigger fight for shaping the politics of technology.

Panel on ‘Citizen Engagement in Technocratic Times’

The session ‘Citizen engagement in technocratic times’, focussed on citizen participation in the context of digital governance and the potential for such interactions to be transformative. The panel saw presentations by Shankar Singh from MKSS, Rajendran Narayanan from the Program for Liberation Technology, Amber Sinha from CIS and Deepti Bharthur from IT for Change and was chaired by Sejal Dand from ANANDI. Stressing on the need for accountability and human discretion, Shankar Singh argued that technology has no accountability to people, and grievance becomes just another number instead of the articulation of voice. Building on this, Rajendran Narayanan shared the work done by the program for Liberation Technology in Telengana, and made the case that technology could be a tool in the hands of pro-active citizens, but could not be the solution for accountability in and of itself. In his talk, Amber Sinha, using the example of predictive policing argued how Big Data in governance practices assumed neutrality but actually amplifies existing societal biases because it operates on existing knowledge systems.

In our presentation from IT for Change, we discussed some highlights from the Voice or Chatter project to talk about the ways in which a certain value bankruptcy of concepts such as transparency, openness, participation had occurred through their co-option in the digital paradigm that had done little to further the cause of deliberative democracy. We highlighted the paradox of statist technospeak, pointing to how policies for ‘openness’ and open data may comfortably sit with state intolerance to dissent.

In the session ‘Governing the Smart City’, Kshithij Urs from Action Aid and Swapna Sundar from IP Dome offered legal and governance based perspectives on private party involvement in the administration of urban spaces, drawing from their work in the cities of Bengaluru and Chennai, respectively. Noting that the vision of Smart Cities is connected to India being the third largest market for PPPs, Kshithij Urs spoke about the fact that urban governance had left no voice for urban residents, given that increasingly, public utilities were being taken out of public hands. In the smart city discourse, he asserted that development had become a technicality and participation a form of tyranny in itself. Swapna Sundar in her presentation, discussed the underlying technologies of smart city projects, most of which were patented and inaccessible to the Indian Government. Given that there are no firm technology transfer agreements in place, she demonstrated how smart cities were likely to create an unbroken chain of dependence on private platforms such as IBM and Cisco.

The second day of the workshop opened with a context setting panel titled ‘Back to the basics – first principles for democratic accountability in the age of digitalized governance.’ The session included short talks by Osama Manzar from DEF, Rahul Sharma from the Data Security Council of India (DSCI) and researcher, Anupam Saraph, and was chaired by Anjali Bhardwaj from NCPRI. The session focussed on what new legal- institutional safeguards, policy frameworks and techno-design principles were needed to challenge and regulate the technologies of governance.

Osama Manzar, sharing his views on the issues of access through the work of his organisation, noted that there continued to be pockets of India even today that remained invisible to the colonial systems of bureaucracy, let alone touched by the digital. He stressed on the need for technological choice and adoption that came from the people, rather than as a top-down effort. Rahul Sharma, in his presentation, gave an overview of the evolution of data security guidelines in India noting the ways in which data was becoming more and more central to political and economic processes. He observed that there were three stages in data governance – From governance of data to governance by data towards governance for Data.

Anupam Saraph spoke about the ways in which the layering of fin-tech on the JAM platform needed to be examined with caution, given how Aadhar based transactions, a bulk of which were funds from the public exchequer, could not be subject to financial audit. This view was endorsed by Anjali Bhardwaj, who noted that there was a move to deliberately mystify government through technology and create distance between the government and governed, and to create paradigms of governance that could evade the purview of hard won instruments of accountability such as the Right to Information Act (2005).

The later half of the workshop on Day 2 was spent in working towards a set of principles that could form a charter on democratic accountability in governance. Workshop participants met in smaller groups. Each group, following a period of brainstorming, discussion and consensus, brought back a set of principles, which were presented and discussed in the wider plenary. A host of issues were brought to the table and hotly debated – data governance and guidelines, means of enhancing digital participation, countering the clout of private capital in state functions, resolving the ever pertinent questions of basic access and digital literacy.

The workshop brought together a range of actors – from grassroots activists confronted with digital exclusions at the margins, to scholars engaging with the issues in institutional settings, to practitioners pushing back against a technocratic takeover of peoples’ democratic rights in critical and important ways, and several others. While attendees had differing takes on the issues at hand, a sound, well rounded framework that addresses the gaps and issues in digital governance in India was recognized as an immediate imperative. The groundwork laid at the workshop was acknowledged as an important starting point, but it was also noted that there was more work to be done in this direction.

Going Forward

The Charter on Democratic Accountability in the Digital Age is a step to consolidate the emerging dialogue on data governance/ data in governance. As a document, it was born out of the group discussions and debates in the November workshop. But it is also a product of our larger research and advocacy efforts through the Voice and Chatter project, co-created with our partners and coalitions, and is informed by a year of sustained engagement with various aspects of citizen voice, technology mediated governance and the larger question of the future of deliberative democracy.

A draft version is currently available on Google docs. We invite people to review, comment and offer their views on the document. Over the next several weeks, as we share final outputs from the project including state-of-the-art reports, policy briefs and case studies, we will be moving forward on the charter, finalizing it through more debates and discussions, creating what we believe will be a comprehensive framework on digital governance in India.

Voice or Chatter: Towards New Meanings of Citizen Engagement

Even in July, a time when the monsoons offers some respite from soaring summer temperatures in India, the heat continues to blaze in Jaipur. There’s been no rain. The state, situated in the arid western fringe of the country is witnessing a drought for the second year running.At the Jawab Do Dharna, the fifteen day public event for accountability, organized by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan(MKSS), a sprawling tent propped up by wooden poles is the only thing that offers any protection from the oppressive temperatures.Undeterred by the heat, people have travelled far and wide to be here – and to be heard.

The Jan Sunwai

Activists and artists perform at the Jawabdo Dharna in Jaipur, June 2016

People are queuing up to have their turn on the stage and take part in the Jan Sunwai, a public hearing where citizens voice their grievances over a plethora of governance related issues – delayed pensions and reduced rations. They lay themselves bare in their stories, of being unceremoniously cut from welfare rosters based on faulty algorithmic decision making and inaccurate big data. Their collective outrage, frustrations and quest for justice echoes in a common narrative of disenfranchisement.

In the crowds, MKSS interns and volunteers from the Digital Empowerment Foundation are working with the complainants to process and upload their grievances onto ‘Sampark Rajasthan’ a government grievance redressal platform maintained by the Government of Rajasthan’s Department of Information and Technology.

To date, the online portal has been used by MKSS to track over ten thousand complaints on behalf of the complainants. These grievances will be taken to concerned local officials to negotiate reinstatement of welfare benefits. They are also being collated with a view to lobby for an accountability bill to be introduced to the state legislature later this year.

Sometime in the early evening, as a discussion is in process, a sandstorm kicks up. Volunteers immediately run to hold the poles in place, holding the structure in place as it sways precariously from side to side. The discussion continues, indifferent to the vagaries of nature.

Metaphors abound. This is democracy – imperfect, shaky and yet surviving.

‘Voice or Chatter?’

The Voice or Chatter Project which began in March 2016 under the MAVC program has been IT for Change’s effort at understanding the impact of ICT mediated citizen engagement on governance structures and processes. Working with a network of researchers, we look at nine case studies from Asia, Africa, South America and Europe to explore the ways in which ICT mediated engagement can be empowering for the citizen and transformative for the outcomes of governance.

From our preliminary work and scoping in the project, a complicated picture of citizen engagement arises. This resonates with the experiences of policymakers and researchers alike, who have observed how similar ICT initiatives may elicit markedly different outcomes in different contexts – opening up new spaces for meaningful dialogue between government and citizens in one instance while amounting to no more than a token gesture in others. From the Marco Civil law in Brazil to the ‘crystal box’ initiative being undertaken in Colombia, a range of ICT mediated practices are being studied under the project that challenge and reshape existing meanings, norms and practices around citizen engagement.

ICT-mediated citizen engagement

The conversations with our partner researchers have led to some insightful observations about the conditions under which ICT-mediated citizen engagement functions.

In Spain, the connection between autonomy of local level governance and a push for municipalism as a form of resisting federal overreach reveals some interesting tensions between levels of governance and the ways in which they can shape larger forms of civic engagement.

Initiatives that seek to promote a culture of transparency and participation such as the Open Government Action Plan (OGAP) in Uruguay and the ‘Open Data’ project of the Philippines’ government also help us in understanding how participation and citizen voice can be engendered in governance and lead to long term governmental outcomes.

In India, our fieldwork tracking MKSS’ work with Sampark Rajasthan point to the increasingly important role that big data and ‘digital as default’ practices play in governance and the delivery of social and economic rights, offering us a timely window to examine how citizen voice is shaped in the context of such emerging paradigms. It has also opened up questions about the nature of collective action and representation through the use of ICT tools vs the continued relevance of earlier models of community organisation. For instance, Sampark Rajasthan has been set up with a view to transition all departments of the state government to an online-only grievance redressal mechanism. Where a group of villagers may have once been able to collectively negotiate issues with the local bureaucracy in person, registering a complaint online may force a more individualistic approach.

The cases being pursued under the Voice or Chatter project present an opportunity to map the liminal moments of citizen engagement and understand if and how meanings around ‘participation’ and ‘voice’ are being fundamentally rewritten.

Moving beyond a simplistic theory of change as an automatic outcome of digital participation, a more accurate picture of citizen voice negotiations begins to emerge. Inclusive citizen-centric institutional norms, rules and practices that guarantee democratic accountability in the age of data based governance thus becomes a key policy imperative.

This piece was first published on the Making All Voices Count  blog on 15th September, 2016 as part of International Day of Democracy.

Voice or Chatter? Citizen Engagement in the Digital Age

wordle 2Information and Communication Technologies ( ICTs) have had a significant impact on citizen engagement processes. By providing the basis for continuous dialogue and opening up greater possibilities to contribute to public discourse, digital technologies have restructured the terrain of everyday civic-political life. As systems of civic action and governance are resocialized through technology, this arena of rapid change has attracted considerable research interest.

The Voice or Chatter Project is an attempt to move beyond descriptive explorations of citizen agency to gain generalizable insights for governance practice. Using Anthony Giddens’ structuration framework (1984), the study will investigate how values are renegotiated, new rules evolve to legitimize new forms of participation and power is re-distributed between government and citizens, thus tracing how interactions among actors continuously shape and reproduce governance institutions.

This ten month research study will contribute macro-level analytical insights from specific micro-level initiatives. Offering a comprehensive analytical framework, the study will adopt interpretive approaches to explain the shifting terrain of governance in these times of flux, drawing attention to policy issues and governance practices that matter for meaningful citizen engagement.

The Voice or Chatter project is spearheaded by IT for Change with support from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), and the Making All Voices Count (MAVC) consortium. The research network comprises collaborators from across the globe including South Africa, Kenya, Philippines, India, Netherlands, Spain, Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay.