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 or Chatter? Towards A More Impactful Milieu of ICT-mediated Citizen Engagement in the Philippines


There is no time period more challenging yet and at the same time more exciting for governance than when the political environment is in flux. In the Philippines, 2016 marked significant changes as the country transitioned to the Duterte administration. The Duterte era is believed to signal greater transparency in government, especially with the signing of an Executive Order on Freedom of Information merely days after President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office. At the same time, the 2016 elections sparked plenty of debate and conflict in online and offline spaces, thus highlighting the role of social media in amplifying citizen voice. This is perhaps the reason why 2016 was an interesting year for Philippine governance, and even more so for the Voice or Chatter project.

In the Philippines, the research project is led by Foundation for Media Alternatives, with the case study on the Philippines’ Open Data Initiative.

Using Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory, the study examines how open data can be used by government and citizens to generate shared meaning. ” It does this by using available secondary data on the ODP, as well as in-depth discussions with a former member of the Philippine government’s Open Data Task Force.

The study starts by looking at the development of eGovernance in the Philippines through the years, from the creation of the National Computer Center in 1971 to the various initiatives done under the country’s commitment to the Open Government Partnership in 2011. It then zeroes in on the case of the Open Data Philippines (ODP) and examines the initiative’s successes and shortcomings, as well as how they can impact and inform emerging policies such as those on Freedom of Information.

An analysis of the history of the ODP from 2011 to 2016 showed that although Open Data Philippines offered significant potential and operated with a vision of enriching citizen participation in governance, its overall impact fell short because of several reasons, namely: limited citizen involvement and poor appreciation of open data by both the public and the government. These include low uptake because of persisting gaps in access and literacy, significant lack of monitoring and evaluation efforts by the government, and a volatile political landscape that impedes sustainability.

Based on these results, the Philippines research makes the following recommendations;

First, the Philippines’ commitment to the OGP must be further institutionalized to ensure continuity and sustainability of efforts under the Partnership.

Second, a wide-reaching paradigm shift must occur with regard to the attitudes and appreciation of open data among political leaders and civil society alike.

Lastly, a long fought-for Freedom of Information law must be passed covering all branches of government to strengthen the impact of access to information for good governance. FMA intends to use the Voice or Chatter research to advocate for policies that could fill its identified gaps and achieve the potential of open data for citizen engagement and meaningful change.

Event: What is the Internet’s role in Brazilian politics?

This piece originally appeared on InternetLab. It has been reposted here with permission.

On February 21st 2017, we hosted the event “What is the Internet’s role in Brazilian politics?”, with the aim to foster in the public sphere some of the debates we consider important from internal discussions motivated by two of our research projects: Voice or Chatter and #OtherVoices: gender, race, class and sexuality in the 2016 elections.

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From left to right: Sâmia Bomfim (Vereadora – PSOL-SP); Bernardo Sorj (UFRJ/Centro Edelstein); Rurion Melo (FFLCH-USP); e Francisco Brito Cruz (InternetLab) (Image: André Zurawski)

Voice or Chatter is a project coordinated by the Indian organization IT for Change and aims at building a comparative panorama on whether and how participation mediated by information and communication technologies (ICTs) has been empowering citizens and transforming democracy. InternetLab is responsible for the research in Brazil, which will result in two products: an article with a “state of the art” revision of the literature about participation and ICTs in Brazil (the complete report is available here); and a case study, comparing the public consultations of the Brazilian Civil Rights Framework and the reform of the Copyright Law (still in development).

In the panel “Listening challenges: the future of participation and the State’s role” we presented the main results of our state of the art research. Some of our conclusions were:

As it has been noted by the classical Political Science literature, the permeability of the decision making processes to civil society not only depends on normative provisions (Federal Constitution, laws and decrees), but also on the context and political will of the rulers;

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From left to right: Larissa Santiago (Blogueiras Negras); Pablo Ortellado (EACH-USP); Tati Dias (Jornalista); e Natália Neris (InternetLab) (Image: André Zurawski)

The use of new technologies such as online platforms has advantages, like a greater transparency in relation to those who took part and which were the interests at stake;

The interface of the online tools influences the way through which citizens engage and interact among themselves, which has direct consequences for the quality and the pertinence of the contributions. Technological decisions, therefore, are more and more turning into political decisions;

Especially in Brazil, where only 50% of the population has access to the Internet, one of the main worries in the use of ICTs is with regard to eventual distortions in the participation due to the lack of representativeness in the online processes. Thus, these tools should not be seen as replacements of traditional forms of participation, but as complementary methods;

The State still has difficulties to provide feedback to the population in terms of which contributions were taken into consideration and on which criteria they were based on, something that could contribute to the establishment of a more profound and organic relationship with civil society.

The project #OtherVoices: gender, race, class and sexuality in the 2016 elections, in its turn, monitored and registered the discussions related to gender, race, sexuality, regional origin and social class that happened during the 2016 electoral period and their relationship with the Internet.

In the panel Acting challenges: activism and (in)visibility on the Internet we presented the main results of the research and, at the end of the event, distributed copies of the report (in Portuguese), which we comment in detail and made available for download here.


Watch videos from the event

Listening Challenges: The Future of Participation and the State’s Role


Acting Challenges: Activism and (In)visibility on the Internet


Dutch Grassroots Digital Activism: Notes from the Netherlands

Dr.Delia Dumitrica at research seminar held by the Erasmus Research Centre for Media, Communication and Culture (ERMeCC), January 2017

With a population that is increasingly online (over 93 per cent of the Dutch used the Internet in 2015) and an array of formal mechanisms for citizens to engage in political decision-making, the Netherlands is often touted as a model for e-participation and e-government. In 2016, the Netherlands ranked 7th in the world in the UN E-Government Development Index and ranked 5th in the world in the UN E-Participation Index . While such numbers speak to the integration of digital technologies into Dutch political life, the contribution of such technologies to citizen engagement is by no means a settled matter. In fact, the political use of digital technologies is often shaped by various non-technological factors, such as the wider political context or the cultural understandings of the affordances and usefulness of technology.

These were the preliminary conclusions proposed by a case study of a Dutch grassroots digital activism undertaken by Dr. Delia Dumitrica, Assistant Professor in the Media and Communication Department at Erasmus University Rotterdam. The results of this research, funded by the “Voice or Chatter? Using Structuration Framework Towards a Theory of ICT Mediated Citizen Engagement” project led by the IT for Change foundation, were presented to an academic audience in early January 2017 in a research seminar held by the Erasmus Research Centre for Media, Communication and Culture (ERMeCC).

The case study warns against the dangers of technologically deterministic accounts of the power of digital technologies to organize, mobilize, or otherwise empower citizens. Instead, the results suggest that digital activism can equally call upon users and visitors to envisage themselves as supporters, fans, or followers of a cause, eliciting low-cost, low-involvement civic actions. Far from being a reflection of the alleged ‘power’ of technology, the grassroots activist use of digital technologies adapt to the requirements and pressures set upon citizen-activists by the wider political structures. The latter recommend particular avenues for citizen input, thus shaping the citizen-activists’ own take to the use of digital technologies. Furthermore, activists are often experiencing tensions between their expectations on what such technologies are able to do—expectations often inflated by highly mediatized events such as the Occupy movement or the Arab Spring—and the often disappointing results of their actual