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.

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


Participation in Spanish Municipalities: The Makings of a Network of Open cities - networks

In September 2015, Madrid – the capital of Spain – initiated a participatory democracy project, Decide Madrid (Madrid decides), to enable participatory strategic planning for the municipality. Less than half a year after, in February 2016, Barcelona – the second largest city in Spain and capital of Catalonia – issued their own participatory democracy project: (Barcelona we decide). Both cities use the same free software platform as a base, and are guided by the same political vision.

The success of the initiatives and the strong political vision behind them have caused an outburst of other initiatives around the whole state – and most especially in Catalonia – that are working to emulate the two big cities. They are sharing their free-software-based technology, their procedures and protocols, their reflections both on open events as in formal official meetings. What began as seemingly a one-time project, has spread both in length and width. In length, because it will not only stay but grow over time. In width, because there are serious plans to expand its adoption both at the regional level, led by the Barcelona County Council, and at the Spanish State level, being replicated by other municipalities.

Of course, the big question is whether this has had any positive impact in the quality of democracy, the very intention behind the participatory initiative in Barcelona.

Available open documentation suggests that has increased the information access of the citizens, has gathered more citizens around key issues. There has been an increase of participation, with citizen created proposals that have been widely supported and legitimated and finally accepted to be part of the municipality strategic plan. As pluralism has been enhanced without damaging the existing social capital, we can only think that the increase of participation has led to an improvement of democratic processes, especially in bolstering legitimacy around decision making.

This can be summarized in four key points:

  • Deliberation becomes the new democracy standard.
  • Openness as the pre-requisite for deliberation.

  • Accountability and legislative footprint as an important by-product to achieve legitimacy.

  • Participation leads to more pluralism and stronger social capital, which fosters deliberation, thus closing the (virtuous) circle of deliberative democracy.

Although the scheme may be simple, we believe that it already features most of the components of a new democratic participation in the digital age. What remains to be measured and analyzed is the strength and stability of the new relationships of power and how exactly these will challenge the preceding systemic structures and lead to newer ones.

Although some aspects have been identified in what relates to new relationships between citizens and organizations and institutions, and in what relates to the creation of new tacit communities, para-organizations relational spaces, the real trend and hypothetical final scenario will only become clear after several iterations of the same project evolve in a continuum of participation, radically different from existing, discrete participatory structures.

What has already been measured is the impact both at the quantitative level and on the culture of the organization of the City Council.

The culture of participation was scarce and mainly dealt with managing the support of the citizen in top-down type initiatives. Changing the mindset implied turning upside-down, many of the departments and processes of the City Council: new coordination structures, new balances between the central administration and the districts’, need to speed up the slow tempos of the Administration, manage public-private partnerships (that had to be coordinated too), enable private-private coordination and, in general, increase the workload.

Although the platform and the project in general changed the way of working, and changed it for good by contributing to visualize the work of the public servants, one of the main conclusions reinforces the old saying – democracy is not cheap.