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.

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

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.