Designing civic technology for public service delivery

How this started

In the first decade of the millennium, I was involved in organizing several “social audits” to fight last-mile corruption in basic public services in India. Auditors started by applying for the accounts of selected projects under the Right to Information Act. Once we received the messy mass of photocopies, a team worked together to process the records. We then went house-to-house to verify this information. For example, if the records said that Rs. 5,000 was paid as pension to Ram, we verified with Ram that he received the entire amount.

The process was powerful, and it unsettled vested interests each time. Yet, I realized the limitations of the process. It took a skilled and persistent team to get the papers and to process the information. The house-to-house verification was time intensive, and it was impossible to do repeatedly. Perceiving this, I was asked repeatedly by vested interests as to why I did a social audit. /You will come and trouble me for a few days, but then you will have to go back. In a few months, we will start doing what we have done all along/, they said. It is conversations such as these that made me think of ways in which we can institutionalize social audits, so that we can challenge corruption on a sustained basis, not just occasionally.

As I was learning the art of social audits, two revolutions were underway. One, governments started taking long-hidden records and put them online. Two, mobile phones made their way to distant villages, which made it possible to disseminate online records to rural households at a low cost. Unlike house-to-house visits in a social audit, phone calls could be made every week, thus sustaining the pressure. This idea led to the birth of the Combating Corruption with Mobile Phones project.

The project started in 2012 and we are now at the end of an extensive design phase. In the last two years, the project, with its partners, helped thousands of people to find work, get subsidized food, released millions of rupees of hoarded payments, tackled many forms of petty corruption and identified emerging forms of systemic corruption. It also helped people to create assets such as toilets for their homes and better soil for their agricultural lands. Most importantly, it supported long marginalized communities which have begun to assert themselves, with major consequences for governance.

My team and I are greatly encouraged by the success so far, and the possibility of scaling this work. We are also conscious that good development research is rarely scaled. That is the challenge we wish to confront over the next four years. We recognize that what we have created is not just a set of digital tools that can be coded and shipped for mass use; our effort into technology design was overshadowed by the work we did on problem identification, process auditing, training community workers and creating a culture of using digital tools.

Since 2012, my team and I have worked in different states but in small pockets each time. This experience of working intensively on the ground helped us understand certain governance challenges that we simply cannot learn by crunching secondary data, implementing surveys or doing any other form of research from India’s metropolitan centers. We had to be in the trenches. While our footprint has been small, working across states has helped us understand governance certain challenges that cut across geographies. We are now on a quest to use the learning and our ability to use technology to scale our impact beyond the limited geographies that we work in. We have seen the challenges and frustrations such work entails, yet revel in the promises and progress that we have seen, and been a part of. There is much to be done, and we hope to be a part of the progressive change.