Text Your Government: Participatory Cell Phone Technology in Ghana

Article by Emily DiMatteo: “Direct citizen engagement can be transformed with innovative technological tools. As communities search for new ways to connect citizens to democratic processes, using existing technological devices such as cell phones can reach a number of citizens—including those typically excluded from policy processes. This occurred in Ghana when a technology startup and social enterprise called VOTO Mobile (now Viamo) created polling and information sharing software that uses mobile phone SMS texts and voice calls. Since its founding in 2010, the Ghana-based company has worked to use mobile technology to advance democratic engagement and good governance through new communication channels between citizens and their government.

Previous methods to overcome public participation challenges in Ghana include using public radio. However, when VOTO Mobile evaluated technological capabilities in several districts, cell phones offered a new way to engage. The option to contact citizens via text or voice call also helped remove certain barriers to participation in political processes, including distance, language and literacy. In 2012-2013, VOTO Mobile facilitated a project called the, “Mobile for Social Inclusive Government,” to increase citizen engagement and participation. The project used the company’s software to disseminate local information and conduct citizen surveys in four Ghanaian districts: Tamale, Savelugu, Wa and Yendi. VOTO Mobile partnered with civil society organizations including Savana Signatures, GINKS and Amplify Governance, as well as District Assemblies in local district governments.

Participant selection for the project utilized pre-existing District Assembly membership data across the four districts to contact citizens to participate. This outreach also was supplemented by the project’s partner organizations and ultimately involved more than 2,000 participants. In using VOTO Mobile’s technological platform of interactive text and voice call surveys, the project gathered feedback from citizens as they shared concerns with their local government. There was a large focus on input from marginalized populations across the districts including women, young people and people with disabilities. In addition to the cell phone surveys, the platform enabled online consultations between citizens and local district officials in place of face-to-face visits.

As a result, local district governments were able to crowdsource information directly from citizens, leading to increased citizen input in subsequent policy formulation and planning processes….(More)”.