Transparency, accountability, and technology

Shanthi Kalathil at Plan International: “The recently launched Sustainable Development Goals have kicked off a renewed development agenda that features, among other things, a dedicated emphasis on peace, justice, and strong institutions. This emphasis, encapsulated in Goal #16, contains several sub-priorities, including reducing corruption; developing effective, accountable, and transparent institutions; ensuring inclusive, participatory, and representative decision-making; and ensuring access to information.

Indeed, the governance-related Goals merely stamp an official imprimatur on what have now become key buzzwords in development. Naturally, where there are buzzwords, there are “tools.” In many cases, those “tools” turn out to be information and communications technologies, and the data flows they facilitate. It’s no wonder, then, that technology has been embraced by the development community as a crucial component of the global accountability and transparency “toolkit.”

Certainly, information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) has long been a part of the development conversation. More recently, ICTs have emerged prominently in the context of good governance, transparency, and accountability. Yet – despite a growing number of studies and evaluations – there hasn’t been a field-wide deeper reckoning with technology’s role in fostering accountability. Technology often seems to promise greater transparency and empowered citizen voice, fitting seamlessly into broader goals of good governance for development. Yet the actual track record of many initiatives has been spotty, and dedicated examination has been sparse (although efforts are underway to change this). That hasn’t stemmed the enthusiasm to press ahead with tech-related applications and open-data-everything; if anything, calls for more critical examination are often treated as mere bumps on the road to progress.

One problem with the “tool for accountability” frame is that it minimizes the political, economic, and social ramifications of technology itself, including the complex web of laws, regulation, culture, norms, and power relations that accompany any form of communication. This means that, while many of these projects tackle the accountability piece using the recommended political economy lens, there is no corresponding emphasis on the communications and/or technology side of the equation. Referring to technology primarily as a “tool” to facilitate aspects of good governance, accountability, or transparency reinforces the idea that it’s merely a widget, one that doesn’t carry its own complexities. It subsumes technology as a means to a broader end, and in doing so, minimizes its ramifications. This, in turn, can lead to unintended or unsustainable outcomes.

Perhaps the answer, then, is to view accountability projects that employ technology in a different way. It’s time to ditch the “tech toolkit,” and instead embrace the emergence of a truly hybrid field with its own unique political economy. This will require a deeper engagement with the power relations that accompany the introduction of technology, and is likely to illuminate a host of issues that currently lie hidden in the planning stage and beyond. This deeper engagement will also require a rethink of current design, monitoring, and evaluation practices; so, for example, in addition to understanding the accountability challenge in question, program design will have to incorporate an equally substantive analysis of the political economy of the proposed ICT intervention, including stakeholders, potential obstacles, and an examination of all possible outcomes (intended or otherwise). While this will require substantial effort, by moving beyond the toolkit approach, we may be able to engage holistically with transparency, accountability, AND technology in ways that could lead to more sustained development impact. (Read the Report)