The Ghana-based tech company VOTO Mobile developed SurveyLink which enables democratic engagement via polls to gather data from mobile users, and launched the pilot project “Mobile for Social Inclusive Governance” to consult citizens, resulting in improved policy formulation.
Problems and Purpose
Democracies require channels through which citizens can demand accountability and policy responsiveness from government. In Ghana, there is a diversity of languages and gaps between rural and urban populations making it difficult to connect communities to public policy and electoral processes. There are also marginalized groups such as women, children, and the disabled, that remain ‘unheard’ in the political process (Allah-Mensah, 2004). While recent work suggests that mechanisms such as public radio function as platforms for political participation (Selormey, 2012), there have also been calls for new innovative strategies that reflect mobile telecommunication realities. Currently, there are over 83% of adult Ghanaians who own a mobile telephone (PEW, 2015) and in November-December 2015, the rate increased by 127.63% with a subscriber base of 35 million (The African Report, 2016). Mobile phones have functioned as cost-effective tools to promote positive health behaviour in rural development (IPA, 2014). Current public policies have been unsuccessful in removing barriers to participation and utilizing new technologies for democratic governance, resulting in a lack of ‘voter confidence’ and widespread concern over the electoral process (Debrah, 2015).
Therefore there is a need to create mobile platforms which connect isolated individuals to information networks that allow them to participate in governance regardless of language, location, or income. The Ghana based tech company – VOTO Mobile (now known as Viamo) – has developed unique web-based data polling and dissemination software that reaches all phones and offers SMS and voice interaction to nurture ‘effective communication’ between citizens and government. It integrates incoming and outgoing voice, SMS and analytics into simple platforms that facilitates mobile-based mass interaction and polling data collection through an incentivized structure that replace face-to-face visits.
The platform consists of three features; InfoLink shares news for transparency, SurveyLink enables multiple-choice polls to gather data from mobile users, and OpenLink provides an efficient way for citizens to access information pertaining to the government’s response. In 2012-2013 VOTO Mobile launched SurveyLink to conduct two national polls and launch the pilot project “Mobile for Social Inclusive Governance” in the districts of Tamale, Savelugu, Wa, and Yendi. VOTO Mobile, at both the national and local level, has innovatively sought to harness mobile technology realities in Ghana to nurture democratic engagement and good governance.
Background History and Context
VOTO Mobile (now Viamo) launched officially in 2010 as a tech-start up. It describes itself as a “tech startup and social enterprise” whose goal is to assist businesses, governments, and NGOs to share information and gather feedback through interactive SMS or voice calls in local languages – using mobile to instantly reach across distance, language, and literacy barriers.
In December of 2012, VOTO used SurveyLink to conduct a national poll of Election Issues in Ghana through partnership with Pen +Bytes, International Institute of ICT Journalism, and the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio Savannah station. In May 2013 VOTO launched a second national-scale survey with an improved methodology allowing for disaggregation of data and the inclusion of four languages. In 2013, but already being planned in late 2012, VOTO Mobile partnered with Amplify Governance, Savana Signatures, and GINKS, to spearhead the “Mobile for Social Inclusive Governance” project in Tamale, Savelugu, Wa, and Yendi.
Since the 2012-2013 pilot projects in Ghana, VOTO Mobile has been utilized as a resource by over 250 organisations to engage with over 500,000 people across 72 countries. Recently, the platform was used by the World Bank to help raise voter turn-out levels in a participatory budgeting process in Brazil, increasing voter turn-out by more than 30% (World Bank Report, 2014). As of 2015 VOTO Mobile is mid-implementation of using this technology with UNICEF and the World Bank for the Development Priorities Project funded by The World Bank and done in partnership with the Center for Global Development. It seeks to poll citizens in developing and least developing countries to ask about their development priorities, thereby creating a database that could be used to create accountability in international aid donors operating in those countries.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Public and private donors, including grants, who have funded VOTO Mobile (now Viamo) are: Open Road’s, UNICEF, Innovations for Poverty Action, JHR, Co-Water International Inc., Send West Africa, Engineers Without Borders Canada, World Bank, Rack Africa, Busy Internet, Amplify Governance, Yendi Municipal Assembly, Tolon District Assembly, Chereponi District Assembly, Savana Signatures, and GINKS.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Both the 2012 and 2013 national polls consisted of randomly selected phone numbers that were dialed to provide a wide ranging sample of mobile phone users across the country. The survey provided the option to be completed in four language options – English, Twi, Ewe and Dagbani. There was also an incentivized structure, allotting responded a chance to win 50 GHs in free airtime if they complete the SurveyLink polling.
The 2012-2013 project "Mobile for Social Inclusive Governance" did not use random selection but instead relied on pre-existing District Assembly membership for participation.
Methods and Tools Used
SurveyLink utilized the survey tool in order to gather information on citizens' situations and priorities by asking questions requiring a response from participants. The "Mobile for Social Inclusive Governance" project utilized online consultations between government and citizens so that participants could relay their concerns.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The 2013 survey built on the same random sampling technique, but included ten questions which evaluated responses at three levels; situational, perceived priorities, and change, For example, at the situational level questions such as “How many days is your water not flowing?”, while at the perceived priorities would ask “What issue affects you the most?” and lastly at the level of desiring change, “If you could predict when the electricity would go off, what difference would it make in managing your home?”. Importantly, there was the addition of three additional demographic questions which was intended to disaggregate SurveyLink results across men and women, urban and rural residents, and by geographic region.
The SurveyLink 2012-2013 pilot project “Mobile for Social Inclusive Governance” deployed a drastically different participant selection process, it was not random, but built upon previous systems in place in Northern Ghana. The use of District Assemblies and the VOTO platform, whereby members participate and have their concerns relayed to the government through modern technology but within a longstanding governance framework, were conducted in the districts of Tamale, Savelugu, Wa, and Yendi, and involved pairing with the civil service organisations Amplify Governance, Savana Signatures, and GINKS. By December 2014 the project involved 2064 participants making decisions through mobile phone.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The 2012 national survey built off of a previous sample VOTO SMS poll in English that had a respondent rate of 1.5%. Through the use of SurveyLink in the 2012 poll, specifically the inclusion of an option for a voice poll (rather than SMS) in four languages, the response rate was increased to 26%.
In contrast, through the use of the May 2013 poll that requested demographic information – male/female, rural/urban, region – the survey indicated that a higher proportion of women than men chose corruption as the most important election issue; however, more women than men thought it was acceptable for a Member of Parliament (MP) to offer to pay a family’s school fees immediately before the election (VOTO Mobile, 2013). Overall, education was chosen as the most important issue (35%), followed by corruption (20%). Between men and women, women were more concerned about healthcare (15% to 8%) and men were more concerned about jobs (22% to 9%).
The results also revealed opportunities for education: almost half of respondents chose ‘Paying my family’s school fees’ (14%) and ‘Initiating development projects’ (32%) as the main role of MPs. Questions concerning utilities for example also yielded results that indicate a gap between rural/urban in governance; those rural inhabitants that receive water from boreholes and public water points are relatively unaffected by piped water shortages in urban centers. Although the survey was not extended to generate long-term significant data sets, it supported two things: the need for democratic accountability and participation in governance, as well as the fact that respondents are generally willing to participate in the VOTO Mobile polling software.
Mobile for Social Inclusive Governance
The pilot project “Mobile for Social Inclusive Governance” is ongoing but has resulted in empowering the district assemblies to use applications in sourcing information from the public through interactive voice surveys. Officials from the district assemblies have been able to crowdsource information from ‘vulnerable’ citizens – primarily women, youth and persons living with disabilities – through VOTO Mobile. This has essentially improved the districts’ policy formulation and development planning processes in terms of the inclusion of marginalized voices in discussions concerning things such as the allocation of public goods and services within a district.
Despite this, it has also had a bureaucratic effect empowering and extending the responsibilities of the district Planning and Coordinating Unit – Planner, Finance, Budget officers and Director – as well as MPs and district executives, whom are now tasked with actively sharing and disseminating telecommunication technologies to community members. This information has included health service reminders and civic education topics delivered to marginalized groups in text and voice. It could also be used to provide accountability updates on projects initiated by the district, such as was done with the creation of new road services, the clearing of bogs, and improved water-wells in Wa and Tamale.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
While the outcome of the increasing participation in national polling and the ongoing pilot project for Social Inclusive Governance seems to be “more informed community members, who are now able to access services, as well as understand when to hold the district [and government] to account,” there are significant limitations at the state level. The decentralized structure of the Ghanaian electoral system combined with long-standing antagonisms within and between ‘traditional communities,’ means that already weak institutions – or a lack therof – constitute the level of policy responsiveness from government towards participating district members. Ghanaian national and regional development policy since the 1970-80s for example, has increasingly ‘downloaded’ public and social works responsibilities – financing, planning, implementing – on traditional community institutions and district governments. Therefore, without a renewed policy emphasis on good governance and increasing the scope of democratic participation emanating from the state, there exists a lack of supporting measures to receive, respond, and to act on the data collected. Furthermore there are no binding measures ensuring that governments, or district leaders, respond or allocate resources and policies based on the information collected and presented by VOTO Mobile.
Respondent participation in both the national polls and in the pilot project, despite the levels of mobile phone usage in Ghana, are still not generating rates of participation above 40%, let alone near VOTO’s targets. This in part, is due to service rate fee instability as generated by Ghana’s telecoms requiring VOTO adopt a standard rate – it simply is sometimes too costly to participate in the polling – and developing telecommunications infrastructure in rural communities. VOTO Mobile charges $.02/min above per minute rate of the local telco provider. Thus if a phone call typically costs $.05/minute, the cost of using VOTO Mobile would be $.07/minute. If your survey is 10 minutes long and completes successfully your charge would be approximately $.70/survey. While the pilot project is ongoing, at the district levels more women, children, and people with disabilities are begin actively targeted to complete district level polls. However, the World Bank has just increased funding in 2016, potentially overcoming barriers to low respondent rates at the level of random sampling within districts. Despite these lessons learned, there is a potential in the utilization of modern telecommunications technologies within Ghana to promote the democratization of development policy and good governance through decision making tools that enhance citizen engagement and government accountability.
Commentaries and Criticism
VOTO’s tools have the potential to create powerful new feedback loops between citizens and government leaders, nurturing democratic participation and good governance. Johan Hellström in 2012 proclaimed that “during the past ten years we have witnessed how mobile phones and the simple functions of voice and text messaging can empower citizens and affect the way citizens interact with each other and with society as a whole” (GIZ, 2014). Kweku Opoku-Agyemang, Global Poverty and Practice Fellow at UC Berkeley whose research focuses on mobile phones and governance in Ghana, supportingly asserts further that “mobile phones... are a powerful tool... they can actually force politicians to take responsibility for their actions” (Small, 2016).
However there exist real challenges. As political scientist Khalid Khader suggests, the contours of local politics, institutions, social structures, and antagonisms which produce political corruption in Africa are central to the success of VOTO’s SurveyLink in democratic innovation and development. Khader argues that; “You can’t address poverty without first addressing local political structures...To a very large degree, that determines who gets what, regardless of the amount of money provided by either governments or NGOs.” (Small, 2016).
Nigerian social activist Sokari Ekine captures these positive and negative criticisms of VOTO Mobile, asserting that “there is no doubt that mobile and internet technology is democratising social change in communities across Africa... We must, however, also recognise that technology has the capacity to concentrate power and therefore could be used to reinforce existing power relations.” (Ekine, 2010).
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The first submission of this entry was written by Paul Emiljanowicz and Bonny Ibhawoh. It has since been edited and expanded by the Participedia community and does not necessarily reflect the views of its original authors.