ICTs and Community Participation: An Indicative Framework
PhD. Candidate, School of Public Policy, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA, USA.
One of the challenges that many developing countries face is how to shape themselves into more efficacious democracies. In response, there has been discussion and research about the potential for information and communication technologies (ICTs) to ameliorate the democratic process in both the developed and developing worlds (see for example Becker, 2001; Coleman & Gøtze, 2001; Fishkin, 2000; Grönlund, 2001; Norris, 2001). Under this theme, sometimes referred to as e-democracy, ICTs are promoted as an opportunity for improving the effectiveness of government; enabling more effective electoral systems through e-voting; the protection and monitoring of human rights, and strengthening the role of civil society groups to influence political processes.
The goal of the paper is to develop an analytical framework to better understand initiatives that seek to improve the democratic process by including the participation of civil society groups, specifically community groups, through the use of ICTs. This framework will then be applied to a case study from Jamaica to examine this dynamic within a developing country. The paper is divided into a further five sections as follows: section (ii) will provide a cursory account of the role of ICTs in general democratic processes; section (iii) looks more specifically at the application of ICTs to participation and democratic development; section (iv) articulates a framework for the analysis of participatory ICT initiatives; section (v) applies this framework to a specific case study: JASPEV and the formulation of social policy in Jamaica and section (vi) provides some concluding thoughts.
ICTs and Democracy
Sen (1999) notes that there are three functions that a democracy performs as it relates to a country’s development: it supports economic development, it allows for the mutual establishment of societal priorities, and it provides the space for political and social participation. While being cognizant of the benefits of an effective democracy and the challenges in achieving it, many observers have looked to the potential of ICTs to provide new or to augment existing solutions. Fishkin (2000:2) states that
“Democratic possibilities can be influenced by new technologies because new technologies can change the ways large numbers of people communicate and interact. As a result, new technologies open up fresh possibilities for institutional design in possible democratic reforms …”
Norris (2001) acknowledges several views of the actual potential of e-democracy. These range from viewing technologies such as the Internet as a major source of change, to merely reinforcing existing inequalities of power, to having little or no change in political systems. The democratic impact will also be shaped by the particular institutional context in which ICTs are applied (Banerjee, 2003). Within a Western European context, Norris (2004) argues that ICTs will have the greatest impact in alternative forms of democratic participation such as civic-oriented groups and activism. This was also the case in the late 1990’s in Indonesia with the widespread adoption and use of ICTs by activists and NGO’s demanding democratic reforms (Hill & Sen, 2005).
Some argue that ICTs have the potential to resolve the institutional dilemma posed by democracies of balancing between raw and refined public opinion (Fishkin, 2000) by creating the means for greater public deliberation and information sharing (Coleman & Gøtze, 2001). Examples of this are e-government initiatives such as online consultations, mailing lists, or blogs (UNDESA, 2005).
In nascent democracies certain groups are governed not by the institutional rules of the state but by local clientelistic regimes that operate in the shadow of democracy. Similarly, in more traditional democracies, some groups are left out of the political process because of socio-economic or other structural reasons. These factors lead to what is referred to as social exclusion, a phenomenon that can increase the risk of poverty (De Haan, 1999). Winden (2001) suggests that under certain conditions ICTs can promote social inclusion through the improved participation of marginalized groups.
Participation, democratic development and ICTs
There are several forms that participation can take, each of which can be augmented by the use of ICTs. These include voting, influencing parliament and government through political parties (i.e. working for parties, campaigning, making financial donations, etc.), influencing policy through advocacy and lobbying or demonstrations and petitions, and involvement with civic and community groups (Norris, 2004).
It is the mode of participation through civic and community groups that we shall focus on in this paper. In instances of social exclusion or where governance through non-democratic institutions exists, other forms of ICT-supported participation are less feasible or more susceptible to exploitation. Civic and community groups often work with intermediaries such as non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) who are able to provide the institutional bridge to facilitate participation in local and wider decision-making processes. Also, as Norris (2001) suggests, the horizontal networks of civil society groups are more amenable to the increased information flows created by ICTs as opposed to the more vertical and bureaucratic networks of governments.
Much of the emphasis on participation in developing countries is in fact, focused on community groups particularly in terms of decision-making at the local level. It is based on the view that poverty involves a lack of power to change existing living conditions. Therefore, greater community participation in local governance can be a means of empowerment that leads to poverty reduction.
Community participation can be viewed as having both demand and supply side components. The demand for greater community involvement in decision-making will be shaped by endogenous factors such as the social, economic and political characteristics of the community; the history, ability and experience of community groups with participation in decision-making within and outside the community; the degree of marginalization (success in accessing resources outside of the community); and the degree of empowerment (dependency on external support to resolve local problems).
On the supply side, Imparato and Ruster (2003) suggest that a related enabling structure should be put in place which will be responsive to the demands of the community and can facilitate community participation. In so doing, such a structure must seek to reduce the costs and risks of participation for community members.
In enabling these structures, ICTs can augment participatory initiatives at the community level in four broad ways: (i) widen the range and increase the number of participants; (ii) facilitate participation through a mix of technologies that cater to the diverse needs and backgrounds of the target group (Macintosh, 2004); (iii) provide relevant and understandable information and knowledge to and from the target group; and (iv) allow community groups to have a voice in local and other levels of decision-making.
In referring to the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Craig, et. al. (2002) argue that GIS have the potential to reconfigure existing power relations within the community and with external stakeholders. The effect can be empowering or disempowering for the community. Thus Jordan (2002) notes greater significance must be given to the participatory component of such projects with the application of ICTs playing a secondary role. As a result the emphasis should not be placed on the technical and scientific but on the social and political (Puri & Sahay, 2003). Another consideration is the match between the ICTs and its context. For example, the technology can be exclusionary if it relies on esoteric data sets, complicated interfaces or is just too costly. Going further, the entire ontology that underlies a particular ICT may be incongruent with that of its potential users. This was the case where GIS with its concomitant Cartesian understanding of space was contrasted with an alternative knowledge system of the Maori people in New Zealand (Laituri, 2002).
A related issue here is the need to ensure that the ICTs play a genuinely supportive role and are not employed for their own sake. This is the typical information system problem: ICTs are used where there is no real information or communication problem or worse they are the primary solution to resolve social or political problems. The latter being a real possibility given the nature of community based development issues.
Perhaps, the greatest challenge, however, is to integrate, feasibly and legitimately, such projects into local political structures while still creating enough space for genuine participation. This is a careful balancing act and speaks to the need for precision and creativity in project design. In some cases, rigid hierarchical institutional structures can limit the potential for real participation. Power brokers within and outside the community can attenuate the process so that participatory initiatives merely reinforce or strengthen their authority (Cooke & Kothari, 2001). Thus strict adherence to the demands of these structures will not produce the desired results and partnerships through wider social networks will be required.
A Framework for the Analysis of Participatory ICT Initiatives
The interaction between participation and the use and interpretation of ICTs is complex but important if we are to push for more inclusive decision-making. What is being proposed here, therefore, is a multiple-dimension framework that will allow us to better understand this interaction. The need for a framework is based on the recognition that existing work in the specific area of participation and ICTs is still theoretically nascent. As is the case with the literature on ICT4D in general it is also highly interdisciplinary and must therefore attempt to consider several different approaches at once.
A few frameworks have been put forward in an attempt to understand how ICTs can be used to improve the participatory process (see for example Macintosh 2004; McCall and Minang 2005; Puri and Sahay 2003). While being cognizant of these approaches, the proposed framework seeks to improve on their usefulness by articulating the following:
· Social and economic context
· Extent and nature of participation
· Scope and purpose of ICTs
· Institutional balance
However, the framework does not immediately address the relationships between these various dimensions. Although it might be more amenable to descriptive rather than causal inference, it still allows us to examine these issues (including those raised above) within a specific ICT initiative.
Social and Economic Context
It is necessary for us to understand how the social and economic context affects the demand side of the participatory process. This relates to the capacity of the community to participate. The following factors are relevant to this purpose:
· Economic resources and community poverty – the physical, human, financial and public resources available to the participants.
· Educational levels – level of educational attainment including literacy levels among the target group and the capacity to use ICTs
· Cultural factors – who should be involved in the participatory process and what kind of interactions are allowed. This involves perceptions towards potential partner groups and organizations as well as other stakeholders. This also includes attitudes towards the use of technology.
· Community organization – the ability of the community to mobilize participation around a community based organization or group. Thus it involves the history, extent and experience of community organization. It also includes the level of social cohesion and cooperation within the community.
Extent and nature of participation
Next, given the community capacity to participate, we can examine the enabling participatory structure. We begin by describing the extent of participation along two dimensions. Breadth – the number, proportion and different types of participants and Depth – the degree of participation. Several authors have discussed ways to understand the latter (see for example Carver, 2001; Imparato & Ruster, 2003; Macintosh, 2004; McCall & Minang, 2005). These can be summarized by the following in terms of increasing degree of participation:
· Passive – a one-way flow of information to participants from the local decision making authority or government and would include for example, notifications of new policies or laws.
· Consultative – a two-way flow of information between participants and the governing authority. Participants can provide feedback and opinions on issues that are determined by the governing authority. The latter also manages the entire process and sets the agenda.
· Interactive – participants are viewed as partners by the governing authority and can decide which issues to address and make recommendations. Their inclusion is seen as a right and not a means to achieve other goals. Final decisions still lie with the governing authority.
· Complete – participants have a final say in decisions and can initiate independent actions.
In terms of the nature of participation we can look to the internal dynamics of the process itself specifically as it relates to the distribution of power among all stakeholders. In situations where asymmetrical power relations exist and are detrimental to increasing the extent of participation, Puri and Sahay (2003) cite four conditions which can make participatory sessions more democratic. All participants should have the opportunity to:
1. Raise issues and make counterpoints to other views.
2. Give/refuse orders and insist on clarification of issues where necessary
3. Question any information, set of facts or details of proposed action
4. Express doubts or concerns about any initiative.
Scope and purpose of ICTs
We can better understand the scope and purpose of ICTs for a project across five concepts:
1. Information problem – the first step is to understand the nature of the information problem that was being faced. What kinds of information were required, and what was its source and desired flow and what were the impediments to the flow? Possible obstacles include lack of standard methods for using and sharing information, legal issues, inadequate skills, and organizational resistance (Social Exclusion Unit, 2005). Following this we need to understand how this problem hampered the participatory and decision-making processes.
2. Accessibility and connectivity – Given the use of ICTs to address the information problems, what were the challenges in making them accessible to participants and how were these resolved.
3. Intrinsic political features – First, to what extent did technical or scientific information, generated through the use of ICTs, dominate over social, political or other forms of information in the decision-making process? Second, how were ownership, location and subsequent access to information and ICTs managed?
4. Decision-making – ICTs can facilitate the decision making process by enabling the exploration of different solutions and through the sharing of information and ideas between participants, their partners and other stakeholders.
5. Knowledge integration – This refers to the extent to which the ICTs used were able to integrate the various forms of knowledge (indigenous, scientific, etc.) available (Puri and Sahay 2003). In addition, how well was this knowledge managed in terms of its access and use by participants?
Institutional balance refers to the need to integrate the participatory exercise into existing local governance structures while still ensuring that there is sufficient scope for influence. Two issues are examined here. In the first instance, we examine the nature of the political structure. This includes the decision-making hierarchy at the local level from individuals to government organizations. How are decisions relevant to the initiative parsed through this hierarchy? The next step is to look at where and when these decision-makers were included both in the process of participation and with the information flows of relevant ICTs.
Secondly, we examine the type and nature of partnerships established by the target group. This entails work with NGO’s, government agencies, other community groups, etc. These relationships are meant to leverage support outside of the community and in some cases outside of the local political structure. This can occur through access to new resources or through the politicizing of local issues (Aitken, 2002).
The following table summarizes the four dimensions and their attendant variables that are make up the analytical framework. A third column provides general indicators that will be used to measure each variable.
Table 1 – Summary of Concept and Variables used in Analytical Framework
Case Study – JASPEV and the development of social policy in Jamaica
The main data sources for this case study were interviews and email communications with the national coordinator and other staff of the program as well as reports from the various government agencies involved.
Jamaica is a small island state that has been classified by the World Bank as a lower middle income country (IBRD, 2006a) with a poverty rate of 16.9% in 2004 (PIOJ, 2006). In addition, there is a significant level of income inequality; thus the Gini coefficient was 0.42 in 2001 (IBRD, 2006b). Coupled with this is a social structure that is predominantly class based with its origins from the British colonial period. Thus, although Jamaica has a democratic system of governance that is based on the British Westminster model, structural and economic inequalities have helped to shape a policy-making process that is centralized and often excludes marginalized groups (Acosta, 2006).
The Jamaica Social Policy Evaluation Project (JASPEV) is a governance program implemented by the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) and partly funded by the Department for International Development (DFID), UK. It was designed to pilot innovative mechanisms for the improved formulation and delivery of social policy as well as to develop a monitoring system to track progress in the achievement of social goals. There are several initiatives working under this project including the Youth Inclusion Prototype (YIP).
The YIP consists of three interconnected groups that work together to resolve development issues and improve the delivery of services at the community level. The first group is the community with an emphasis on participation by youth. The second group, called a multi-function team consists of the “experts” – the academics, managers from various governmental, NGO groups and the private sector. The third group is called a troika and consists of a three member bi-partisan committee of elected parliamentary representatives. The first step in the process was for the community groups to identify the major issues affecting them. Then they collected community level data around these issues. This process (as illustrated in Figure 1 below) is supported by the multi-function team with the troika taking action on the issues that have been identified and defined by the community. Progress made on these issues is then monitored through data-collection at the community level. This data is then shared with the other entities of the troika to continually inform a discussion and review of social goals.
Figure 1 – YIP Structure
Source - (JASPEV, 2006c:5)
Analysis – Social and Economic Context
Initially, a nation-wide sample of 40 communities was selected to be included in the YIP. Household socio-economic surveys were then conducted in these communities. The surveys indicated that:
· Employment among youth was around 27% while some 42% reported being unemployed
· Unemployment rates were much higher among females
· The highest educational attainment was the primary school level for approximately 43% of the respondents. In addition, rural area respondents were more likely to complete secondary/high school education.
· Approximately 60% of the respondents indicated that they did not have any form of vocational training.
· Of those who were parents, 85% were between 20 and 29 years.
· Those who were parents and unemployed were most likely to be female
(Source: JASPEV, 2004)
No specific data from these surveys was collected on ICT diffusion within the communities. Generally computer use in Jamaica is relatively low compared to other forms of ICTs such as mobile phones. In some areas, where computer and Internet facilities exist in local schools, their use by the wider community is limited (Horst & Miller, 2005).
Extent and nature of participation
The YIP was initiated in mid 2003 in 6 of the 40 selected communities as a pilot exercise to identify the major issues that impact on youth and associated indicators for their measurement. This was done using Participatory Rapid Assessment (PRA) techniques by community development officers from the Social Development Commission (SDC) along with local consultants. The results of the pilot exercise were then refined and aggregated into five broad issues with supporting indicators.
These revised issues and indicators were then presented for validation to all the other communities in the sample. On average, some 35 persons participated from each community with over 70% being classified as youth (under 30) with an almost 50:50 gender ratio (SDC, 2003a). In most cases, participants came from local CBO’s, NGO’s and other local stakeholders. The feedback from community members indicated that they were able to make suggestions, ask questions and change the course of the discussions (SDC, 2003b). In addition, many persons expressed optimism that the inclusive approach that JASPEV was taking would benefit them all.
Following the validation of the five major issues, volunteers were then identified in each community to conduct surveys using agreed upon indicators to ascertain the baseline status of these issues. In total some 400 community persons were trained to conduct household surveys by the SDC. Based on the results of these surveys and the recommendations of the MFT, the Troika approved three main areas for further action: Entrepreneurship, Continuing Education and Police-Youth Relations. Specific objectives include improved access to entrepreneurial services by youth, increased access to continuing education programs and improving trust and respect between youth and police personnel (JASPEV, 2006a, 2006b, 2006c). Once implemented, monitoring of these areas would be done through community data collection.
The initial pilot stage, validation exercise, baseline study and policy response by the Troika all indicate a two-way flow of information at each point. However, the initiation and purpose of each stage was determined by JASPEV and its partners. Also, the key decisions required for making the transition from one stage to the next such as selecting a sample of issues for validation, refining the indicators and identifying further steps for action, were done by the MFT and Troika.
Scope and Purpose of ICTs
The overall information problem being faced was essentially one of not being able to effectively share information across different domains. Although Figure 1 shows that there is a flow of information between all entities in the YIP structure, the information requirements of each group were different. For the communities, the information required was concerning the major issues affecting youth and the data measuring these issues. The MFT would take this information and analyze it and present it back to the community (eg. more specific indicators) or to the Troika (recommendations for action/policy). Finally the information output from the Troika would be less technical and in the form of decisions.
Thus one challenge was getting the required information from the communities since this was potentially more data heavy and cumbersome. Whereas the identification and validation of issues was done with the assistance of facilitators, the collection of data was done through the training of community members who also volunteered to be part of community tracking teams (CTT). These teams would then conduct follow-up data collection exercises to track the progress of achieving stated policy goals. Other potential barriers to information sharing were overcome by the acceptance of community groups of the positive potential of the program.
Another challenge was to ensure that there was continuous discussion and revision of indicators and goals where necessary among the three entities. This is based on the idea that the YIP constitutes a learning process as it represents a new model for policy development in Jamaica (JASPEV, 2001)
In addressing both these challenges, the original intent of the program was to provide community groups with access to personal computers which would be Internet ready. Community representatives responsible for measuring the progress made on YIP issues were then given secured access to the JASPEV website. They would then be able to enter data collected on local level indicators. The site has an interactive component where community groups, technical persons from the MFT and the political representatives from the troika have special areas where they can log in and work in virtual spaces. These virtual spaces allow for the sharing of documents, ideas and information between and among groups and were designed to act as an information interchange for all parties involved and a critical component of a Prototype Management Information System (PMIS) (JASPEV, 2002).
The PMIS was designed to act as a database for socio-economic data on community level indicators. Through a process of benchmarking facilitated by the MFT, all entities in the YIP can then see progress made for each community as well as make comparisons across communities. The system would support this analysis through the provision of online tools such as graphs showing distributions by community. This was meant to promote discussion and action among communities and other stakeholders (JASPEV, 2002).
Whereas these aspects of the JASPEV website are fully functional, access to ICTs for data collection and sharing are not fully available to communities. At the onset, this was recognized as a potential problem by some community groups. For example, in the issue validation exercises, one concern raised by a community member was that “remote communities have no access to internet,” (SDC, 2003a :14). This problem was also identified by JASPEV who tried to co-opt the support of other government agencies, NGO’s and private sectors groups that were better positioned to provide access to community groups. This support however did not materialize.
The initial data-collection exercise (household survey), which was supported by the SDC and carried out by the community tracking teams (CTT’s), was done on machine readable forms and collated and scanned by a private company for presentation to JASPEV. However, subsequent data collection exercises by the CTT’s have not yet materialized. This is due in part to the length of time it has taken to implement specific areas for action singled out by the Troika from the original baseline survey (e.g. Entrepreneurship, Continuing Education and Police-Youth Relations). The concern at this point, however, is that some of the momentum at the community might have been lost as a result. Furthermore, since the CTT’s were trained in late 2003 by the SDC this process might have to be repeated.
The initial challenge of sharing community level information with the other entities in the YIP was achieved through the household survey. However, the lack of access to computers and the website and the delayed implementation of specific action areas (and therefore further use of the CTT’s) have together undermined the program’s ability to overcome the second challenge mentioned above of maintaining a continuous discussion and revision of indicators where necessary.
One of the perceived advantages of having community members collect and monitor data is to give them ownership of that information. This can have an empowering effect when that information is seen as an important resource to create change (Bonner et al.2005). One example of this occurred with the information obtained from the household surveys. In some communities, this information was used to mobilize their own activities and included parental training workshops and police youth clubs. Also, by collecting and owning information that will ultimately be used to measure the performance of the political directorate, communities can hold such persons and agencies accountable. The problem here however, is that further data collection at the community level has not been done, limiting the potential of the program in this regard.
In Jamaica, a local level government system works alongside the national one but with separate functions that usually focus on community level issues. However, by connecting the communities to the troika, the YIP provided community members with the opportunity to directly influence decision-makers at the national level. Although this indirectly circumvented the local government system, the assumption was that local government representatives will be part of the validation and monitoring exercises at the community level. In most cases, this did not happen. Even if they were included, local politicians may have felt disempowered because the decision-making has now shifted to entities of the YIP, particularly the troika. No evidence of any major resistance has been observed thus far but this could be a possibility given the start of the new focus areas.
The YIP intervention at the community level did not involve any third party or other NGO’s (the SDC is a government agency) with the aim of politicizing local issues. In fact, the program itself has received attention in the media through the impact of its work thus far. The community groups voluntarily participated in the program because of the potential to solve local issues directly with government agencies by making them aware of their problems. In this sense, the information flow from community to other levels of the YIP is significant.
Similarly, no external partnerships were individually sought by community groups to leverage external support. Rather this was already included in the program as communities would be able to work closer with service providers such as the police, educational institutions and entrepreneurial support agencies under specific focus areas. Going further, communities would also have the opportunity to collaborate with other community groups in areas of common interest.
The YIP then was designed to give communities a chance to “politicize” local issues by bringing it to the attention of the political directorate and allowing communities to develop new partnerships with government agencies in specific development areas. However, it cannot yet be stated that this new decision-making structure has been satisfactory in this regard. That is, information ownership and information sharing are key components of this program but neither of these has been successfully achieved because of a lack progress in implementation and a lack of access to ICTs. Furthermore, even if the problems of data collection and access were dealt with, it is also not clear how much information collected at the community level will bring about change (Bonner et al.2005).
As pointed out earlier, participation at various levels is a major component of an effective democracy. In recognizing this, several initiatives have attempted to employ ICTs as a means of augmenting the participatory process at the community level. The issue then is to better understand how this interaction works. In developing a framework to do just this, four key dimensions of analysis were identified: the social and economic context in which the community exists which describes the capacity to participate, the enabling participatory structure which includes the nature and extent of participation, the scope and purpose of the ICTs employed, and finally the balance between incorporating existing local governance structures and leveraging external support.
This framework was applied to the JASPEV case study in Jamaica. The analysis showed that the premise of the YIP was participation based on information sharing particularly for poorer communities (the sample used by JASPEV). The resulting program was ostensibly good in design in terms of information sharing and space for debate. In ensuring participation among community groups and other entities in the YIP, an information system was set up through a website. In addition, it was expected that continued iterations of the YIP cycle would promote debate among stakeholders around the issues raised at the community level. Both objectives however,, were not completely achieved because of a lack of access to ICTs and a delay in the implementation of focus areas under the YIP. Problems of institutional balance have not aggravated the situation as yet and further iterations of the YIP will have to better incorporate local government entities into the decision-making structure.
The framework has allowed us to better understand the ways in which ICTs were used to support the goal of participation by looking at the context in which they are applied both in terms of capacity to participate and the information problem being addressed. We then looked at the ICT solution to address these problems and how these results were shaped by the institutional structures in which the initiative must operate.
One of the weaknesses of this case study, in terms of applying the proposed analytic framework, was the somewhat limited role of ICTs in the YIP process. Thus, future work could apply this framework to a more complete case study, both in terms of greater data availability and evidence of impact. This could provide the opportunity for further improvement and ultimately increasing opportunities for effective participation.
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Winden, W. (2001). The End of Social Exclusion? On Information Technology Policy as a Key to Social Inclusion in Large European Cities. Regional Studies, 35(9), 861-877.
This to be distinguished from trying to understand how participation is used to improve ICT4D or community informatics initiatives.
 Various studies have been done to support this thesis. For some examples see UNCDF (2003).
 The research was carried out between March and May 2006.
 This follows the use of participatory methodologies in community development (see for example Chambers, 1994)
 Throughout this project, JASPEV partnered with the SDC to carry out community level activities. The SDC is the government agency responsible for community development.