Politics, technology & accountability I


In an earlier post I asked if there are technological answers to the problem of accountability, or if accountability is purely a political problem needing political solutions.  I then argued that while accountability is best seen as a political issue, technology can have an impact on the political terrain, and thus have an impact on accountability.  Let me illustrate this an example.

Micro-politics of accountability

At the heart of accountability in government programmes lies the process of specifying a set of responsibilities, clearly recording activities of various agents, cross verifying this information and holding agents accountable if there are breaches in performance. Let me illustrate this using the example of “ration dealers” who are the retail agents that distribute subsidized grains eligible beneficiaries in India.

Every ration dealer is expected to record each transaction in a register that she maintains and in the ration card that is maintained by the beneficiary. Monitoring agencies can check the register and see if such families actually exist in the village.  They can cross-verify the records with the ration dealer and the beneficiary to see if they got the entitlements they received on paper; of course, the record with the dealer can also be cross-checked with the oral account of the beneficiaries, though this would have a little less validity. Similarly, we can also add up the amount of grains distributed and verify if all the grains provided were distributed.  These are a few among many ways of cross-checking to establish if the ration dealer acted according to the prescribed norms.

Recording & accounting

Without proper records, ability to cross verify or follow up on problems when found, accountability cannot be secured in a corrupt environment.  If it is well-designed, technology can assist in each of these processes.  First of all, use of smart cards and other systems can help us record every transaction including the time, place, quantity and price accurately. In this process the use of smart cards can reduce problems like fake signatures and entitlements of people who have the card in their possession cannot be transferred without accessing their card. The impact can be significant.

The use of technology also allows us to record new forms of information such as photos, videos, geo-location of activities, biometric information, etc.  Off-late, technologies that could record such information have become cheap; to take an example, an i-phone could record all these forms of information with ease.  The use of such devices allows us to account for the activities of officials at a much greater detail, and thus help us establish if they performed their duties.  For example, photo and video based evidence of public works can provide reasonably good evidence of whether work happened in the project on a said date.  Entries on registers can be more easily faked.

Cross-verification

The next step in establishing accountability is cross-verification of the the information in registers.  The greatest promise of technology comes at this level. To begin with, it is extremely time consuming to process paper data to even start the verification process. In an employment scheme like NREGA cross verification involves meeting a beneficiary and finding out how many days she worked in a particular project and how much money they received.  This is then followed by door-to-door verification with each person to see if they got the money that they were officially supposed to receive.

Suppose we are hoping to verify a project in which 100 people of a village worked in a project that lasted 25 days in all. Not everyone works every day, and suppose 75 people turned up on an average day. There will be 1875 rows of information for the project (75 people each day for 25 days) and in order to find out how many days John worked, we have to go through 1875 rows manually and calculate the total days of work he did. The same has to be repeated for each person; that is going through 187,500 rows of information again and again.  If we process one record at 10 seconds on an average, it would take 520 hours to just prepare the documents for verification.  With digital entries at source, this cumbersome task can be done in one click.  Similarly, instead of making extensive trips and applications for securing documents, individuals can find the same online or on their phones quickly and easily.

This team worked for three days to compile information before a social audit of NREGA projects in 25 Panchayats of Villupuram.

Technology can thus reduce the costs of cross-verification dramatically and thus alter the terrain of politics for accountability. But for this to happen, information should be easily, quickly and cheaply accessible for those who wish to take up this exercise.

There is an impressive movement in India today to combat corruption using right to information. Ready availability of information can give a fillip to these movements. If a social audit team can just go online and get a ready list of how many days each family in a village got work in an NREGA project or how much rice a family received each month for the last six months, it would be far easier for them to carry out the verification exercise.

If technology has to have a significant impact, suitable systems have to be developed. Today, anyone can go online and find out who worked for how many days in NREGA in any village. Such facilities should be available on all entitlements in the fullest spirit of right to information. In the last 10 years, the penetration of mobile phones and public call offices have increased so much that access to telephones has increased dramatically even in far-flung areas. Instead of stopping with providing information online, we could think about finding information through mobile phones either in form of text messaging, phone browsing or through call centres. Similarly, people should also be able to get information by sending a letter requesting information.

Such measures will make the right to information more meaningful and less costly, and will thus increase public vigilance dramatically. Public vigilance, rather than internal monitoring systems, will force the government to take action when irregularities are found.  Ultimately all the available information cannot make a dent if people are not vigilant and active. Today there is an active right to information movement in India. The time I spent in rural Tamil Nadu and other states also gives me a feeling that there are enough people who will act, if they have the right tools at their command. Technology can energize the sense of public vigilance by providing low cost access to information and in doing that permanently alter the terrain of politics of accountability.


About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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