The Messy Art of Saving the World: Social Accountability in Nigeria

This is the final post in Reboot co-founder Panthea Lee’s seven-part series on design in international development for design blog Core77.

Communications technology provides government with the tools to be more transparent and accountable to its citizens. But just as giving someone a hammer doesn’t make them a carpenter, there’s more to the accountability equation. Achieving accountability requires creating a successful relationship between people—those in the government and those on the outside. An accountability system, then, is a two-way street: not only is the government responsive to citizen needs, but citizens must also be able to effectively communicate their grievances to the government.

Nigeria is a country that is oil-rich but accountability-poor. This is partially due to a lack of connective infrastructure, such as roads (only about 10 to 15 percent of Nigerian roads are paved), Internet access (only available to 11 percent of the country), and electricity (most of the country only has access to a few hours’ worth a day), upon which service delivery and social accountability systems rely. This lack of infrastructure doesn’t just hinder people’s daily lives and opportunities. It also prevents them from being able to demand better services, and over time, it undermines their confidence that they have power to make demands at all. For a social accountability framework to be successful, then, it must account for and overcome these deficiencies.

At Reboot, we’re taking on that challenge right now, helping the Government of Nigeria to develop a social accountability and citizen feedback system, a project funded by the World Bank. We’re designing a technological platform to collect citizen feedback on government-sponsored, Bank-funded healthcare and agriculture programs. Equally important, we’re designing the supporting program that will make sure the feedback is put to use in improving those services.

We design projects for continued success long after we’ve left. To do this, Reboot takes a user-centered approach to our research, design, and implementation methodology. We start with developing a deep understanding of the communities we and our clients and partners seek to serve, and we work in close coordination with all stakeholders, including governments, NGOs and funders. The goal of our ethnographic research approach is get to know the context from as many angles as possible: to that end, we are spending half of our engagement time in Nigeria, far more than most international consultants, and are maintaining a field presence of local staff throughout.

Our research has helped us gain an understanding of people’s existing technology habits, as well as norms around community policing and redress of grievances. Because most of these norms are not technology-based—our target populations resolve issues by seeking mediation from their village and/or religious leaders—we need to ensure that a technological solution will complement current habits and expectations.

Early on, we realized that mobile phones were the best tool available—51 percent of our target population owned mobile phones, and 31 percent of those who did not still had regular mobile access through friends or family. Though the quality of network signal is poor in the rural areas we are working in and mobile credit is costly for our target population, our users had creative techniques for overcoming these challenges. In areas with poor mobile signal, locals always knew the exact spots (under a particular mango tree, at the farthest corner of the church) where they could get good service. As mobile credit was expensive, users buy top-up cards daily: though more time-consuming, it helps limit the temptation to spend beyond a certain amount on any given day.

When a tool is valuable enough, people will find a way to use it. The value our target population placed on the mobile phone made it the best platform to build upon. Further, using the most common, inexpensive phones saves on procurement and training costs, and is more sustainable: success is more likely when you build on a tool people already use. Our technology partner, Dimagi, is building the tool along with a talented local Nigerian developer, who will maintain the system in-country over the long-term. We’re testing a prototype right now with citizens, who use the tool to report on their experience with two government services: a series of public health clinics and an agricultural subsidy program, both funded by the World Bank.

Our work in the field uncovered unique challenges that our accountability program must overcome. For instance, we found that among our target populations, those who can read are taught to do so in English in school (even though speaking and reading comprehension are poor), and remain illiterate in their native tongue; deciding what language to use for our tool and for program communications is tricky. We continue to develop the program with these challenges well in mind, exploring the use of visual aids and employing a network of agents/reporters to enable access to and usage of the tool.

On our most recent trip, we spent three weeks testing the prototype with users and iterating—rapidly—to improve it. Each night, we updated the software as well as our communications materials based on that day’s user feedback, improving both the technology as well as the content. Every day, we had a new, better iteration to test. In the coming months, we will be rolling out a late-stage, high-fidelity prototype of the tool. Once the pilot has launched, we will further test and iterate the platform, ensuring that the final tool has the best possible configuration for collecting and recording citizen feedback.

As the project develops, we are designing the platform for the World Bank and the Nigerian government to process the citizen data-stream, and use it to support improvements in service delivery. Fast and meaningful feedback is vital to showing citizens that their input matters, and is critical for their continued engagement. But providing immediate feedback is also costly for the government. The challenge, then, comes in balancing the two. While quick service improvements are ideal, there are also other, interim solutions service providers can deploy as they vet, prioritize, and implement ideas for improvement.

But without a robust, people-centric system to handle and resolve grievances, any technology tool will fall short of its potential. Thus, we continue to work with the World Bank and the Nigerian government to design a program that ensures the feedback provided by citizens is put to good use.

When one of their community’s youth gets a post with a local government, Nigerian villagers celebrate the new—and seemingly only—means to finally have their grievances heard by someone with the power to address them. We are excited and hopeful for the success of this program at scale, and for what Nigerians can create with their government when the promise of accountability is literally at their fingertips.

Futher reading.