Thinking and working politically with technology: State of the art meets art of the state

Guest post by Gopa Thampi and Nicola Nixon of The Asia Foundation

Why is the much-heralded promise of the data revolution not accelerating development in the way we expected? Why is the incredibly rapid rise of new data sources and methods of analysis paradoxically out of sync with its broader social impacts? No easy answers, but some of the reasons, we suspect, lie in a need for greater attention to the local political dynamics into which digital solutions are introduced.

And it takes time to accumulate an understanding of those dynamics. One of our longest engagements in this field is in Sri Lanka, where for 15 years our sub-national governance program has been supporting progressive reform efforts, deepening citizen involvement in planning and budgeting and ensuring effective redress of citizen grievances with provincial and local governments across the country. The super-nerdy but super-important side of governance: public financial management.

We work primarily with mayors and chairpersons, Chief Ministers of provinces and city commissioners and the staff within the institutions that sit under them – the users. Through these relationships we encourage reform pathways, and data is a very powerful tool that helps these users create new practices within governments not always eager to change.

Using an online Budget Management Tool. Credit: TAF

Within local government, we found a new cadre of directly elected councillors were, for the most part, new to the political sphere.  They carried huge expectations from their constituencies and were keen to show impact.  The mood was buoyant and optimistic, open to new ideas. In war-affected provinces there was also an opportunity to leapfrog an earlier e-governance phase, that elsewhere had clocked up a clunky legacy of physical networks and servers, and transition straight to a mobile platform.

Together, these openings provided opportunities to introduce new ways of doing things in a traditionally bureaucratic process.  For instance, we supported the digitalization of budget tracking, enabled a Tablet-based community feedback mechanism to inform and influence local needs assessments, and piloted a digital census survey of vulnerable groups, all of which were taken up enthusiastically and continue to be used today.

Looking back, we have three key reflections:

Prepare for delayed resistance: Technology is seductive – sleek Tablets, instant results, eye-catching dashboards and striking infographics often induce quick buy-in both from the higher level officials and frontline workers. Yet, the initial shine sometimes wears off when new technology challenges historically opaque structures and practices and the benefits they accrue to some.

In Sri Lanka, for instance, a web-based application that demystifies local government budgets using simple visual cues started exposing sensitive issues like uncollected arrears and costs incurred due to ad hoc political appointments — information that some decided they weren’t too keen to have made visible. The system then fights back, usually in discrediting the technology as unreliable or too complex. Some of our interventions failed because we had underestimated the incentives against change within our institutional partners.

Digital Needs Assessment Survey. Credit: TAF

Understand micro-institutional politics. The introduction of technology and access to new knowledge, especially for frontline staff, can create conflicts. In a very hierarchical structure, the introduction of new tech often means creating equal access to information for officials, including entry-level, younger workers, who are often more tech savvy than their older colleagues. Access to new technologies can be an empowering force that ruptures existing pecking orders.

Young frontline workers are often quick to embrace and master new tools and are well positioned to take advantage of new opportunities. In some places we saw this went very well, in others it created a rift.  In some places it was even necessary to run conflict resolution and team building workshops at the same time as introducing new platforms.

Adapt the tech to the context. Fail fast, learn and iterate. We were able to test the introduction of different technologies while also adapting to address these unexpected consequences in a constructive and forward-looking way. We had the space in which to pilot various options as we moved forward.

Our relationships with the actors,  their perspective on the technology, and – importantly – the incentives that drive their actions  allowed us to be agile and flexible: to understand when to talk up the efficiency of technology to achieve greater transparency and accountability in the long term; to know when to accelerate because the environment was favorable and when to hit the brakes.

When the initial results of the electronic Citizen Report Card survey were shared with political leaders like Mayors and Chief Ministers, their interest was piqued by the possibility of disaggregating feedback across ethnicities and economic categories – they saw this as a good opportunity to reach across to their constituencies. And in post war Sri Lanka, this became a good incentive to strengthen social cohesion and reconciliation.

The positive micro-institutional dynamics and incentives that had enabled take-up were beginning to influence reform momentum up the line. Often it is these that mean a digital solution will succeed or flounder. Like any other policy intervention, data and tech need to be technically sound and politically feasible.  

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5 Responses to “Thinking and working politically with technology: State of the art meets art of the state”
  1. Fascinating to read about ‘delayed resistance’ because this is happening in a number of countries and contexts. Once you knew who was resisting, was it possible to tweak the design of the technology in ways that weakened or overcame the resistance? Would be good to get a feel for the distribution of experiences in Sri Lanka and what could explain variations. In our review of digital technologies we found an even more serious problem (perhaps less in evidence in PFM applications). Sometimes technologies that improved information flows not only did not help to hold the powerful to account, they deepened power asymmetries because the powerful were better able to use or control information about the less powerful to benefit themselves. Political economy may determine not just the feasibility but also the effects of introducing particular technologies.

    • Gopa Thampi

      Thank you, Prof. Khan, for your response and comments. In Sri Lanka, we didn’t tweak the design of the technology, but calibrated the scope of the application to work around the pockets of resistance; this meant carrying out political context analysis in each of the project sites to understand the institutional dynamics as well as the interest and incentives of the political leadership. As an entry point, we always pitched the technology solution as a complement to an ongoing reform agenda or a political priority. It was never presented as an ‘outside expert-driven solution’. The other key strategy we followed was to emphasize efficiency gains and not to start with a big bang accountability focus. We believe that in the existing political ecology, the pathway to accountability has to be negotiated incrementally. Our strategy in the initial phase was to allow the system to see a quick win from the solution being offered and then advocating to embed the solution within institutional structure and processes – in the Sri Lankan context, the subnational level PFM gave an annual cycle to embed the tools and allowed the system to leverage the utility of the same. Once the system was comfortable with the technology solution, the focus was then to make the results more public facing – opening dashboards to display results or use simple conventional methods like printing and distribution citizen friendly budget summaries. We believe that this calibrated pivot to the public space will bring in the demand for accountability. The other key strategy was to open up the results from the technology solutions to the entire local council staff, including all political members – this was done through micro policy labs where a cross-section of the local council staff and political members were provided full access to the outputs from the technology tools and encouraged to ask questions and work out possible reform measures. This approach not only created more buy-in to the solution, but also provided a rare opportunity to look at hard data and collectively work out action plans. In our case, the biggest resistance often came from the middle tier of executives in the councils. This was countered through a strategy of leveraging incentives for the leadership (quick-wins, visible impacts, alignment with vision, reformist label) for a ‘push from above’ and leveraging incentives for the frontline staff (new skills, increased visibility, immediate endorsement from citizens) to trigger a ‘pull from below’ for sustaining the new practices. The variations in the impact of the tools depended to a large extent on the manner in which the middle tier responded. This was an eyeopener of sorts as very often we tend to go with a political or executive champion to push through reforms, in the process making it a personality-driven success. But we found out that champions have a short shelf-life and get transferred often. And the incumbent in most cases had little incentive to carry on an agenda which had the predecessor’s strong personal imprint on it. The buy-in from the middle tier became critical to ensure that the reform measures survive these rapid leadership transitions.

      • Duncan Green

        Thanks Gopa – really important observation: ‘champions have a short shelf-life and get transferred often. And the incumbent in most cases had little incentive to carry on an agenda which had the predecessor’s strong personal imprint on it. The buy-in from the middle tier became critical’

  2. Kieran Breen

    Really, liked this and especially the “very real” issues of those at the top not liking feeling threatened by new technology and also not wanting open information.
    Linked to this is the point that digital divide often linked to growing age divide? if we look at many societies the divide between young and old and also between those who are IT literate/have It access often correlate with age .

  3. I liked the iterative, learn-as-you-go approach. It is so important that the elbow space is available to experiment. Government systems hardly afford such flexibility; sincere failed attempts often get construed as mis-adventures and the project champion is often left answering a spate of internal enquiries or even defending serious charges, thereby stifling innovation. This is where civil society can support the government in cushioning the risk associated with ambitious reforms. The partnership seemed to have worked very well in Sri Lanka – congrats.