Ian Cocroft, Karen Lee, and Connor MacKenzie are second-year master’s students in the international development program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The SAIS International Development (IDEV) practicum allows students to work directly with public, private, and nongovernmental organizations as a capstone to their graduate studies. Ian, Karen, and Connor worked with the Center for Digital Acceleration at DAI. The students conducted virtual research in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam during the 2020-21 academic year to better understand how civil society organizations (CSOs) use digital technologies to support social accountability in public service delivery. The team’s final report provides DAI with considerations on how CSOs can better integrate digital technologies into their operations and highlights regional examples of digital tools for social accountability.

Our practicum team worked with DAI’s Center for Digital Acceleration on a regional study about how CSOs in Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam use digital technologies for social accountability in public service delivery, providing a series of recommendations for the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Innovations for Social Accountability in Cambodia (ISAC) program. As part of our research, we undertook an extensive literature review and held Zoom interviews with country representatives from CSOs, tech organizations, and multilateral institutions.

Inta.jpgSource: USAID Development Innovations Project

Our team found that under the proper circumstances, digital technologies have the potential to increase social accountability for public service delivery across Southeast Asia. However, for CSOs to develop inclusive digital tools for social accountability, their digital skills and capacity must continue to improve. Regional stakeholders introduced us to workshops, training materials, and partnerships that can address digital literacy concerns. For example, employees from Thai Netizen Network—a Thai NGO advocating for digital rights and civil liberties—attended the U.S. State Department’s TechCamp Thailand workshop. The two-day workshop brought together young participants from across Southeast Asia to learn about using technology to promote peace and dialogue in their communities. Participants took part in “speed geeking,” where they quickly rotated between stations to learn about topics spanning data verification, fake news, OpenStreetMap, and mobile journalism. While TechCamp Thailand promotes networking among CSOs working with digital tools, it did not devote much time to teaching CSOs basic digital skills required to use those digital tools. In this regard, long-term and holistic initiatives can encourage more sustainable digital skills.

We also found that despite local governments’ hesitance to expand social accountability, CSOs can collect data on public service delivery through fact-based questions, which gauge citizens’ experiences in service delivery. For example, the Vietnam Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI) is an annual survey conducted by a Vietnamese CSO and other partners. PAPI has gathered data about citizens’ experiences with service delivery across Vietnam’s 63 provinces for 12 years. PAPI worked with a data analytics firm that digitized the survey onto enumerators’ tablets to improve efficiency and data reliability. Despite Vietnam’s closed political space, PAPI has been a successful social accountability tool, and the survey’s widespread acceptance among the public indicates government support for capturing citizen voices to use as feedback in improving public services.

Finally, our analysis found that digital technologies can play an essential role in disseminating information about social accountability. In Burma, for example, township-level governments collect significant amounts of data on a regular basis, on everything from tax collection to criminal records. However, most of this data is stored on paper and is inaccessible to citizens and CSOs interested in holding the government accountable for service delivery. Thibi, a Burmese technology consultancy, partnered with The Asia Foundation to help these local governments digitize and map their records. They developed the Township GIS tool, a data visualization portal that provides access to digitized records for 31 government departments across three townships in Myanmar. Thibi recognized that the digitization of records presented an opportunity to enhance information transparency and improve collaboration between government departments. By helping to digitize and map data collected by government agencies, Thibi is working to strengthen transparency and accountability at the local level in Burma.

After analyzing these regional insights, we developed the following considerations for ISAC regarding the use of digital tools for social accountability in Cambodia:

  • Develop a common definition or shared understanding of social accountability amongst current and future ISAC partners and other stakeholders. Without a commonly understood definition of social accountability, it is difficult for CSOs to promote digital tools that address social accountability. This could be done through a public forum wherein representatives from partner organizations define a common conception of social accountability or a ranking exercise that allows ISAC partners to express their preferences regarding several possible interpretations of social accountability that are aligned with ISAC’s definition.

  • Prioritize local CSO and NGO capacity building for operational costs and digital skill workshops through more flexible and sustained funding. A common challenge facing CSOs across the region is the inability to secure long-term funding that would allow them to invest in areas such as digital literacy, which is vital to the successful implementation of digital technologies for social accountability activities. ISAC-DAI could consider linking stakeholders to existing long-term digital literacy training and building a network of digital experts and organizations.

  • Partner with organizations that have a proven track record of enhancing digital capacity for CSOs. CSO financial constraints and donor restrictions can preclude the purchase of licensed software, and while many CSOs are aware that unlicensed software is a security risk, they cannot afford the licensed version. ISAC-DAI could also explore partnerships with tech companies and universities to access new funding streams for developing digital skills.

  • Use data analytics and fact-based questions to measure public service satisfaction and develop government support. For example, ISAC-DAI could use Cambodia’s Education Strategic Plan 2019-23 to design a tool for collecting citizen experiences in public education. If the results were made public, the media and online activists are more likely to discuss the findings and incentivize service providers to improve their rankings.

  • Avoid the digital graveyard by focusing on demand-driven digital solutions and leveraging existing social media platforms. Digital tools for social accountability should be designed with citizen demand in mind, and social media platforms can be leveraged to capitalize on ease of use and familiarity.

  • Identify and build relationships with champions in government by leveraging existing priorities. Existing relationships between CSOs and government officials augment the ability of CSOs to use digital tools for social accountability, especially in contexts where the government does not accept or agree with the concept of social accountability. To connect CSOs and government champions, an open convening session can introduce resourceful CSO leaders to their counterparts in key ministries, leveraging the government’s existing digital development plans.

Digital technologies have an important role to play in improving social accountability in Southeast Asia. Financial constraints often inhibit CSOs that want to invest further in their digital operations and digital skills building, so it is crucial for donors to support local CSOs to develop this capacity. Data collection and dissemination tools that use objective language, focus on users, and have internal government partners are most likely to succeed.