SAc 2.0: Amplifying Social Accountability (SAc) through Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
by: Marlon L. Cornelio
The experiences of CheckMySchool(CMS) and Universidad Coherente (UC) showcase how ICT can be used to amplify social accountability(SAc) towards improving public education service delivery in the elementary, secondary and tertiary levels. However, CMS and UC also show that while ICT provides powerful tools, there are basic principles that should be taken into account to fully utilize ICT. As with any other effective SAc initiatives, government openness, access to information, organized and capable citizen groups, and cultural-sensitivity and context-appropriateness are needed as enabling environments. Use of ICT tools have to be complemented by offline activities or grassroots organizing.
CMS and UC are two of the many innovative projects of the members of the Global Youth Anti-Corruption (GYAC) network, which is composed of young people, young activists, journalists, artists, musicians and ICT enthusiasts. GYAC provides a platform for young leaders from north to south to share experiences, strategies, tools, and lessons in fighting corruption and promoting good governance in their countries.
The dawn of an information and communication technology era, along with its continuous unfolding, is redefining both the way of thinking and doing things, even personal relationships. In the same manner, ICT is also redefining governance, citizen participation and exacting accountability.
The 2011 Oslo Governance Forum of the United Nations Development Program takes on, as one of its major topics, ICT and governance. While the debates are ongoing on the bane and boon of ICT on democracy and democratization; young people, naturally predispose to ICT, have taken steps in developing tools and showing practical applications of ICT in governance. The role of ICT in the Arab spring is a common example, as in the case of People Power 2 in the Philippines.
This short paper presents experiences of CheckMySchool of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia Pacific (ANSA-EAP) in the Philippines and Universidad Coherente in Peru. The two initiatives share commonalities in the use of ICT in social accountability initiatives for better public education service delivery. CheckMySchool focuses on elementary and secondary education, while Universidad Coherente works on budget and financial management of state universities. These two initiatives are the models, in the application of ICT in education monitoring, being shared in the Global Youth Anti-Corruption (GYAC) Network platform.
The Global Youth Anti-Corruption Network (GYAC)
The Global Youth Anti-Corruption (GYAC) network is composed of young people, young activists, journalists, artists, musicians and ICT enthusiasts. From all over the globe, north to south, young leaders come together to share experiences, strategies, tools and lessons in fighting corruption and promoting good governance in different countries. This is done in various processes that young people can easily relate to, like the use of music and the arts. As an example, in partnership with Jeuness Musicale International, a global anti-corruption song competition – FairPlay, is conducted annually. Musicians from all over the globe compose anti-corruption songs, produce music videos and upload them in youtube; an attempt to create awareness on and mainstream governance issues among the youth. Another example is the Global Youth Anti-Corruption Forum, where the FairPlay winners participate, along with other youth anti-corruption advocates. During this forum, GYAC members and invited experts present their latest innovations in doing governance and anti-corruption work in their countries; like proudly showcasing the latest gadgetry. They openly and gladly share how they developed their projects. In this process, young people learn together and even sharpen their tools, and innovate even more.
Pillars of Social Accountability
As what is highlighted in OGF 2011, corruption will not be minimized and good governance will not be achieved without one very important component – the citizens, the governed, and the “sovereign” where which the power resides and accountability originates. Young citizens comprise the majority in developing countries. The inclusion and emphasis of citizen participation in governance is referred to as “social accountability”.
Social accountability, as defined by ANSA-EAP, refers to:
Organized and capable citizens engaging constructively with government to monitor its decisions and actions toward better delivery of public services, improvement of people’s welfare, and protection of people’s rights.
This definition, necessitates what ANSA-EAP calls four pillars or the enabling environment for social accountability to be effective:
It is important to consider these pillars one-by-one.
Government openness pertains to laws and mechanisms that enable citizen participation, that bring back the power to the people to exact accountability from its leaders, from the government. It also pertains to agents inside government or champions that advocate for such and ensures that this principle is observed.
Citizens have to be organized and capable in order to engage government and its processes. This may come in the form of non-governmental organization, the civil society, from the well established to the common parents-teachers-and-students association, or a neighborhood association; even, and as importantly, organizations of young people. Aside from being organized, groups must have the capacity to engage with government. They must be familiar with its processes and equipped with defined agenda and necessary tools.
The engagement between government and citizens for it to be constructive has to be based on information or access to information. Access to information is essential in "constructive engagement", which as defined by ANSA-EAP, has the following characteristics:
The necessity of laws that guarantee freedom or access to information is emphasized here. Included in having access to information is having the means to understand and use it. In the examples discussed below, as well as many other fruitful engagements between citizens and governments, access to information was key.
There are many tools and mechanisms available to promote good governance and fight corruption. And in these, the 3 previous pillars are present. But once adapted or implemented in a particular locale, there are high chances that it will fail – lacking of the outputs expected. Cultural-sensitivity and context-appropriateness is the fourth pillar that should not be missed out. As an example, in the context of youth, young people will usually automatically veer away from the seemingly highly technical and jargon-filled good governance processes. They have to be engaged using their own “language” and reached through issues that are at the top of their concerns, for example education or employment. From their parochial concerns, the complex and interdependent issues of governance can slowly be introduced and understood.
The 4 pillars, discussed above, are vividly visible in the examples of the two initiatives from GYAC members: CheckMySchool and the Universidad Coherente. Primarily employing ICT, both projects aim to improve the quality of public education service delivery in the two countries; the first, in basic education (elementary and secondary) and the second in tertiary level.
Students normally complain about the poor access to and quality of education. Students’ complaints are usually manifested in demonstrations, often leading to violence and destruction of school properties. School administrators and government, on the other hand, reason out that there are limited government resources, and meager budget can be allotted to education. Student demonstrations are also met with anti-riot police squad while complaints are dismissed as youthful angst to blame government, and unsubstantiated. At the end of the day, the real problem is muddled, no substantive engagement and viable solutions are presented.
Universidad Coherente (UC), founded in 2007 by students and young professionals, takes steps to address student redress and facilitate an information-based engagement between the two parties.
Universidad Coherente employs a three-pronged approach. First, it promotes efficiency in the management of universities by training authorities and officials on the issue of transparency and access to information. Second, it promotes civil society and student monitoring of universities, by using ICT and bringing issues to media. Finally, it provides organizing and capacity building for university students to strengthen their leadership in promoting transparency, access to information and demanding accountability. Before zooming-in to the employment of ICT tools and other media, it must be noted that these approaches are interrelated and interdependent.
Utilizing the access to information law, UC converts information from government agencies into "infographics" or visual presentation of information which are easily understandable and useful to a particular target sector, like the students. Infographics are more attractive and easier to digest compared to a 50-100 page report, for example; it is also easy to share. Coupled with the use of ICT, infographics become viral and elicit attention of and discussion among students. In the website of UC, students can click on a map of Peru where all the public universities are plotted. In a click, students have access to information pertaining to the number of students enrolled, the school budget, and the average government spending per student. Like in class, students can compare notes on which universities have the most or least number of students correlated with their university budget. Visually revealing is the disparity between spending per student in the different universities. Students’ attention is caught, while at the same time questions are being formed in their minds: Why is the government spending more or less per student compared with the spending in other universities? Where and how is the budget spent?
One particularly stirring finding of UC is the high percentage of unutilized budget among some state universities, while education services are lacking and teachers receive dismal salaries. UC, with information accessed from government, also shows the increase in budget of state universities over the years. On the other hand, students observe that while there was substantive increase in budget, there was no marked improvement in their university. Students come up with tougher questions backed up with information.
UC also came out with a report, “Towards a transparent university,” on the compliance of public universities on the access to information and transparency law. Of the 35 public universities, only 1 met with the standards of transparency prescribed by law and 3 universities meet the Transparent Portal Standard set by the government.
With the information made accessible using ICT, students started asking their school administrations questions – a show of interest and a beginning of constructive engagement. In some instances, a series of demonstrations were held to demand greater accountability and transparency on university budget.
UC emphasizes that citizens need to collaborate and to improve their university; while at the same time, challenges university authorities to demonstrate a real commitment to improving levels of efficiency and quality of its management.
In the Philippines and among development-workers circles, a buzz is being generated by an initiative that promotes “social accountability and transparency, once school at a time.” This initiative is called CheckMySchool (CMS).
While CMS is very new, it has a very long history. Missing out on its context will limit one's understanding on the initial success and many potentials of this project. The CheckMySchool project was started in 2009 and formally launched in 2010. However, its foundation has been laid as early as 2001. During that time, the Department of Education Culture and Sports (DECS now Department of Education or DepEd) was labeled as the one of the most corrupt institutions in the Philippines. DepEd, with the biggest government bureaucracy and primarily in-charge with the education of Filipino youth, was a big embarrassment to say the least. The department was doing its best, but corruption was so engrained in the bureaucracy that it was not making progress. Fortunately, there was a change in leadership and with it came a “new” approach to finding solutions. The department, then, opened up to civil society organizations. An opening that the Government Watch (G Watch) of Ateneo de Manila University took seriously. G Watch was a small and new program, then, composed of 3-5 staff; while the work that awaited was enormous. To address this, G Watch convened a consortium of citizens’ organization, composed of Scouts, parents and teachers’ association (PTA), student organizations, the election monitors (NAMFREL), among others; provided them training, and equipped them with simple yet practical tools to exact accountability from the department, from the national down to the local level. The consortium then engaged the department and the result of this partnership was the Textbook Count project. Trained citizens, from and tapped by the consortium, volunteered and monitored the bidding of contracts, the production in warehouses, and the delivery of books to schools. DepEd, on the other hand, provides the volunteer monitors with information by sending invites to consortium for bidding, warehouse inspections schedules, and delivery schedule of books. Unlike before, DepEd officials were now doing these tasks side-by-side with citizen groups, providing greater transparency which prevents attempts to bribery and corruption.
From monitoring books, the partnership advanced to monitoring of construction of classrooms. Another round of training was conducted. “Brigada Eskwela” was launched. The result of these initiatives and the reforms initiated by DepEd were a marked decrease of 50% in the cost of books and classrooms; shorter production and delivery of books, among others. Furthermore, a formidable, engaged and capacitated network of citizen groups was put in place. DepEd, once tagged as most corrupt, enjoyed one of the highest trust ratings among government agencies. The rapport, trust, built between citizens and government in the process, the empowerment of citizens to hold government accountable could just be a called as a “consolation”.
This consolation is the seed of CheckMySchool (CMS), which now aspires to cover 44,000 schools nationwide, across 7107 islands of the Philippines. CheckMySchool is now monitoring books, classrooms, chairs, student and teacher ratio, and toilets, among others. The information pertaining to these are managed by four different and separate bureaus of the department. Putting these information, which stakeholders look for, together was a gargantuan task, an information and coordination series of nightmares, requiring an ever more sizable amount of resources.
This is where the use of ICT comes in. Using google mapping and mash-up technologies, CMS organizes information to make it easily understandable by citizens. The information mapped are provided by DepEd; a case of access to information, facilitated by a long partnership and trust building. The information is based on report collated by the agency from all their field offices. Citizens are now invited to scrutinize this information and probe their validity. Citizens are encouraged to give feedback and monitor education service delivery in their schools.
"Infomediaries" are also deployed in areas with poor access to ICT. Infomediaries serve as bridge to the information and ICT divide in the rural and urban areas of the Philippines. Furthermore, the established network of citizen groups down at the local level collaborates in soliciting feedback and validating veracity of reports gathers. Through a memorandum of agreement (MOA) between citizen groups, led by CheckMySchool, and DepEd, information is made more accessible to the public, feedback and complaints are immediately brought to the attention and acted on by DepEd officials.
CheckMySchool is just starting off. It is full of promise of improving further basic education service delivery in the country by tapping active citizenship with the aide of ICT. The application of CMS technology in other services is something to look forward to or perhaps something to start work on.
Assessing the impact or success of CMS and UC provides real example of the four pillars or enabling environment for social accountability.
UC relies mostly on the Access to Information Law to get information on public state university budget and spending. Without which, it would be impossible to map out, compare, and analyze university budgets. On the other hand, while there is no access to information law, yet, in the Philippines, CMS was still able to get a hold of the information from the different bureaus of DepEd. This is due to the long-standing partnership between DepEd and Ateneo School of Government (ASoG), where CMS is housed. This partnership is event institutionalized through a memorandum of agreement (MOA). Government openness and the presence of reform champions inside are key to CMS.
Having organized and enabled citizens, in the form of a network of citizen groups for education convened and coordinated by GWatch for about a decade, is another big asset of CMS. CMS can rely on the consortium for local operations, such as popularizing the campaign, verifying field reports, etc. UC is aware of this need as well. UC continuously provide capacity building for student leaders whom ensure UC’s actual presence in the different universities and the “consumption” or use of the information put out online.
Both CMS and UC are very keen on context and cultural appropriateness. This is evident in the use of infographics and infomediaries. Government reports have to be adapted to stakeholders’ concerns and their capability to digest them, in most instances, by first wetting their appetite. It is also by no coincidence that CMS is checking books, classrooms, chairs, toilets, etc. or UC focusing of budget and spending of state universities. These were selected after knowing and understanding the context, what information are most essential to the stakeholders. Choosing which information to put online is a response to the issues and concerns in the country’s respective education systems.
How ICT amplifies social accountability is clearly shown in the experiences of CMS and UC. However, ICT tools are not stand-alone. Initiatives have to ensure that the elements of an enabling environment are present.
Online platforms have to be complemented by offline activities or grassroots organizing. With these, risks and challenges of having only one, i.e. organizing in big scale is very costly, can be addressed by complementing it with the other, i.e. use of available ICT tools for communication and coordination. The web mash-ups, as another example, help us organize and popularize enormous information which would have been mission impossible using the traditional methods. Verifying validity of online reports can also be addressed if there is actual presence in the ground.
 Marlon L. Cornelio, a youth activist from the Philippines, is the ICT Convenor and one of the founding members of the Global Youth Anti-Corruption (GYAC) Network. Marlon was Youth Coordinator of ANSA-East Asia Pacific, where he was part of the team developing CheckMySchool. In GYAC, he closely collaborated with a representative from Universidad Coherente. Send comments and queries at firstname.lastname@example.org