East Africa has an urgent need for innovative accountability mechanisms, as many public services are inefficient and corrupt. SEMA helps to improve the quality of public service delivery, by gathering real-time citizen feedback and presenting this data in digestible formats. We use low-tech tools, such as custom-made hardware devices and interactive voice response technology, that help citizens from all backgrounds to have a voice in evaluating their public services.
Millions of citizens in East Africa rely on public services that are inefficient, ineffective and corrupt. This is a huge problem, since public services are essential in the lives of citizens: think of victims seeking help from the police, or mothers applying for birth certificates to enroll their children to secondary school. What we see is that the quality and accessibility of these services often depends on the efficiency and integrity of civil servants, and the good governance of public institutions. According to Transparency International (2018), almost 40% of Ugandans reported paying bribes to access a public service. Corrupt public services disproportionately impact the most vulnerable, who cannot afford to pay bribes, and therefore often cannot receive the necessary public services such as police assistance. According to the HiiL Justice Needs in Uganda Report (2016), citizens generally do not trust formal service providers in solving their justice problems (compared to informal service providers). SEMA’s data (n=9762, 2018) demonstrates that a.o. women have to wait longer in order to be helped at a public office, and more often do not receive a resolution to their problem. Uganda’s government sees the problem, too: the Second National Development Plan listed “poor public sector management” as the country’s most binding constraint to development.
At the same time, only minimal concrete solutions to improve service delivery are introduced. For instance, there are no solutions for combating corruption at public service level proposed in the fourth strategic vision for the Justice Law and Order Sector of Uganda, although it is part of their core mission (SDP-IV, 2018). Civil servants and public offices do not feel they are held accountable for inefficiency, discriminatory practices or taking bribes while delivering services. Citizens lack effective ways to raise their concerns about public service delivery in their own communities. Currently, the only way in which citizens can give immediate feedback to their local offices is through a wooden suggestion box that is never emptied.
A commitment to comply with SDG 16.6 (‘to create transparent and accountable institutions at all levels’) is translated in national strategies that advocate for policies that improve service delivery. For instance, the SDP-IV of the Ugandan Ministry of Justice has as one of it’s main goals to increase public satisfaction and trust with all its services.
If local governments - such as the Ministry of Justice of Uganda - have the data that shows them which services receive higher public satisfaction rates compared to others, they can make targeted interventions and evaluate their programmes over time. If public offices would be given monthly feedback from citizens on how they are performing (compared to other offices, compared to other months), and by receiving concrete suggestions on how to improve and guidance on how to go about this - public services can improve their quality and lower their corruption rates. Moreover, if local civil servants feel they are being held accountable (by citizens and their managers), and rewarded for good performance, they would be directly incentivised to improve their client care.
All of these are assumptions which we have tested and continue to test to date. We have piloted a combination of three citizen feedback mechanisms at 8 public offices in Kampala (5 police offices and 3 municipality offices):
(a) a locally produced (IoT) rating device where people can press a button on a scale from 1-5 (smiley faces), placed at public offices
(b) an Interactive Voice Response line that allows people to give feedback in their own language over the phone, toll-free; and
(c) a face-to-face interview with one of our trained volunteers stationed at public offices.
Since March 2018 over 15000 citizens have given feedback through these mechanisms. Moreover, we ran impact surveys and have seen how different methods of gathering and presenting citizen feedback to local public offices and local government can incentivise quick improvements leading to higher citizen satisfaction rates within four months at 3 out of 8 offices.
We believe that by 2050 every public institution in East Africa should use a citizen feedback tool that helps them improve their services. Working with low-cost and easy-to-use technologies, public-private partnerships that allow for fast iterations, and smart data-to-action strategies that incentivise real changes, we believe we can easily scale this solution across the region in the coming 5 years.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
SEMA uses sensible, effective systems to gather citizen feedback on public services, and deliver this data in a way that lets local governments make improvements in low-income countries like Uganda. This is unique, as all citizens are able to give feedback and recommendations on the service they have received, immediately following their interaction with a public office. Our offline technologies and in-person interviews build a rich database that gives the right information for offices and governments to make effective improvements. Importantly, our methods of collecting citizen voices are measured on a continuous basis, in real-time - which means that we can compare satisfaction rates and performance over time. Discussing monthly reports with civil servants leads to direct changes of work ethic and mindset, and the continuous presence of SEMA at local offices has proven to create a sense of accountability leading to better client service from day one.
Collaborations & Partnerships
We designed our technologies together with citizens and civil servants, on location. We went through various iteration cycles to come to the right prototypes. We have partnered from the outset with the Justice Law and Order Sector of Uganda (Uganda Police), and the Kampala Capital City Authority, who gave us formal permission to test technologies and gather data on-site. Impact surveys with civil servants help us understand how data leads to change.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
The main beneficiaries of SEMA are users of public services who visit offices in-person. These are generally citizens from all layers of society, including those who don't have access to internet, who have their voices heard, and benefit from service improvements the next time they visit an office. The second most important beneficiaries of SEMA are civil servants and local governments, who can find out how their services can be improved, and are commended for better service delivery.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
So far, our impact has been achieved at three distinct levels:
1) By giving their feedback, citizens feel their voice matters and regain confidence in public service delivery. Citizens benefit directly from better public services as they improve according to their feedback. We have measured an increase in satisfaction at 3 out of 8 offices after four months.
2) By monitoring their services, local public offices can tackle service delivery issues every month, see their performance increase over time and feel recognized for their achievements. During the pilot, we noticed offices improved already on the sanitation of their stations, the treatment of prisoners, bribery incidences, their friendliness towards citizens and the waiting time.
3) By analyzing performance of different offices, the government of Uganda can comply with SDG 16.6, improve its public image and monitor and improve the quality of services. We held various stakeholder meetings at HQ levels to discuss policy changes.
Challenges and Failures
At the outset it took time to convince the government to partner with SEMA and to see the start-up as a viable route to improving their services. For that reason, piloting happened in stages and even today we face challenges in convincing the government to pay for our tools/services (which have to date been funded by external donors). Regarding data validity, we encountered challenges in implementing our first prototypes as they were still dependent on electricity plugs and wifi - both of which are not available in many public offices in Kampala (let alone in rural areas). So we developed devices that run on batteries and have their own 3G chip to send data. Sometimes the devices are abused as we see patterns of buttons being pressed multiple times in a row in a short period. We addressed these with different officers and have been able to delete this data from our reporting. Currently we are lacking the financial resources to invest in local production of new devices.
Conditions for Success
Conditions for success:
1) a cooperative government to facilitate access and resources
2) cooperative civil servants who don't interfere with device implementations
3) willing-to-learn civil servants who listen to the citizen feedback data reports and commit to making improvements to their services
4) an independent data team and protection of our independence in data-analysis so data outcomes are not biased by a corrupt government
5) investment to lower the costs of device production and bring all production to Uganda/East Africa
6) a talented team with leaders who are able to recruit, coordinate and motivate the growing network of volunteers (data-collectors)
Tech platforms that have been introduced to evaluate public services in Uganda include AskYourGov, IPaidaBribe and WeSpeak. The common problem with all these platforms is that they do not generate enough (action-driven) data that can incentivise local offices to make direct improvements, for primarily the following reasons: (a) the threshold to use these services is too high, because they require an internet connection, are costly or simply unknown to citizens (b) consequently, these platforms receive mostly complaints and therefore do not sketch a neutral (let alone positive) image of the public service.
Feedback devices are used at airports in western countries and are being taken up fast in the private sector, even in East Africa. It's now time to adopt such devices for public sector improvements in countries where corruption is rife and many citizens don't have a voice in evaluating the public services they rely on.
The most important lessons are around data-to-action: If you have citizen feedback, how do you present it to civil servants and policy makers in a way that actually incentivises change? We're working on figuring this out through SEMA, and have recently published our first findings in our strategic framework report (see attachments).
Deploying technologies in low-income countries can be tricky as many public offices are not yet adapted to high-tech tools like blockchain, and the reality is that many citizens still can't use smartphones to communicate with the government. This makes for an interesting breeding ground for conversation about transparency and accountability (in line with SDG 16.6) innovations in low-income countries, as compared to such initiatives in high-income countries.
We're actively looking for partners that we can learn from and work with to increase our reach in the region, but also globally. Thank you for taking our work into consideration! We are still a start-up with a lean team and very limited resources so we hope that doesn't limit our chances to be included in the global dialogue on open government and innovation.
1 February 2018