How Ghana’s districts can improve citizen engagement using mobile phones

With the influx of mobile phones over the last decade, mobile for development programmes, often known simply as M4D, have emerged as a new field in communication. And they have revolutionised our use of mobile phone technology as an efficient communication tool for development.

According to Ghana’s National Communication Authority, mobile phone voice penetration was at 119% in June 2015 while mobile phone data penetration was at 62%. Although this doesn't mean every citizen has a phone, it provides a strong indication that access to mobile phones is spreading rapidly in Ghana.

How do districts assemblies engage citizens?

Ghana’s local government comprises metropolitan, municipal and districts assemblies whose core mandate is to ensure development through a decentralised system that includes opening up channels for active grass roots participation and citizen engagement.
By engaging the citizenry, it is expected that inputs generated would aid the assemblies in the design of policies and plans that reflects the dreams and aspirations of the citizens in their jurisdiction.

The traditional methods for public engagements used by most districts assemblies include radio discussions, community durbars, public information vans and town hall meetings.

There are several instances where the assemblies are required to provide evidences for public engagement. One such instance is the FOAT assessment which is a prerequisite for a district to pass and enjoy the Districts Development Facility. Under this assessment, the evidence used in measuring a district’s performance on serving information to the public include public hearings, publications, newsletters, letters on noticeboards and payment receipts for radio airtime.

Challenges in the status quo

Though the traditional methods of public engagement outlined above may seem very easy for the assemblies to achieve, they are usually not the most effective in enhancing the quality of engagements. This is as a result of the following factors;

*distance

*mobility

*language barrier

*convenience

*culture of inclusiveness

Two of today’s technologies normally used together to engage citizens more frequently are radio and mobile. For instance, one can argue that the use of radio discussions can address the problems of distance and mobility. However, that still leaves the problem of participation and inclusiveness of the majority of citizens as a result of the time such programmes are aired.

Also citizens tune into the radio discussions and have the opportunity of joining the discourse through phones-ins; even in this, inclusiveness of the less outspoken is still a problem. Joining the discourse will be limited to citizens who had the opportunity of listening to the discussion, have airtime on their phones and are not shy of being heard publicly.

In Ghana, patriarchy has exceeded the boundaries of the home to the workplace and society at large. This is reflected in poor participation of women and other vulnerable groups (the aged and persons living with disabilities) in radio discussions that encourage community development.

Changing the status quo

Crowdsourcing information using mobile engagement is not entirely a novelty. In East Africa, Twaweza has a project that uses mobile phones for surveys that end up influencing national plans and policies.

On a relatively smaller scale, a consortium of four civil service organisations in Ghana - Amplify Governance, Savana Signatures, GINKS and Voto Mobile - partnered with four assemblies - Tamale Metropolitan, Savelugu, Wa and Yendi Municipalities - to pilot a ‘Mobile for Social Inclusive Governance’ project which resulted in empowering the assemblies to use applications in sourcing information from public through interactive voice surveys.

As an open government fellow who has gained experience in M4D initiatives at VOTO Mobile, I strongly believe that officials from the districts assemblies should be able to crowdsource information from citizens especially women, youth and persons living with disabilities by using Interactive Voice Response technology to enrich the districts’ policy formulation and development planning processes in terms of allocation of public goods and services.

Project is Led by Suhuyini Salim Shani who is an open government fellow with Code for Africa and Open Knowledge. He is the lead implementer for VOTO Mobile in Ghana working on projects which amplify the voices of marginalised groups using mobile technology.