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Civic Tech: The “FAILURE” I didn’t see coming!

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

I am sorry, but we would need to restart the development if we are going to achieve any tangible results within the timeline you have given”

This was the resolution of the web contractor working on the product upgrade of a social accountability platform that another team of developers created about 2years ago. After 3months of vague work with many loopholes, this web developer suddenly realised ‘oh snap, we’ve not been making sense the entire time.”

I was stunned. We had painstakingly searched for a tech company to upgrade the platform until we came in contact with these professionals, believing in their skill to optimize our CivicTech tool. I could not wrap my head around the difficulty of finding the right fit for the job.

A quick flashback–I had moved from managing and implementing civil society programs to leading a new team called Community Engagements with zero blueprints on how to structure, maximize and scale in line with the strategic plan of the organization, yet this area was an urgent need for the movement.

As a builder and convener, I have always been passionate about governance structures, putting functional systems in place and building teams. For this role, I was given a goal – build a social accountability movement across Nigeria and scale up to all African countries.

Remember, zero blueprints, zero budget.

In late 2016, We were looking to rebuild trust between citizens and the government so my team and I invented a civic tech tool, a social accountability platform where citizens could discuss the government’s accountability issues, and opacity in public procurements and suggest ways of engaging with public institutions. At the initial stage, there was a growing receptiveness to this idea and citizens from all over the country joined this platform, similar to Facebook, albeit conversations were strictly on curating public budgets, and government data, while demanding timely government intervention for deprived communities.

This platform is called iFollowTheMoney. Users tracked abandoned government projects and reported on the platform. We had researchers, journalists, public service holders, academics and citizens who were there for different reasons, some to amplify incomplete government works in their community, others to get information about public data.

My job was clear cut as the Community Engagement Manager–grow the platform! Devise new strategies to motivate citizens to use the platform to track government projects.

The platform grew by 800% in 2 years– which was quite unprecedented in the Social Development space. However, this rise in the number of subscribers, came with a deeper challenge of building retention, increasing engagements and scaling the conversations on that platform to other social media. As these indicators continue to deplete, I soon realised that this was one of the lows of any civic tech product I would experience.

One of my first fixes was to research the psychology of users, and the reason for the low engagement. I did this without a clue about what product management was, at the time.

I learnt about incentives to drive engagements and retention, I went back to the team and we curated more data to bridge the gap between user knowledge of government data and tracking public expenditure. Engagement increased but the result was minimal.

There seemed to be an inherent challenge here that I could hardly lay my hands on. I went back to my research, I realised some of the pain points have been glaring all along. The platform was not user-friendly, hence the difficulty in navigating. This was also dousing user experience and enthusiasm towards conversations on governance, social accountability and active citizen participation.

In addition, Mighty Networks, the server hosting the platform, had become more expensive to sustain with monthly subscriptions going through the roof, yet limited services.

My team and I thought it wise to prioritise resolving these pain points. The only option we had was to BUILD OUR OWN PLATFORM.

In hindsight, sticking with Mighty Networks but improving the user interface, may have been the ideal solution. I say this because my experience in the following months was mentally rigorous, emotionally draining, and required a higher skill in conflict resolution.

These, however, were learning points for me as a Development Activist cum Product Manager. Learnings I believe are curial for those in CivicTech/GovTech or those looking to enter the space.

Visioning - While CivicTech is trendy and probably the latest big thing in the development space, understanding the need, the reason and the right solution, makes a huge difference.

Many organisations have genuine intentions in either investing or developing civic tech ideas but may be miles behind in understanding the core reason for one. For some, it may be the spark in the proposal that intrigued the donor to give the grant while for others, it may be as superficial as being aligned to a certain status of CivicTech Organisation.

Whatever playing field, recognise your driving force and build a strong model to maintain and sustain it with intensity, investments and intentionality. This will require everyone within such an organisation to have a clue or understanding of how Civic Tech works and the phase of awareness we are currently in now. It will not be too much to come up with a strategic plan on Technology as a whole and how such organisations will play in the ecosystem. This strategy can be phased to maximise cost and optimise delivery for the intended purpose. This must be holistic, as there must be a synergy from top to bottom in the institution.

Skilled ManPower - One of the most prominent gaps I experienced and still experiencing is the classical lack of knowledge and insight from developers in understanding critical civic conversations that can help them apply their web development processes in developing tools as needed to solve social issues.

There are more techies interested in website development and Fintech than those interested in developing civic tech tools in Nigeria. In the past 3years, I have found just one company that understands the critical ideas around creating tools for citizen engagement. I understand the preference and people deciding to focus on a thing at a time, and the differences in business interests, but there is an untapped opportunity for techies to explore creating tools for social mobilisation and civic action.

Knowledge Gap - There is a massive gap in the knowledge of how governments and civil societies work, compared to the private sector, hence for tech developers to build or create tools that will be useful for social development, there must be that deliberate drive to understudy the entire sector. I also realized that bridging this gap may take a while if social development practitioners do not also begin to get involved in the ‘non-tech’ aspects of creating a product.

Enrolling at a Product Management school (Enoverlab) to learn the fundamentals of Product Management helped me learn the gaps that existed when we decided to scale and create our own social accountability product. It also revealed what we had been doing wrong and what we had done right. This knowledge has piqued my interest to support more tech developers to create products and tools for social mobilisation and development.

Funding - Every project is peculiar and may require the best hands to work on them from the conceptualization phase to its development and maintenance. Even these areas demand heavy budgeting, especially with developing digital tools.

On the Mighty Networks server, iFollowTheMoney was hosted for over $100 monthly. We still did not get the expected value for the exorbitant billing. This propelled us to build our own tool. As I mentioned earlier, we did not envisage the total cost of building, maintenance and third-party services et al. This was one of the tough lessons I learnt, personally.

We had a sizeable budget to build the platform but we did not factor in a budget to maintain and keep it running optimally. This required either retaining the tech company that built the platform or setting up an entire team of dedicated in-house tech staff to maintain the management of the tool. Either way, building technology tools require a high level of resources–mentally and physically.

Citizens' Interests - Unlike Social Media, FinTechs and maybe EdTech or other service-based tools like Uber and Bolt that may be used daily and are in high demand, a civic tech tool may be a once-in-a-week, monthly or even quarterly tool people stumble on.

Government issues and accountability are typically not as interesting as entertainment. So it can be difficult to attract and maintain citizens' attention. The next big news or social issue in regard to sports, music and entertainment has a long-lasting effect on people compared to our sector. When I ask my colleagues what can be done to drive and sustain citizens’ interests, I’ve heard ideas such as running skits and jokes on the platform😀😀. While I think it’s interesting, it may be difficult to build momentum around crucial issues.

We have experimented with pop culture, used both traditional and social media to drive citizens’ consciousness etc. Though we may have achieved some landmark progress, I cannot entirely say it is still significant. Although I have noticed peak periods when more citizens are interested in our kind of conversations, especially around election seasons like we are now, but the core interests may just be around the politics of the now, with a face-value substance on development. Hence a civic tech platform that primarily focuses on governance and development will require attraction strategies and a simple layout for citizens to not just sign up but to stay and use the tools to drive critical impact in governance and development.

Competition between Existing Platforms - There exists a silent competition among organizations, in the not-for-profit space. This competition is often expressed in how programs are developed and tools are created repeatedly to do the same things. Every organization is unique, and from my experience in the development space, programs are designed based on the interest and core competencies of these civic organizations.

However, in an ideal system, tools can be reused and optimised in specific ways to play a more complementary role to each other. I envision the need for an aggregator product that can be a one-stop point for all tools that exist in the development space, at least in Nigeria.

SDG goal 17 speaks to partnerships and strong institutions, but practitioners in the space have only scratched the surface and only make a reference to partnerships and collaborations when it is convenient. I have witnessed and facilitated some landmark collaborations and have seen massive results but there is an urgent need to see more of this around the integration of API’s of various products within the space. If the for-profit guys can achieve this seamlessly, we can as well.

While my team built the iFollowTheMoney platform, we created logins for personal and organisational accounts with unique experience features to help young organisations in the social accountability space scale. Not every organisation can afford to build their own platforms based on the manpower and budget it requires, but it can leverage existing platforms for scaled impact. We must be deliberate about collaborations and partnerships, it’s how we are able to do more for humanity.

Internet Penetration in marginalised communities- from lived experiences, continues to be a pain point. These communities do not have the basic technical know-how to navigate these tools. Remember my point on citizens' interest, at this level access, is the first challenge.

I have worked in over 350 LGAs across the 36 States in Nigeria, and 9 other African countries and I can confidently say that our tools will do better where there is improved education and access to the internet. Another critical challenge apart from the availability of internet data is the affordability of the same. However, by sticking to access to information over the internet alone, we would still have a bunch of people excluded, further marginalising the already marginalised. We must begin to see ways to connect with citizens who cannot afford smartphones and the internet.

While we get into the frenzy of CivicTech and its beautiful appeal, we must always realize the core reasons why we are building and for whom we are building. USSDs may come in handy where there is low internet penetration and in poorer communities so that with access to future phones, those in rural communities can still access the needed data/information in easily readable and understandable formats.

In addition to the challenges are the gaps in language and how information is communicated. Our ability to speak the language of those we intend to reach makes our solutions more appealing and inclusive. We got some funds from AU-Civic Tech to add up a language feature as part of our product revamp. This will have an immense impact on spreading our message to these communities in the language they understand.

Inclusiveness and diversity are other core issues at the heart of CivicTech. I will discuss them at length in another article.

Busayo Oluwadamilare Morakinyo (BOM) is a Social Development, Governance, Social Accountability expert and CivicTech enthusiast with ingrained experience spanning almost a decade, working with various communities across 10 African countries.

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