Working Together: The role of partnerships in civic tech and media innovation

Episode 14 of the Digital Dialogue Series, a collaborative event planned by CTIN and the International Civil Society Centre (ICSC), took place on the 6th of July 2023 and explored the role of partnerships in strengthening the impact of civic tech in different contexts. The discussion highlighted the wins of successful partnerships alongside unpacking the risks, challenges and obstacles associated with partnerships. This article first provides a summary of the talking points and secondly, reflects on the combined discussion points between panelists and an engaged audience.

Written by Rofhatutshedzwa Ramaswiela

Dr Caroline Khene, a Research Fellow and Digital Cluster Lead at the Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, in the United Kingdom and Director of the MobiSAM project* opened the discussion by mentioning the importance of knowing who the representatives are among various civic tech actors and the kinds of tasks that can be implemented in allowing accessible engagement between those actors. Furthermore, Dr Khene emphasised the importance of having representation in decision-making, both by stakeholders or the government in cases such as MobiSAM where creating a digital platform allowed people to engage in citizen participation and agency.

Dr Khene further mentioned that through the implementation of projects such as MobiSAM and MobiSAfAIDS, they learnt about the importance of partnerships and understanding that, ‘’when one looks at the design and implementation of civic tech, it’s not just about the product itself but a relational process that involves a number of actors’’. These actors include the government, citizens, non-governmental organizations, civil society and digital service providers such as universities, amongst many others. Moreover, Dr Khene acknowledged that having multiple actors comes with its own challenges as they all come with different knowledge systems and specializations, leading to clashes and challenges to building trust and unequal power dynamics. 

Hector Dominguez who is the Smart Cities Open data and Privacy Coordinator at the city of Portland, Oregon showed the importance of bringing in the marginalized group into held conversations and how banning of fake recognition wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the partnership that occurred between all these different actors. Mr Dominguez emphasized the following, ‘’ It is very important to have these connections with each other even though we may not agree when we develop or try to implement certain technologies, however we need to be a part of these conversations’’. He explained how the City of Portland’s pilot project ‘Privacy is a Human Right’, a partnership with the office of Equity and Human Rights has been beneficial as they were able to engage in open policy, development and stressed the importance of ‘’giving power to the people’’ as done with the Surveillance Technologies Policy in the City of Portland. 

Dr Tobi Oluwatola, Executive Director of the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID) in Nigeria, stressed the importance of “leveraging journalism innovation and open data to promote democratic accountability in the service of sustainable development’’.  The promotion of democratic accountability is done through the vision of the media ecosystem, as it is beneficial to “take Africa from the footnotes of global history and into a player in global affairs’’. Hence, he argued for better accountability, transparency and democratic values in digital media initiatives. Dr Oluwatola expressed how the CJID is an “independent think tank that brings to the fore change through funds, and by owning and supporting media institutions’’, the organisation is able to bring in that change. The CJID programmes link the derived benefits of civic tech collaboration, but there are also inherent risks such as the CJID’s business model and limited resources that collectively make it difficult to obtain and retain technical talent.  The lack of resources from their end brought forward a collaboration to build an AI driven fact-checking service. This collaboration proved to be very important, Dr Oluwatola emphasised. 

The discussions amongst panelists and the audience revealed that in as much as there are advantages in partnerships, there are disadvantages as well. These include the willingness to be neutral and to start from scratch. Another drawback is the level of citizen participation in projects, especially public-private-partnerships. Often times, the citizens are left without answers from the government and how detrimental it can be to not hold people accountable. The panelists agreed on the importance of citizen’s having a take (and a voice) in tracking government projects that are meant to deliver public services by citizens and how ‘’through skills and amplifications’’ this can be done, said Dr Oluwatola. 

In closing, the panelists reflected on the process, means and methods of collaboration and partnership-building. To achieve positive impacts, civic tech and other digital projects require input and participation from different actors, all of whom bring unique perspectives, knowledge and skills. Sustainable and successful partnerships in the civic tech space – both from the global North and global South – requires transparency between actors, and the ability to hold those in governance accountable for decisions made. But most importantly, for trust amongst actors to be developed and having “key decisions made in a balanced manner, rather than by one person.” Overall, the discussions emanating from the Digital Dialogue revealed the importance of mutual learning in civic tech processes and outcomes is of the utmost value, as well as  designing context-specific civic tech solutions that directly engage the communities and stakeholders which make up the beneficiaries and end-users of these solutions. 

To learn more about MobiSAM project reflections click here 

Also read How To Grow & Sustain African Civic Tech Initiatives

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