NOSSAS as the New Civil Society: Online, Offline, and as a Platform

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The other day, a friend of mine who was going to speak at a conference asked me for good cases of civic tech “that works”. I didn’t hesitate, and advised him to get in touch with the people at NOSSAS, a Brazilian organization that combines online and offline collective action to promote social change (full disclosure, I am a member of their board). Until now, however, it has been a challenge to convey to unfamiliar audiences what the organization does, and how. This is why I am particularly glad to see that they have produced a short documentary (16 mins) “NOSSAS: a Laboratory of Other Futures”, which provides a glimpse into the organisation’s thinking and work. So, adding to the video, here are some of the reasons why I think this is a great example of a civic tech organization:

  • Blending online and offline: “oneline” activism

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To my knowledge, no other organization combines online and offline action better than NOSSAS, with online mobilization often used as a gateway to more intensive (and offline) types of participation.

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NOSSAS’ successful campaign in the State of Sao Paulo for the creation of the first Police Station dedicated to combating violence against women.

Along with their digital campaigns, they will often mobilize citizens to take offline action. This includes, for instance, attending legislative votes and exerting pressure on elected officials, or taking part in more performative interventions that draw attention from the mainstream media and the population as a whole.

  • Beyond the obvious target

Understanding that policy change often requires more than a simple stroke of a pen, NOSSAS’ engagement with public officials goes beyond the decision-makers who are formally entitled to make the policy change (e.g. mayor, governor). Their initiatives consistently target the ensemble of actors (e.g. legislators, public prosecutors) who may have an influence over a policy decision or implementation (either directly or indirectly).

NOSSAS’ rich combination of online and offline tactics of popular mobilization, together with this well-calculated engagement of state actors, creates multiple pressure points for governments to respond.

  • Civil Society as a Platform

A common denominator among the majority of traditional civil society organizations (CSOs) is the self-appointed representation of a specific constituency. In other words, these CSOs will often represent a fixed set of interests of a given constituency by which the CSOs have neither been elected nor authorized. However, one could argue that – for better or for worse – in a period in which citizens increasingly engage directly in political action through a variety of means, the importance of these traditional CSOs may be reduced at worse, and redefined at best.

In this respect, NOSSAS is a great example of emerging CSOs that are more adapted to their time. As such, these new CSOs do not claim to represent the interests of a certain constituency. Instead, they play the role of a platform that amplifies the voices of individuals, facilitating their engagement in collective (connective?) action on a multiplicity of issues they care about.

  • Structured knowledge

NOSSAS does have great knowledge of two key ingredients for civic tech: 1) how to mobilize citizens, and 2) how to get governments to respond. But what I find particularly interesting is that they translated this knowledge into a structured methodology to provide online and offline support to users of NOSSAS’ platforms to further their causes.

Does it work? Some evidence suggests that it does. For instance, Pressure Pan is a platform that allows any citizen to initiate collective action to exert pressure on the government regarding a particular agenda (e.g. public safety, mobility rights). And as we documented in Civic Tech in the Global South, while not all of the hundreds of campaigns on Pressure Pan can benefit from specific support from NOSSAS, when they do they are three times more likely to succeed.

  • A/B testing

A/B testing is similar to an online version of a randomized controlled trial. One of the main differences however is that A/B testing is low-cost, easily deployed (when you have the expertise), and real-time. Yet very few civic tech organizations take advantage of that opportunity. This not the case for NOSSAS: at any given point they are running a number of A/B tests, which help them to refine their mobilization tactics on an ongoing basis. If this sounds like a simple detail, it is not. Beyond generating precious knowledge for the organization’s core functions, the capacity to run A/B tests is often a good litmus test for whether organizations know how to leverage technology beyond the most obvious uses.

  • Results

And finally, unlike many civic tech initiatives, NOSSAS does have a solid track record of results, a few of which are featured in the video, which you can watch below:

 

Before joining the board of Nossas, I was already a fan of the work they do: online, offline, and as a platform. I look forward to their work in 2018.

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For more about Nossas, also read this excellent post by Felipe Estefan from the Omidyar Network.

Why ‘I-Paid-A-Bribe’ Worked in India but Failed in China

source: China Daily

Interesting paper by Yuen Yuen Ang, Political Scientist at the University of Michigan:

Authoritarian states restrain online activism not only through repression and censorship, but also by indirectly weakening the ability of netizens to self-govern and constructively engage the state. I demonstrate this argument by comparing I-Paid-A-Bribe (IPAB) — a crowd-sourcing platform that collects anonymous reports of petty bribery — in India and China. Whereas IPAB originated and has thrived in India, a copycat effort in China fizzled out within months. Contrary to those who attribute China’s failed outcome to repression, I find that even before authorities shut down IPAB, the sites were already plagued by internal organizational problems that were comparatively absent in India. The study tempers expectations about the revolutionary effects of new media in mobilizing contention and checking corruption in the absence of a strong civil society.

And a brief video with Yuen Yuen

Also read

I Paid a Bribe. So What? 

Open Government and Democracy

Trac FM – Monitoring Service Delivery

The Indigo Trust has awarded a grant of €13,500 to TRAC.fm to expand the network of organisations that use its data collection software to inform their social campaigns.

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Trac FM provides radio stations in Africa with software and support to involve their listeners in reporting on failing governments services through SMS. Through Trac FM’s online interface, radio presenters get a clear and instant overview of SMS-poll results which they present to listeners during radio debates. Stations invite local leaders to comment on collected data and Trac FM makes sure data reaches responsible authorities. Trac FM wants people to be part of the running of their society and provide them with a platform to participate and discuss policy issues in an accessible and objective way.

Interesting initiative. Would be interested in finding out whether they measure their impact on service delivery and, if so, how.

Local Environment and Monitoring of Public Health Service Delivery

picture by Dave Proffer on flickr

 

When is Community-Based Monitoring Effective? Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Primary Health in Uganda 

By Martina Bjorkman and Jakob Svensson (2012)

Excerpts:

Access to quality services has been recognized as fundamental for wellbeing and economic development. However, in Africa and other developing countries, service delivery is often poor or nonexistent. Many argue that government bureaucracies may be ill equipped and lack incentives to improve the quality of public services. In response, development practitioners have started to experiment with involving beneficiaries in monitoring public service delivery and making service providers accountable to users. How best to design such interventions, and the impact of them, have been addressed in a handful of recent randomized field experiments. The results, to date, are mixed. While Banerjee et al. (2008) and Olken (2007) report minor or no effects on learning outcomes (in a project in primary education in India) and on corruption (in a road construction project in Indonesia), Bjorkman and Svensson (2009) and Duflo et al. (2009) report large positive improvements on average in a primary health intervention in Uganda and a primary schooling intervention in Kenya, respectively. What can explain these diverging findings? And more specifically, to what extent does the local sociopolitical environment influence users ability and willingness to monitor public service providers?

Using data from Bjorkman and Svensson (2009), linked to recently assembled data on ethnic and linguistic composition at the sub-national level for Uganda (Alesina and Zhuravskaya, 2008), and income data from the Uganda National Household Survey 2005 (UNHS, 2005), we test whether social heterogeneity, in income and ethnicity, can explain why some communities managed to push for better health service delivery while others were less successful. The results suggest that income inequality and, particularly, ethnic fractionalization adversely impact collective action for improved service provision.

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As policymakers in developing countries search for ways to improve health and education for the poor, it is becoming clear that more is required than just additional funds. A key obstacle to better public services looks to be the weak incentives that providers face. Schools and health clinics are not open when they should be. Teachers and health workers are frequently absent from schools and clinics, and even when there, they spend significant time not serving the intended beneficiaries. Equipment, even when working, is not used. Drugs are misused, and public funds are expropriated. In response, a growing number of experts argue that more emphasis must be placed on strengthening beneficiary control that is, strengthening providers’ accountability to citizens/clients.

While there is evidence that such an approach can have large positive effects on service provision, there is also evidence of signiÖcant variation in outcomes. Using data from a randomized experiment in Uganda, we show that social heterogeneity, and specifically ethnic fractionalization, adversely impact collective action for improved service provision. As a result, the intervention resulted in a smaller increase in the quantity of primary health care provision in heterogeneous communities.

Our results have implications for both the design and evaluation of interventions aimed at strengthening beneficiary control in public service delivery programs. On program design, interventions should be adjusted to the local sociopolitical situation. As little is known about how this is to be done, our results open up an important agenda for research: How to enhance collective action in socially heterogeneous communities. On evaluation, ideally the researchers should design the evaluation protocol so as to be able to assess the impact conditional on the sociopolitical environments.

Read full study here [PDF].