This interview with Rajesh is a crosspost from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where I was honoured to interview one of their incoming fellows Rajesh Veeraraghavan. We spoke about his work in transparency, ICT, and democratic governing.
Transparency continues to be a buzzword that carries multiple expectations in terms of democratic governance, participation, and anti-corruption measures. Your work seems to cut through the buzz to zero in on decentralized experiments that show how these concepts materialize in the ‘last mile’ of civic/social/political life. Can you share how you came to find this space, why you thought it was an important interaction point to focus on, and what you discovered?
I volunteered the summer of 2010 with Jan Jagaran Shakti Sanghatan (JJSS), a local social movement in Bihar who were conducting a Jan Sunwai (public hearing) to unearth corruption in government schemes. I saw up close the potential for using “informational” campaigns to organize people and ways of challenging the local state. It turned out to be a very dramatic experience, which I have documented at indiatogether.org
The focus of my dissertation study is the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA), which guarantees 100 days of labor per year for rural families. Through participant observation done for 12 months over an 18 month period, I examine attempts of the Andhra Pradesh bureaucracy in achieving transparency through two steps: first, by using information and communication technologies to monitor the lower-level bureaucrats, and second, by creating a hybrid state-civil society institution to involve NREGA workers to openly inspect formerly closed government records through a process of “social audits.” The effort has attracted national and some international attention as it has managed to reduce corruption at the “last-mile.”
I am beginning to think that at the heart of the “open” governance story that I studied is a story of democratizing surveillance. It brings the idea of politics, resistance and conflict to the center of the project.
The recent passing of freedom of information or right to information acts in India, meant the right to surveil the actions of the state has been legislated. This reflects a certain potentiality for the citizens to see the actions of the state.
Moreover, what this does to me is that with the notion of surveillance, it is not surprising to see that people (as in lower-level bureaucrats) resist it. My work suggests that the future of such informational transparency government programs lies in recognizing that the move towards “openness” is more of a political project than a technological and bureaucratic one that needs wider participation from those it intends to benefit.
LH: The concept of the ‘social audit’ is fascinating. Can you expand on that: how do you see them as important to functional democracies, and what do you see the role of information communication technologies in social audits in the unique ‘last mile’ contexts of developing and developed (and possibly more apathetic) nations?
RV: Social audits are a tool that lets groups see the workings of the state. It is a way to democratize surveillance of the State.
What is involved here is that more people are brought in to surveil the actions. In the context I studied, the workers and the auditors enter the fray here. So, the project is about democratization of surveillance, with a set of preconditions making it possible and also there are limits to achieving it. For example I find that there are definite limits to the interest of the worker in participating in the surveillance. With all the talk in the world about surveillance by the state dominating our attention, there are possibilities to turn the gaze back on the state.
There are limits to this of course. It is a terrain of struggle. The result is a partial “openness.” Therefore it is easy to see why projects with purely a technical imagination of building tools to visualize or asking for more records to be up on a website, which is increasing openness, do not let us understand the issues at stake. In other words, talking in terms of “openness” is not letting us see the issues clearly. Instead, I am beginning to consider a critique of openness, in that there are actors who are interested in seeing actions of others to control them. Openness is thought of as good for all. Hence the metaphor of sunlight. But, I think this utopian vision has unfortunately led to stripping politics out of the discussion. Thinking of open governance as surveillances makes it a more political, relational concept. An even better metaphor to consider might be a flashlight. Using the flashlight metaphor, immediately brings up things like there are people who are holding the flashlight, they are focusing on certain aspects of the process, and there could be people who will resist and move out of the gaze. There is also the process of building better flashlight through information technology to increase the ability to surveil.
LH: Your point on stripping the politics out of openness and transparency (i.e. by/for whom, and why) seems very salient when we think of not only the various stakeholders and issues, but even the expectations of how democracy functions or should be ‘performed’. By this I mean, openness to some can mean reducing asymmetries of information, so that the market of ideas can make precise choices (by voting), while to others, openness can mean the participatory interaction that seems to be happening in that ‘last mile’ of social audits, and other participative or collaborative democratic projects. Within your research, have you experienced clashes between these expectations about how democracy works?
RV: This question gets at the core of what I am writing about and I have a provisional answer for you. My simple answer is Yes, there are “clashes” between the expectations and reality as you hint at. I think it suggests that we may have to add a serious footnote to the dominant theory of asymmetry of information. Like my advisor Paul Duguid is fond of saying – information is not a naturally occurring thing that can be passed around freely to fix problems. It is socially constructed. One way to think about this, is to consider what happens if there is full symmetry of information, does that automatically fix things? The notion that supplying information via more openness leads to more participation is just not borne out in my experience. Simply put politics gets in the way.
LH: Finally, what is it about the upcoming projects you’ll be working on in the next year that excites you the most?
RV: I am working on a project where we propose to use the existing public geographical maps to discover built infrastructure, turning the map into a starting point for material audits by working with partners on the ground. The project will rely on sophisticated technical tools that can learn infrastructure, like roads and canals, to present a likely “deviation report” based on a temporal comparison of these assets. We hope to demonstrate creating a new dataset that combines project documents with a way to integrate them with satellite map data to quantify material based corruption on a scale that was not possible before.