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Can Text Messages Improve Local Governance? The U-Bridge Program in Uganda (August 2014-November 2015)

Location

The U-Bridge project in Uganda’s northwest Arua District is intended see whether the rapid penetration of mobile technology in low-income countries can be harnessed to improve governance outcomes. Amidst weak channels of political communication, this project seeks to determine if technological innovations that reduce the cost of access to public officials improve political communication, citizen voice, and ultimately, citizen welfare. 

U-Bridge is an SMS-based (text message) service request system designed to open a new channel of communication between citizens and local government officials, allowing citizens to report public service deficiencies. It is a voluntary program where citizens register to participate in the sending and receiving of messages. 

Positive Results

   - During a 14-month period, 700 actionable messages were received, equating to one relevant message per eight adult villagers.
   - The program is convenient and low cost: In one participant’s words: “It is cost-free to send these messages to the local government and
     you do not need to move, you can send the message from the comfort of your home.”
   - U-Bridge guarantees anonymity, allowing citizens to report negatively without fear of being ostracized or receiving fewer or lower
     quality services.
   - Automated voice calls (“robo-calls”) that reminded citizens of issues like education, health or water led to an increase in messages about
     these issues.
   - Individuals who attended the initial GAPP community meeting about the platform had a 40% chance of adopting the platform,
     and, consequently, spreading use throughout their social network.
   - 60% of registered users said they usually or always heard back from the district, and 60% said they saw some or much improvement on
     the issues they raised in messages.

Lessons Learned & Recommendations

   - Outreach: Future ICT programs should consider additional investments in community mobilization, including door-to-door registration,
     community meetings, robocalls, radio advertisements, radio programming, and outreach through churches and mosques.
   - Training Citizens: Future programs should make efforts to train citizens on how best to use the U-Bridge service by creating
     actionable messages and also providing citizens with more information about the roles and responsibilities of different levels of government.
   - Increasing participation by less empowered groups: Women used the service significantly less than men, so future programs should increase
     the amount of women included in inception community meetings.
   - Improving government response: There should be improved filtration mechanisms for the messages and a mechanism for improved case
     tracking so civil servants and politicians can keep track of which issues have and have not been resolved.
 

Problem & Context 

Although there has been a remarkable adoption of democratic institutions and decentralized forms of governance in many low-income countries (including Uganda), this has not resulted in significant improvements in the delivery of public services such as water, health, and education. Teachers and nurses are commonly absent or show low levels of effort. Patients commonly receive incorrect diagnosis or treatment and schools and clinics report shortages of vital resources.

In Uganda, 52% of Ugandan government health care workers and 27% of government teachers were not present during unannounced audits. When government workers were present, the quality of care and teaching was poor - health workers could not correctly diagnose common health conditions and teachers did not demonstrate competence in the curriculum they were teaching. These dire results are due to poorly functioning local governments that lack the capacity and will to adequately monitor frontline service providers. 

Given this information, communities should play a greater role in holding these service providers to account. Community members have incentives to demand better services and first-hand information on the level of service provision in their locality. In the past decade, access to mobile phones has increased exponentially, prompting an interest in harnessing innovations in information communication technology (ICTs) to solve development challenges. 

Previous participatory monitoring initiatives have run into two common issues, though. First, it is difficult to get individual community members to participate in continuous monitoring activities because it involves a time commitment and potential social costs. People are incentivized to ‘free ride,’ leading these programs to suffer low participation rates. Second, many grassroots monitoring programs attempt to address deficiencies in public service delivery by circumventing government actors. Government is the primary actor who administers programs, allocates resources, sets standards, and has legal authority to discipline frontline service providers, so policy interventions that do not change the incentives of government officials are unlikely to have a large-scale or sustainable impact on the provision of public services.
 

Actors

Donors: This project is part of a larger United States Agency for International Development (USAID) program called Governance, Accountability, Participation, and Performance (GAPP). 

Implementing Actors: GAPP is implemented by RTI International, an independent, nonprofit institute that provides research, development, and technical services to government and commercial clients worldwide with the goal of improving the human condition by turning knowledge into practice.

Local Institutions

   1. U-Bridge is an SMS-based (text message) service request system that provides citizens and local government officials with a tool
     for submitting, tracking, and responding to requests, primarily around public service delivery. U-Bridge is an open-source software package
     that runs on a variety of mobile devices, including tablets and smartphones, which was developed through a collaboration of UNICEF
     Uganda and RTI International.
   2. The district government officials, who were responsible for responding to the citizen’s messages and taking action to address them.
   3. VotoMobile, a Ghanaian-based social enterprise that operated a robo-call system.
 

Execution

U-Bridge, described above, is designed to open a new channel of communication between citizens and local government officials, allowing citizens to report public service deficiencies. U-Bridge is voluntary and citizens register to participate in the sending and receiving of messages. The GAPP team registered mobile phone numbers at project-supported community meetings, and the research team conducted a door-to-door registration in treatment villages. Citizens could also register at any time by texting “Join” to the program shortcode, which was free. Citizens can engage with Arua district government officials in three ways. 

First, users can send unsolicited and anonymous messages using U-Bridge short code at no cost. District officials are equipped with 3G tablets that enable them to access the messages anywhere with an internet connection. Messages are anonymous and appear on the tablet as ‘cases’ that can be tracked using the system’s dashboard. District officials can respond to incoming messages on the dashboard. Second, Arua residents who are registered as U-Bridge members can respond to short periodic calls, usually only a single question. 3,062 U-Bridge registered and verified users provided explicit consent to respond to the weekly polls (most of which signed-up during the door-to-door campaign). Third, citizens have an opportunity to attend periodic community dialogue meetings that GAPP organized and implemented. At the meetings, attendees received information about national service standards and the actions they can take to communicate with local officials. Also, citizens could interact directly with district officials who attended the meetings to provide an overview of actions that the district has taken around service delivery. These meetings were intended to create common knowledge between district officials and villagers. 

While the local government knows there are issues with frontline service providers throughout the district, they lack reliable, actionable, and timely information to address these issues when they occur. Citizens have the local knowledge but have difficulty reporting problems in a timely and cost-effective manner. In this situation, citizens do not report problems, public officials do not or cannot seek out information, and service providers are free to underperform. 

U-Bridge solves this problem by enabling citizens to communicate with government officials anonymously and at no cost, changing the status quo. Mobile technology allows immediate communication, anonymity reduces the fear of social retributions and the cost of sending a text message is cognitive rather than monetary. If citizens know that public officials have timely information, their expectations of these officials will increase. Common knowledge is expected to increase the ability of district officials to address service delivery problems and their incentive to do so.
 

Outcomes 

Aspects of U-Bridge Facilitating System Usage

Over 10,000 messages were received between September 2014 and November 2015. 3,000 of these messages were relevant (meaning they focused on service delivery). Of these 3,000 messages, 674 were actionable. For example, “nurses don’t attend patients during Sat or Sun in Opia health center.” These actionable, relevant messages are the goal messages of the program. While 700 actionable messages out of 10,000 may seem dismal, irrelevant messages are to be expected with a system like this. Also, the program reached 100 villages with a total of about 2,500 adults, meaning that there was one message per eight adult villagers. The main problems noted in messages were related to water, health, education, and public works (mainly roads). 

About 13% of those who reported having heard of U-Bridge reported using it at least once in the past 12 months. For respondents who did not use the platform, the main reasons were related to access or technological difficulties instead of demand. A very small share of respondents cited the problem as low interest or having other means to communicate with district officials. In fact, people who used the U-Bridge reporting system found the program very convenient and low cost. The traditional reporting mechanisms are very inefficient and time-consuming. With the new ITC platform, citizens do not have to spend money on transportation costs and can report service problems from the comfort of their home. With U-Bridge, citizens also had confidence that their reports reached the government, which they did not have with traditional reporting methods. 

Another favorable aspect of U-Bridge was the anonymity. Using U-Bridge avoided conflict between citizens within villages, avoided conflict between the village and the district government, and decreased concerns around communicating unfavorable feedback on village leader performance. This anonymity was critical because most of the messages received were negative. Many citizens feared that the relationship between the villagers and the district government would worsen if these messages were public and some even feared being harmed if their personal information were to be released. People did not want to be ostracized for reporting negatively. Anonymity is certainly a strength of the program, but a drawback mentioned by government officials is that the information received in the messages cannot be verified. 

In order to remain continually relevant, registered users could sign up to receive direct communications from the district and NGOs via polls and text messages. These communications signal that the program is still very active and that district officials are interested in hearing from users. Although there was a decline in unsolicited messages, this leveled off when polling began in March 2015. When people received polls about certain issues, such as education, they were more likely to send an unsolicited message afterwards regarding the same issue. 

After implementing U-Bridge, respondents expressed a belief that the district government was either ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ capable. Some users suggested that U-Bridge changed their relationship with the district government and the relationship between the village and sub-county. The program had a spillover effect because users feel more empowered to participate in expressing their opinions to all levels of government. Additionally, the local government was encouraged to communicate service delivery issues with the village and sub-county officials.

The evaluation also discovered that people are confused about the roles of various levels of government. Only six percent of respondents believed that the primary responsibility of service delivery lied with the district-level government.

Explaining Differential Uptake

There was large variation in the amount of messages received by different villages and men/women. Villages where a registration campaign had taken place (a door-to-door registration drive) had a greater number of individuals who sent messages and a greater number of messages sent. Initial marketing activities crucially determines the uptake of ICT innovations. There was also a positive relationship between educational attainment (measured by the percent of adults who completed secondary school) and usage of U-Bridge - likely because basic literacy is required to send a text message.

Individual Level Effects

   - Gender: Males were 60% more likely than females to hear about the platform. Conditional on hearing about the platform, females were also
     less likely than males to adopt it.
   - Age: A one-year decline in age resulted in a one percent increase in the likelihood of hearing about the U-Bridge and one percent
     greater likelihood to adopt it.
   - Education: Completion of at least some secondary education made a respondent five times more likely to hear about the platform and four
     times more likely to adopt it.
   - Phone Usage: Using a phone in the last year made a respondent 70% more likely to hear about the U-Bridge and three times more likely
     to adopt it.
   - Politically engaged: More politically engaged individuals were more likely to adopt the program.

Network Effects

   - Having a neighbor that heard about the platform made an individual 20% more likely to have heard about it.
   - Having one adopting neighbor made an individual 36% more likely to adopt it.

Assessing Government Responsiveness

Aura government officials have an interest in maintaining the U-Bridge platform because many of them believe that it provides them with valuable information that improves their ability to provide public services under their purview. Also, the response of district officials to incoming messages is “not bad,” but still seems to be lagging behind citizen expectations, which potentially suppresses program use. 

62% of respondents said they usually or always heard back from the district, and 60% said they saw some or much improvement in the issues they raised in messages. On the other hand, 38% surveyed users said they were satisfied with the response, and when asked why, they mostly pointed to insufficient government engagement. Some of this variation can be explained by unrealistic expectations about what district officials could actually do in response to requests. For example, a common request was to ‘build a health clinic here.’ Requests like this cannot be met given the district’s budget and planning process. 

There is certainly room for improvement in coming up with a clear action plan for who should get what messages, and what record should be kept of their response. Some messages were lost between the cracks, and poor coordination undermined the follow-up effort. Additionally, it is not clear that district leaders would have used the program extensively in the absence of an external actor like GAPP filtering messages and monitoring their usage. 

Service Delivery

The report showed that there was evidence of effects in education and water but not in health. The effects in education and water also seemed to disappear by year two. Overall, it was found that U-Bridge was able to resolve isolated incidents, but the evidence is not consistent with the creation of a common knowledge that would allow for an equilibrium shift from underperformance to high performance of service providers. 

There might not have been effects in health because (1) there was less demand for improvements in health because health clinics are used less frequently than water and education or (2) the local government has greater control over education and water sectors than the health sector, and thus is better able to affect outcomes in the former than the latter. Unfortunately, neither of these explanations could be backed-up by evidence. 

If common knowledge between service providers, citizens, and district-level officials was being generated, the positive effects should strengthen over time. Unfortunately, the positive effects disappeared by the second year, showing that internalization did not take place. When disciplinary action was taken as result of the program, the action was not very costly to the service provider (ex: a poor-performing teacher being transferred to another school). Additionally, it is possible that the improvements seen in the first year of the project were due to the fact that service providers knew that U-Bridge was in their area, so they might have changed their behaviors because they thought they were being monitored rather than observing actual increased monitoring by the district. 
 

Recommendations

   1. Future ITC programs should consider additional investments in community mobilization, including door-to-door registration,
      community meetings, robocalls, radio advertisements, radio programming, and outreach through churches and mosques.
      Door-to-door registrations are expensive but they show a large influence on usage. Selected households should be encouraged to tell
      their neighbors about the service and these efforts should be intensified in marginalized areas or to specifically target women.
   2. ITC programs should make efforts to train citizens on how to best use the service, i.e. creating actionable messages (as only 700 of
     10,000 messages were actionable). A mechanism should also be in place to filter out non-relevant messages and highlight actionable
     messages.
   3. Future implementers should make greater efforts to build trust in the anonymous nature of the service, which could include demonstrations
     of the way messages display on the District officials’ tablets during the inception and dialogue meetings. Implementers should also
     provide citizens with information on the roles and responsibilities of different levels of government, which will help ensure messages sent
     by users target the issues that can be resolved by the recipient of the message.
   4. Implementers should invite and ensure that marginalized populations (especially women) attend the inception community meetings to
     be exposed to the new service. Women’s low participation is a result of not having heard about U-Bridge rather than about not
     sending a message conditional on hearing. This is compounded by the fact that men are more likely to be in the social network of other
     men than of women. Therefore, having women involved from the start will allow for greater female participation throughout the project.
   5. Government officials should be encouraged to respond to all relevant incoming messages and to follow up on pending actionable cases.
     Officials should be trained to treat messages as cases that should be followed through until case is deemed closed and the user has
     been updated on the district’s actions at every stage. Along with this, there should be a mechanism for improved case tracking so civil
     servants and politicians can keep better track of which issues have been resolved.
   6. Dialogue meetings should be held as opportunities for training about the most useful types of messages, the management of expectations
     for citizens, and the creation of expectations among service providers about future monitoring.

 

Works Cited

Guy, Grossman, et al. Endline Impact Evaluation: Can Text Messages Improve Local Governance? An Impact Evaluation of the U-Bridge Program in Uganda. USAID, 2017, pp. 1–129.

“Uganda Governance, Accountability, Participation and Performance (GAPP).” RTI, 21 Sept. 2016, www.rti.org/impact/uganda-governance-accountability-participation-and-pe....