Testing the Governance Collaboratory in South Africa


IMG_20130213_141556We headed from Nairobi straight to Cape Town, South Africa for a second week of testing models for the Governance Collaboratory.  Our prototype in Cape Town was intended to test an incubator model: working with a pre-existing team that has an idea they are poised to execute.  We partnered with mySociety, a UK-based non-profit that builds user friendly products which make it easy for citizens to engage with and improve their communities and societies.  MySociety has been working with an increasing number of organizations from other countries to localize its products, which present ideal opportunities for us to test an incubator model for the Collab.

The mySociety team connected us with Gabriella Razzano, who leads the Research Unit for the Open Democracy Advice Center in South Africa.  Gabriella’s work focuses on South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) which advances citizens’ right to access information about their government.  Although PAIA represents progressive reform, usage is extremely limited — there were fewer than 200 requests for information in the entire country last year.  Gabriella is in the early stages of developing a portal to facilitate greater usage of PAIA by creating a simple interface for requests and by storing information received from the government in an easily searchable repository.  The portal would include an adaptation of a mySociety product called Alaveteli, so our core team was Gabi and two of her colleagues alongside Paul Lenz and Dave Whiteland from mySociety.

We opted to pull the team a step back from their portal and focus our design efforts on the broader question of how citizens engage around the right to information: Redesign the experience of citizens requesting information from the South African government, in a world where citizens have legal access to the information but do not utilize available means to get it.  Our sense was that a broader framing might bring unexpected insights around the central problem the team is addressing while equipping them with the design skills to address the specifics of the portal moving forward.

There are a number of relevant user groups for PAIA, in particular watchdog organizations, NGOs with grassroots networks, journalists, and ordinary citizens.  In a short two and a half day design workshop we only had a half day for empathy work, but we were able to split the team in two and interview individuals from each of the key user groups.  We had an early morning meeting with a leading independent journalist and NGO activist.  Then one team went to engage an NGO working on women’s rights, and the second team visited the University of Cape Town to interview law students, which turned out to be eye opening.  Even law students hadn’t heard of PAIA!

We returned to the office for an intense session unpacking the interviews and developing POVs.  We wanted to leave the team with as many insights and directions for brainstorming as we could in the short time we had with them.  We dug deep on three distinct users: an NGO leader frustrated with the difficulties she faces getting the information she needs from the government; a national activist who relishes in confronting the government but rarely uses the information he receives from PAIA requests; and law students who need their formal legal training to feel confident and empowered enough to do something about the performance of their government.

We generated a long list of exciting ideas.  The team chose to focus the remainder of their time prototyping and testing an “angry button” which users could click after reading an article about their government to access more information and make PAIA requests.  We were particularly compelled by the idea as it engaged citizens unlikely to be PAIA users at a point where they were feeling dissatisfaction with their government, coaxing them towards deeper engagement.  It was based on a critical insight from the empathy work: with low knowledge about PAIA even among the most educated users, and a sense of disempowerment among the least educated, it was essential to catch ordinary citizens when they might be in an emotional state to take action.  The prototype included a mock-up of a basic interface that users would come to after pressing the angry button.

It was great to get out and do testing, which we didn’t have time for in Nairobi.  Jeremy and I were thoroughly amused watching law students push the angry button balloon!  We were particularly struck by the different responses to the angry button from white students from the suburbs and African students from the townships.  The angry button resonated with the latter, but turned off the former.

As we returned back to the office for a final debrief, the team was excited to put the design tools we had employed to use.  I was particularly thrilled to hear their enthusiasm for low resolution prototyping!  We’re looking forward to supporting them and learning about the successes and challenges they encounter as they do so.