Good governance requires good information. In order for citizens to hold government officials accountable for delivering services, and for officials to provide those services, both sides need information – about how to make officials respond to claims, for example, or about which problems a community is facing are most pressing. 

“We know from previous research we’ve done that providing information about performance is not enough to improve citizen engagement and government responsiveness,” says Lily Tsai, the Ford Professor of Political Science at MIT and chair of the MIT faculty. “It’s that information, plus knowing how to hold officials accountable and, of course, the motivation to do so that matters.”

Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner PhD ‘13, an associate professor of politics and global studies at the University of Virginia and a former graduate student of Tsai’s, agrees. “Information is very, very studied, and everyone agrees that it’s very, very important,” she says. “But what’s often missing is this question of interpretation and how people give meaning to information.”

In new research supported by the MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB) and published earlier this year in the journal Comparative Political Studies, Kruks-Wisner gathers lessons from a network of citizen journalists in India who create videos about local needs to mobilize community members and officials to solve problems. She learned that it isn’t just the information itself that motivates action – citizen journalists also need to frame that knowledge as something that could and should be acted on.

Video Volunteers: promoting citizen journalism

The citizen journalists, also called community correspondents, are funded and trained by Video Volunteers, a nonprofit that has been supporting community media in India’s poorest districts since 2003. “We were really interested in the potential of community media to create dialogue and to empower people to change and influence the way that the media is run,” says Jessica Mayberry, Video Volunteers’ founding director. 

The organization equips community correspondents with the skills not only to craft a narrative about a local problem but also to compel people to act on it – such as by petitioning local officials to address an issue. “We think there’s a lot of potential for citizen voice and lived-experience storytelling to be understood as one of the solutions to breakdowns in governance,” Mayberry says. 

All of the correspondents live below the poverty line, and just over half are female. Nearly 400 correspondents produced over 17,000 videos between 2010 and 2020. Kruks-Wisner, who published a book on citizen claim making in rural India in 2018, also started collaborating with Video Volunteers in 2018. The correspondents engaged in “the same claim making I had studied for years at the local level, but amplified,” she says. “I wanted to understand more of their brokerage role between local communities and officials.”

The new paper is born out of a larger research collaboration between Kruks-Wisner, MIT GOV/LAB, and Video Volunteers, and MIT GOV/LAB assistant director Alisa Zomer also engaged in field work for the initial research phase and continues to support the project.

How do you increase the lifespan and impact of information?

The study analyzed Video Volunteers’ database of correspondent videos to measure how successful they were at solving problems. It found that while spurring concrete action was challenging, it wasn’t impossible – around 16% of videos directly led to a solution. 

To understand the factors that led to successful problem solving, Kruks-Wisner and her research team conducted exploratory interviews with 65 correspondents across India, as well as in-depth, extended interviews with 19 correspondents in two states.

Interviews revealed what sorts of information framings were most impactful for different audiences. When communicating with community members, it helped to frame the problem as an injustice – that action from officials is a right that people deserve. Correspondents also need to convince people they have the ability to act on their grievances and that officials will be responsive. “For citizens, a lot of it is about believing in the possibility of change,” Kruks-Wisner says. 

To motivate officials, correspondents need to convince them that the problem is both urgent and legitimate, which video footage can help with. Overburdened local officials are often inundated with demands, so claims need to be presented in a way that makes them stand out.

Ultimately, the most successful correspondents were able to appeal to both community members and officials at the same time, Kruks-Wisner says. While not all people have connections to both of these groups, “a lot of these community correspondents actually did have both, which makes them effective social brokers,” she says.  

Kruks-Wisner hopes the paper will lead to more research into how information matters for accountable governance. “What are the conditions that make that information come to life in a way that’s actionable?” she says.

In-depth, collaborative research

The project aligns with and was informed by MIT GOV/LAB’s engaged scholarship approach, which supports research co-created with practitioner organizations and grounded in the field. Video Volunteers and Kruks-Wisner worked together to develop the research design and questions to focus on, Kruks-Wisner says. “The strength of the research is that it was every step of the way co-produced between myself as the researcher and Video Volunteers as the practitioners,” Kruks-Wisner says. 

The goals of the research were to both support Video Volunteers’ correspondents and contribute to an academic understanding of accountability and governance. “[Kruks-Wisner] is interested in understanding the big political science questions. We are interested in taking those kinds of insights that she has and devising and testing a solution,” Mayberry says.

The correspondents being interviewed also played a role in producing the research. “They were giving enormous amounts of their time and engaging in these really extended conversations about how they think about the work that they’re doing,” Kruks-Wisner says. 

MIT GOV/LAB partially funded multiple phases of the research, and this phase of the research was additionally funded by the American Institute for Indian Studies and the University of Virginia’s Quantitative Collaborative. The next stage of the research is one of four projects funded by MIT GOV/LAB in an effort to support engaged scholarship on citizen engagement and government accountability. 

Header: A correspondent screens a video at a community meeting. Credit: Gabrielle Kruks-Wisner.