Design Thinking and Freedom of Information in Liberia


cropped FOI Bong County


Last year Dave Whiteland wrote about our first experience of using design thinking in creating the specification for a Freedom of Information Project in South Africa.

For those of you unfamiliar with the design thinking approach, it is worth me providing a little context (borrowing heavily from Dave’s text).

The design thinking way

Traditionally mySociety has built international digital projects by working closely with our local partner to define a specification.  We then build to this specification and seek to continually improve it . We perform usability tests, we apply A/B testing, and we think hard about what our analytics tell us. The problem is that much of this is reactive, iterative design: it’s being applied after the core product has already been built.

Design thinking challenges this approach by suggesting that the user on which initial designs are often based is purely imaginary. As a result, the site inevitably includes the assumptions and prejudices of its creators. This won’t necessarily lead to a bad design — especially if the creators are benign and experienced — but it must fail, by definition, to account for the unexpected things that may motivate or concern actual users. The design thinking process attempts to change this by approaching the initial problem in a prescribed way and following a process that isolates genuine, existing requirements. This includes, in design thinking terms, processing the initial interviews into empathy maps from which requirements emerge, and which themselves become features that are rapidly prototyped in isolation from other parts of the system.

Our commitment to the process

mySociety is dedicated to maximizing the impact of its projects by tailoring solutions to the local context. As part of this, we have committed to only carrying out new large-scale international digital projects where we can follow these design principles.  One challenge with this approach is that, unlike traditional projects, we are unable to provide funders with a clear description of what the project will deliver.  At the start of the process the tools that will be built and the processes and infrastructure that will surround them are unclear.  Furthermore, all this prototyping and piloting adds to the time these projects take to complete.

In Making All Voices Count we were incredibly fortunate to find a funder who was not only undeterred by these concerns but actively appreciated the value of the approach.  Earlier this year they awarded us a scaling grant to work for a two-year period on a Freedom of Information project in Liberia.

On the ground in Liberia

Last week the project team met up in Monrovia to start the design process. Our partners on the project are the iLab Liberia and Public Works at Stanford, an offshoot of the which focuses on applying design thinking to governance in the developing world. The staff working on the project are Luther Jeke, Carter Draper and Teemu Ropponen (Ilab); Jenny Stefanotti  (Stanford); and Paul Lenz, Dave Whiteland and Jen Bramley (mySociety).

So what does this actually entail? Briefly, it first involves meeting with a large range of different stakeholders, users and potential users and building up an understanding of their current behaviours, their needs, challenges and perspectives.  We interviewed more than 20 people, including the Information Minister, the Independent Information Commissioner, investigative journalists, Public Information Officers, FOI NGOs and community groups.

Each day we would break down our notes from these interviews into things said, thought, done or felt, and group them by type of stakeholder.  This is a very active and visual process, resulting in sheets of paper being covered in hundreds of Post-It notes.

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In working through this process it became clear to us that there were a number of common issues.  Firstly, while the FOI law in Liberia is legally very strong, in practice adherence is pretty poor – partially due to simple process failures, and perhaps sometimes due to willful avoidance.  Secondly, despite significant resources being invested in “sensitising” (educating) citizens about the law, very few FOI requests have ever been made by individual “average” citizens; rather they have been submitted by NGOs, journalists and activist groups.  These two finding might not be hugely surprising, but others were perhaps less obvious.  For example, almost without exception, the Public Information Officers that we met were deeply proud of their work and wished the FOI law was used more; even though the law allows for electronic or phone call requests to be made in reality each request must be hand-delivered, hard copy, and a receipt obtained; finally, even skilled and experienced investigative journalists can end up spending years chasing requests through a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that takes advantage of the requester’s ignorance of the detail of the law.

The next stage, that we are really only just starting, is to identify some approaches that might address these issues, and then to find a way to attempt to prototype the solutions.  To save time and cost and in order to enable maximum flexibility these prototypes often take a “Wizard of Oz” approach – human intervention in lieu of building a technical platform to trial.  An example would be rather than building an SMS gateway that interfaces with a computer system the prototype relies upon a person simply receiving the SMS on their phone and typing it into a form.

The week was incredibly intense and rewarding driven by Jenny’s fantastic energy in overseeing the whole process, and the great commitment and engagement from the iLab team – particularly given the developing situation with Ebola while we were there.

Freedom of Information: really?

You might ask: given the infrastructure, income and health challenges facing Liberia , does FOI really matter? Is it perhaps a right to be addressed when more essential needs have been met? Are people even worried about being able to request information from their representatives, due to the other factors at play?

I can make no more compelling case in response than one that was made to me by one of our interviewees:

“Liberia went to war over the mismanagement of natural resources in our country.  FOI can help hold people to account and stop it happening again”