Tuesday, 3 July 2012

When policy actors engage with the internet, what do they actually do?

By Simon Batchelor

Ever wondered what those serious men and women who describe themselves as involved in policymaking actually use the internet for?

From our study of 360 policy actors across 4 countries, Ehtiopia, Nepal, India and Ghana, the graph below shows the percentage of the whole sample undertaking certain actions on the internet.

Graph from IDS Impact and Learning team study on information behaviours of policy actors in Ethiopia, Ghana, India and Nepal

Unsurprisingly, almost all policy actors engage with the internet for emails. As you can see from the graph, over 80% download official forms, obtain information from public authorities’ websites and read or download newspapers or online news. A majority undertake the remaining options Instant Messaging, internet communities, video and audio podcasts, uploading self-created content and seeking health-related information. Just under half have telephoned over the internet.

Yet, when you compare these responses, coming from a wide variety of actors in the global South, some of whom have quite poor connectivity, to that pioneer of internet engagement, the USA, you find that their internet use is almost same as that of the average American household! According to recent Pew Research Center on households in the USA, 92% read email, or use a search engine, 76% read online news and 65% use social networking. Only 24% of USA households have used Voice of Internet (PDF link) – so in this case the policy actors are ahead in their use than the average US household.

Are differences still about connectivity?

There are of course differences across the countries not captured by the above graph. We would expect the use of the internet to relate to the connectivity of the country, and to some extent this is what we see in our findings. According to the 2011 ICT Development Index (IDI) (PDF), undertaken by the International Telecommunication Union, Ethiopia ranks 150th, Nepal 134th, Ghana 120th and India 116th - out of a total of 154 countries covered by the index. (We also speculated that connectivity in the South of India was better than the North, and divided our sample accordingly.)

In the graph above we see that telephoning over internet (VOIP), which demands good connectivity, follows our understanding of the connectivity of the countries surveyed. Ethiopia with its poor connectivity makes telephoning a difficult option even for those on the best connectivity the country can provide. Whereas in South India it has now become common across most respondents to use the internet for telephoning (80%).

Data around obtaining information from public authorities’ websites also follows levels of connectivity at the country level, with the exception of Ethiopia. The unusual high use seems to be explained from other data as being about ‘formality’ and need to know official government positions.

However, not all behaviours are best explained by connectivity. When we consider instant messaging and uploading video – which other data suggests are emergent behaviours more dependent on early adoption  – there is no significant difference between countries. Whereas for the use of emails, while there is some difference between countries, the overwhelming uptake makes such differences of no practical meaning.

Finally just considering early adopters; unsurprisingly early adopters have a higher use on Telephoning over the Internet, video calls (via webcam), entertainment, videos or audio podcasts and ‘uploading self-created content to be shared’. We didn’t dare ask these senior policy actors what entertainment they were accessing!

So why should we be interested in this? 

We often talk as though policy actors are a unique species, that because they are such important people, they behave in a unique way. To me the data suggests they are human as the rest of us when it comes to communication and information-seeking behaviours. They use the internet in much the same way as the average UK and USA household uses it. And there is a spread of use, in the same way we see a spread of use among US households. Some have invested in new technologies (see my earlier post on the adoption of Tablet PCs) and some of them are early adopters, just as some households are early adopters. Policy actors seem to demonstrate a spread of human interest in the new communication tools in much the same way as a population with wealth and access might show.

When I first came to IDS I wondered whether ‘policy actors’ in countries of poor connectivity would ever push the Facebook button on a webpage or use instant chat for a helpdesk. I thought that perhaps some of our efforts using the latest communications technologies were a little too North-centric, and that policy actors in the South might be left cold.

However, our research suggests otherwise. My scepticism has been duly quashed.