The opaque panopticon: Why publishing data online doesn't make the State transparent? The case of India's livelihood program


Rajesh Dinesh Hanbal (International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore)


Session: 2.1. Stakeholder politics

Abstract: Making the State transparent to citizens has been recognized as a sine qua non for good governance since the last two centuries. The pervasive use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in recent decades, by the State as well as the citizens, has led to a new-found optimism in finally making governments transparent to citizens. Yet, such enthusiasm rarely leads to a sustainable impact on citizen-State relations. In this paper, we look at the artifacts, i.e. the websites, and apps and the interaction of citizens with these artifacts to understand the barriers to the transparency of the State. Based on a year-long ethnography of India’s livelihood program, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), we find that the web portals are not appreciative of citizen’s context and needs. Specifically, we notice three veils of opacity – the formal-legible form of transparency, the inaccessibility of information due to design and finally the content of the information which dissuades citizens from seeing the state functioning transparently. Rather than enabling the citizens to hold the State actors to account, the opacity of the intended panopticon leads to disempowering the citizens of their rights, ultimately having them exit the program rather than enhancing their voice. We conclude by arguing for the need to recentre discussions on e-transparency towards the citizens.