Social Media for Public Service Delivery in Kenya

Hellen Mukiri-Smith

Hellen Mukiri-Smith

PhD Researcher, Global Data Justice, at Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology & Society, Tilburg University Hellen is a PhD Researcher on the Global Data Justice project. Her research interests include digital surveillance law, big data and power, data value chains, data governance and ethics, and the impact of data technologies on people’s privacy and other areas of human development. Hellen’s PhD research focuses on Kenya as a case study. Prior to joining TILT, she worked as a development policy consultant for the Government of The Bahamas, in the Office of The Prime Minister. She previously practiced law, and also taught law at The University of the Bahamas/University of the West Indies joint law program. Hellen has a Master of Science in Development Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science, a Master of Laws from King’s College London, a Postgraduate Diploma in Bar Vocational Studies from Cardiff University, and a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Northampton. She has been called to the Bar in England and Wales by the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn and is registered as an Associate with the Supreme Court of The Bahamas.

Kenyans use social media to access news, express their opinions on national issues, have private conversations, and for marketing and business purposes. Social media has become “one of the most active platforms for communication and networking in Kenya”. The power of social media became personally evident to me while I was in Nairobi for an initial pilot fieldwork visit for the Global Data Justice project, when I attempted to apply for my new Kenyan electronic passport. I ended up having to use Facebook to access the Government’s E-Citizen customer service centre, in order to have a log-in problem with the E-Citizen portal resolved so that I could apply for a passport.

In 2014, the Kenyan Government launched the E-Citizen portal, a move towards digitising public service delivery, a “Gateway to All Government Services”. The portal allows Kenyans to access the:

  1. Department of Immigration’s portal to make passport, visa and work permit applications;
  2. Civil Registration Department for Births and Deaths portal to apply for birth or death certificates;
  3. Office of the Attorney General and Department of Justice portal to apply for licences for marriage or civil partnerships, to conduct business name searches and business registration;
  4. Ministry of Land and Physical Planning portal to perform title searches and pay property fees and taxes;
  5. Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) portal to access KRA services including customs services and domestic revenue services;
  6. Directorate of Criminal Investigations portal to apply for Police Clearance Certificates; and
  7. National Transport and Safety Authority portal to book driving tests, apply for a driver’s licence and for business registration services.

In order to make my passport application through E-Citizen, I needed to create an account by: (1) registering and having my National Identification Card (ID) validated; (2) entering my Kenyan mobile telephone number (Safaricom, Airtel or Telkom) on the site and (3) creating a password. After taking all 3 steps, I had challenges logging into my account because I was supposed to receive a verification code through my mobile phone, which never arrived.

I made several telephone calls to the E-Citizen customer care number for help, but my calls went unanswered. I then decided to call the Huduma Centre (a Government Service Centre), a one-stop shop for National Government services, for help on how to solve the verification code issue. After explaining my challenge to the agent, he asked whether I had a Twitter handle. I said that I did, and he suggested that the best way to get a response from the E-Citizen Department was to tweet them, to direct message them via Twitter. I took the agent’s advice but received a message from Twitter stating that I could only direct message a person or entity who follows me.

I decided that I would try to contact the E-Citizen Department through Facebook after realising they used the platform and sent them a direct message explaining my verification code dilemma on a Saturday morning. By Saturday evening, I received a message back from someone, who I believe was a customer service person or official on the other end asking me to, ‘Kindly forward my ID Number,’ which I did. Minutes later, I received a message saying, ‘Your Account has been Reset… You can Proceed to Log in.’ I checked my account and was able to log in and make my passport application. I thanked the person for their help, but could not help but wonder:

  1. What concerns should we all be aware of while submitting personal information such as our ID Numbers via social media? There have been reports that Facebook reads direct messages sent via Facebook Messenger. Who has access to my ID Number on the back-end, Facebook or otherwise, and what can they do with it? These questions are worth considering because a Kenyan ID Number contains ‘all your information’. It reveals, or can be used to access, among other information, someone’s date of birth, gender, district of birth, where one lives (district, location and sub-location) and biometrics.
  2. How people without technology and internet connectivity access government services offered on the E-Citizen portal?
  3. Why government agencies are more inclined to use social media platforms for service delivery?

About the project

Places and populations that were previously digitally invisible are now part of a ‘data revolution’ that is being hailed as a transformative tool for human and economic development. Yet this unprecedented expansion of the power to digitally monitor, sort, and intervene is not well connected to the idea of social justice, nor is there a clear concept of how broader access to the benefits of data technologies can be achieved without amplifying misrepresentation, discrimination, and power asymmetries.

We therefore need a new framework for data justice integrating data privacy, non-discrimination, and non-use of data technologies into the same framework as positive freedoms such as representation and access to data. This project will research the lived experience of data technologies in high- and low-income countries worldwide, seeking to understand people’s basic needs with regard to these technologies. We will also seek the perspectives of civil society organisations, technology companies, and policymakers.