Open Governance and Surveillance: A Study of the National Rural Employment Program in Andhra Pradesh, India

Rajesh Veeraraghavan. Open Governance and Surveillance: A Study of the National Rural Employment Program in Andhra Pradesh, India. Ph.D. dissertation. Advisors: AnnaLee Saxenian and Peter B. Evans. University of California, Berkeley. 2015.


This dissertation grapples with the questions: Does transparency lead to accountability? Is it possible to "democratize" surveillance, turning surveillance into an instrument of democratic control over state bureaucracy? Can a state bureaucracy combine visions of surveillance within the state and "openness" to citizens to help police itself? To address these questions, I studied an "open governance" project located in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and involving the countrywide National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). I raise the questions about transparency and accountability at two different levels: first at the level of the bureaucracy, and second at the level of the citizens themselves. Looking at the two inevitably raises further questions of the power relations both within the bureaucracy and between the state apparatus and the citizens it is intended to serve. Looking within the bureaucracy, I show that local bureaucrats and politicians have discovered ways to subvert these formal efforts of control through informal norms. Looking at relations between the state apparatus and the citizens, I examine the recruitment of citizens in two different social contexts, a class/caste-divided village and a tribal community. Between the bureaucracy and the citizenry, I argue that the state has attempted to construct a state-civil society "sandwich" to squeeze the lower-level bureaucrats both from the top, using information technology, and from the bottom, getting testimonies from workers by opening government records. Here, I find that expectations of participation from below in response to transparency from above are not met because workers fail to participate as expected. A central part of what follows explores and delineates the multiple, complex reasons for this failure of the "public sphere." Overall, these findings illustrate how hard it is to actually eliminate last-mile corruption, even with sophisticated technological and social strategies. (Nonetheless, I also find and lay out numerous potential benefits to this program.) In conclusion, I argue that instead of the prevalent metaphor of "sunlight," open governance is better thought of as a "flashlight" and that people embrace openness and reject surveillance depending on whether they are the subject or the object of the "flashlight." This shift in metaphor helps to raise more directly the inevitable issues of power.

Last updated:

December 23, 2016