Design Research

Civic Participation in the State Budget of Assam


Dec 2019 – May 2020


Design Research Fellow

This project was done as part of a 6 month design research fellowship supported by CivicDataLab and Government of Assam. It counted towards my exegesis submission for the award of Masters of Arts in New Humanities and Design from Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

Tags: Design for Public Good, Civic Action, Service Design

The Context

Since FY 2018-19, the State Government of Assam has been experimenting with the idea of having citizen involvement and say in the formulation of the State Budget on the lines of the participatory budgeting model. For FY 2019-20, the Govt. received over 2000 suggestions after a 3 month on ground activation in multiple districts of Assam. But little was being done to understand its effectiveness and how this effort could be scaled sustainably given the constraints and other pressing priorities of the Finance Department.

CivicDataLab, a civictech startup based in India, works with the goal of using data, tech, design and social science to strengthen the course of civic engagements in India. One of the focus sectors is Public Finance (they are the creators of OpenBudgetsIndia) and given their past working relationship with the Government of Assam, they were keen explore what opportunities and modes of working with the Government could be possible in this context.

My Role

My location as a design researcher in relation other stakeholders working in the context

As a Design Research Fellow to CivicDataLab, my role can be described broadly as follows

  1. Develop a base on-ground understanding of these efforts using suitable design research methods
  2. Find opportunities to collaborate and build partnerships
  3. Deliver a transitory knowledge output that would contribute towards building the project and partnerships in Assam.

This would help the organisation in understanding how we could leverage our strengths and partnerships to keep sustainably contributing to the cause of increasing civic involvement and transparency in the state budgetary processes of Assam.

Research and Understanding

Research Question

How can we imagine a better (meaningful, involved, empowering) future for civic participation in the State Budget of Assam?

This entailed finding answers to 3 smaller questions

  1. What were the existing modalities for conducting participatory budgeting?
  2. What values (and politics) could inform the future iteration of this exercise?
  3. How do I best communicate this to the stakeholders involved?

Field Work

I spent 3 months in Assam (Guwahati) as a research intern to the Assam Government (Finance Department) and developed my understanding of the context using mixed methods –

  • Unstructured and Semi-Structured Interviews with Citizens and Government officials.
  • Review of the State of the Art – the artefacts from the previous campaign, the related process flows (budget estimation), the data for last year’s campaign, etc.
  • Training Workshop with Government officials on how to use design tools like personas and journey maps to make better digital service platforms for citizens.
  • Civic Action Workshop with NSS Volunteers on how, as youth, they could play a role in demanding a better state budget
  • Social Media Campaign in collaboration with UNICEF India to solicit citizen suggestions for Assam Budget 2020-21.
Snapshots from workshops I did with state government officers (personas and journeys) and NSS volunteers at Tezpur University (state budget & civic participation)
Creatives from the budget suggestions campaign we did in collaboration with UNICEF (Left). The Whatsapp screenshot of the U-Report flow designed for citizens to give suggestions for Assam Budget 2020-21 (Right).

Insights and Learning

  • State Budgetary processes are not transparent and open to participation
    Solving for civic participation calls for discussing and advocating for better policies and processes within government as much as it was about raising awareness about the relevance of understanding this data among citizens.
  • State Budgets are not easy to understand or work with – for stakeholders across the board
    Whether it was it policy consultants or regular citizens, access to information in an easy, usable and relevant manner was a big challenge. Tools like Assam Budget Explorer was virtual unheard of even in policy research and media circles let alone citizens.
  • Technology alone cannot solve for issues with democratic participation
    The over emphasis on trying to retrofit technologies and platforms to solve issues around public engagement ensured that lot of the “people” and “knowledge gap” issues remained under-addressed. Not enough research or effort was being directed in activating citizens’ interest and motivation to participate.
  • Government departments are largely unfamiliar and under-equipped to leverage design in their functioning
    With a network of policy wonks, other consultants and different sizes of agencies working on and off with the government, there was little being done to develop the internal capacity of officers or creating and maintaining standards for designing services for the public.

Guiding Principles for Design

  • Build on the design vocabulary that now exists in the department
    How do I keep up my effort of integrating design-led approaches into the department? The next design artefact should act as a bridge to more sophisticated ways of thinking and doing.
  • Suggest configurations of people that would build on the base elements of the democratic setup
    How can my artefact reflect my values and politics as a designer? I wanted to use the design output as a means to spark the debate and discussion in towards intentionally chosen configurations to see how the State would respond and if convinced, incorporated into their process.
  • Bring out people relations and concerns in the output
    How should different stakeholders interact with each other and what roles should they play over time? My output would give me the opportunity to define and visualise these concerns.

“Changemaking in government is quite complex and different from private institutions. The agency of administrative officers is limited by many things like (sometimes) outdated policies, high level of fiscal accountability and political pressure. An honest politician finds himself in between an aspiring change-hungry population and an inefficient and slow organisation like the government. New policies and amendments are not the best solution as it requires a large body like the government to train and bring its staff up to date and by the time this is done the world has changed. There is also a chicken and egg problem when it comes to competent officers and the perception of the impact/growth/credibility of the government. It is not feasible to be too ambitious or fast with change here as a growth from 0.2 to 0.4 (on a scale of 0 to 5) with sustainability is better than reckless change from, say, 0 to 4.”

Kailash Karthik N, Joint Secretary to Finance Department, Govt. of Assam

Transitory Outputs

I developed 3 outputs which will help further the ongoing efforts of CivicDataLab in collaboration with Assam Government and UNICEF Assam – 2 visual service blueprints and an accompanying online guidebook.

A scene from Budget Fellowship

1. Budget Fellowship

The state budget workshop with NSS Volunteers at Tezpur University and the subsequent engagement with them on the online campaign showed a lot of promise for the future of engaging the youth to enhance civic participation in Assam. What would this future look like? This visual blueprint hopes to spark the discussion for the way forward.
Learn More

A scene from Budget for X

2. Budget for X

Budget for X builds on structure and flow of the Budget4Justice campaign which invited organisations working in the law and justice sector to submit detailed budget proposals for Assam Budget 2020-21. What would a sector focused participatory budgeting campaign for any sector look like? This visual blueprint explores the same.
Learn More

3. Online Guide

CivicDataLab doesn’t believe in working alone but in consortiums that band together to power these ideas. A guidebook that’s available online fosters this sense of openness and collaboration and also brings potential partners up to speed with what these artefacts are about.
Check out the guidebook

What happens next?

The output was well received by CivicDataLab and given its transitory nature it will be handed over and further developed by other incoming fellows in the public finance team. The outputs will be used to further develop strategic partnerships and collaborations to take this work forward.

In the news!

  1. Finance Department on Twitter, 15 Feb 2020

2. UNICEF conducts a workshop to help youths understand the State budget better, Sentinel Assam on 17 Feb 2020

3. Demanding Better State Budget” Workshop organized at Tezpur University by UNICEF, CivicDataLab & NSS, Tezpur Buzz on 16 Feb 2020

Interested in learning more?

Get in touch with me and I’ll be happy to share the full exegesis and discuss any concerns and feedback you may have. Write to