Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Open knowledge & changing the world

At the Open Knowledge Festival in Berlin July 15-17, Making All Voices Count, for whom I work, supported conversations centred on key themes highly relevant to our mission of making all voices count; creativity, power, politics, inclusion, voice and representation.

Power
In addition, we supported the Open Development Fringe Event held July 18, to enable space for participants to discuss issues and ideas that arose during the week. During this, Making All Voices Count staff members spoke to participants about our programme and how we can most usefully contribute to the work of others, and leave a legacy of learning, research and practice. Here are my reflections on this discussion:

Making All Voices Count

Open knowledge and changing the world
On a hot Friday afternoon at the Wikimedia offices in Berlin last week around 25 open development thinkers reflected on the learning Making All Voices Count has encountered, and how we have re-shaped our approach as a result. More on the details of that soon, but the debate was another chapter in the ‘how does change happen and where do we fit in’ debate we’ve been having recently. We wanted to know what our programme could most usefully contribute to the work of others which will continue long after we are gone.

Strong consensus emerged on some interesting themes: 
  • citizen engagement only counts if it is more than a one-off transaction 
  • parliamentarians need to be part of the picture 
  • money should be invested in citizen movements, not necessarily on technology 
  • there is need to draw on emerging scholarship which challenges some of the routinely quoted academic views on how collective action works
Citizen engagement

It’s fair to say that there was considerable scepticism over how multilateral institutions conceive of citizen engagement, most notably in projects that seem to regard a one-off consultation as a success in these terms. While the World Bank and UN agencies were referred to it is also worth bearing in mind that this is also a consistent criticism of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) by the Independent Reporting Mechanism of that initiative.

While a frequent observation was made that here was a room of primarily European and North American development aficionados it is also worth considering that voices from the South make the same point, as they did to me over coffee one morning or most eloquently in the superb CIDA study as part of the Listening Project earlier in 2012. Donor and initiative staff turnover are one constant irritant, but so is the short-termism that besets such governance reform programmes. Real citizen engagement means changing cultures and altering power dynamics – not something that happens in the space of a few short years.

Power to the democrats

A fairly consistent critique made by parliamentarians of citizen engagement programmes is that they seem cut out of the picture in favour of a direct line between citizens and their governments. People wanted to know how Making All Voices Count would include the voices of democrats, and voiced anger at the absence of these voices in several other initiatives. A point well made, and one we will reflect on.

Invest in change, not tech

Interestingly for a bunch of people who had just spent the last few days at the Open Knowledge Festival debating data, tech and transparency there was a clear message here about what Making All Voices Count should and should not be targeting resources at. Innovation was not technology per se, but the strategic use of either high or low tech means of giving people a meaningful role in shaping the decisions that would shape their worlds. That could mean radio as much as an app. Or even rap, judging by the contribution of one flamboyant performer at the OKFest.

BankSlave

Listen to challengers

If you listen to voices you may not always like what they say, particularly if they challenge your settled ideas. One contributor from the MENA region highlighted that an initiative like Making All Voices Count would need to look very different in the Arab region and questioned why the programme did not exist there, with others highlighting our lack of representation in non-Anglophone countries, particularly Francophone Africa.

It’s worth highlighting that academic consensus rarely exists for long and we agreed that the emerging scholars from the MENA region who point out the inability to analyse the dynamics of change in that region using received western metrics, which stem back to the work of Tilly and others in the 1970s, need to be listened to. But it is also the case that this programme is not about to take on more countries – and thus we talked about what Making All Voices Count has always seen as a primary objective: supplying others with learning to be applied elsewhere.

So what next?

Open Development
This was a hugely rich exchange. That it inspired the level of enthusiasm and ideas in a hot room on a Friday afternoon is evidence enough of what one participant described as “…an exciting opportunity”, for this programme to start to test ideas about what might work in real-life environments and capture the learning that follows in ways that others can use long after the programme has finished its work in 2017. That remains a central goal of Making All Voices Count and we hope to have many more debates like this across the countries in which we work, at gatherings of like-minded reformers like this one and in the global policy space too. Keep talking to us and watch this space.

Friday, 11 July 2014

How does change happen?


How does change happen, and what is the role of programmes like Making All Voices Count?
“In Dar, the lights went on for me about what this programme was actually all about, and it was really exciting”! 
So said Chantal Matthew of the Centre for Municipal Research & Advice, an experienced local government hand seeking to make change by connecting young citizens with local governments to co-create initiatives to ensure government is genuinely responsive to their views, perceptions and priorities. She was referring to our Learning & Inspiration event in Dar es Salaam in May.

Over a morning coffee in my new home of Johannesburg this week I was privileged enough to get into the detail of how change processes happen here in South Africa, and seek to apply that to how this programme, for whom I work, could or should support it. The recurring themes were the vital roles of: informal networks that connect change makers across the public, private and non-defined spheres; change makers and risk takers within government and the private sector; and individual projects or initiatives that might be funded by programmes like ours that seek to drive change on specific themes.

Networks & courageous conversations

“I only heard about your programme by chance” said Pramod Mohanlal, co-founder and MD of Yowzit.com, a firm providing the means by which citizens rate and feedback on government services, before adding that he’d been pointed towards us by a senior government official during a conversation they’d been having about their mutual missions to change how government is done here. Those sorts of informal networks, stemming from past relationships, professional associations, political affiliations and traditional cultures are the real spaces where, another grantee added, “courageous conversations” take place. Thinking the unthinkable outside the confines of bureaucratic or political constraints. Programmes that do not seek to tap into and contribute to those conversations would never, in their view, really achieve more than their constituent and time bound projects. A warning to those of us interested in achieving long term, sustainable impact. 

Change makers and risk takers

Don’t think business people only care about the bottom line, argued Pramod. They are citizens too, and often collaborating with senior officials within government already, for good or ill. Both public and private sectors experience huge market inefficiencies and pointless transaction costs which in both cases can be alleviated by meaningful interaction with citizens; be they customers or voters. The point being made, here, was that there was a shared agenda for changing governance across public and private spheres: the challenge for Making All Voices Count was how to unlock that untapped potential. Suggestions included private brokering of relationships between social activists, business leaders and senior government officials, while another was the very public enlisting of business leaders as ambassadors for achieving genuine public voice in the futures of their countries. 

Collective action, individual projects and voice

“When I am meeting a senior decision maker with Government, am I representing my organisation or Making All Voices Count? The answer totally changes the conversation” said one of our grantees, in response to a question about the most effective and appropriate contribution this programme could make to the process of political and governance reform. The strong answer coming back was that our role was about funding for sure, but also about convening conversations. 

That was the ‘brand value’, they felt, of Making All Voices Count, part of a global movement for change. Under that umbrella, it was said, grantees were able to add up to a coherent whole rather than a collection of disparate, separate and unrelated projects. The point was that this programme could only ever make local sense, and contribute to transformative change, if what it did in-country reflected a coherent and consistent approach to supporting change makers responding to their specific circumstances. It was not for a programme like this to enter into local political debates, but it was helpful for our work to be framed and designed with a clear premium placed on supporting change makers to act in concert, utilising each others skills, experiences, networks and strengths. 

The A, B & C of governance reform 

So what’s the straightforward and linear approach we take to genuinely responsive governance in each of the countries in which we work? The short answer is that there isn’t one. As Pramod observed: “change is messy”. But what this exchange highlighted for me was the importance of a tailor made approach to local context, and the need to encourage others to have ‘courageous conversations’ that bring all of us out of our comfort zones. What that will also mean is a rigorous discipline to asking ourselves consistently hard questions about how the projects we fund really get to the heart of bringing about transformative change; and where they don’t what can we do to build on the role of networks and our own ‘brand’ to broker, support and incubate ideas with that level of potential. Oh, and to do all of that within the parameters of a locally context-responsive country plan. 

But what this conversation really underlined above all, was that looking for ‘experts’ from afar is often the exact opposite to what you should do. They are all around you, you only need to ask.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Fixing the feedback loop: a bridge too far?


“Trust the people who sold my future”? Amina had just been asked what it would take for her to start to engage with the State, in this case local government, in this part of Dar es Salaam. The 30 year old mother of three was responding to one of our group, visiting as part of a Making All Voices Count field trip intended to ground our Learning & Inspiration Week in hard reality. Amina replied that these were the same local authorities that included an education official who had sold her place at college to a politically better-connected student. When she turned up to enrol she found her future as a nurse had been traded away, and with it her chance to escape the cycle of poverty in the slum area in which she’d grown up.

Amina’s experience, which also included regularly having to pay increased “taxes” for services that either didn’t exist or never materialised after elections, is the norm in this community. Dar es Salaam is already experiencing the effects of climate change and this area, near the heavily polluted river, is flooded several times a year. Sad piles of ineffective home-made sand bags, together with slime markers on the walls, are silent testament to the lack of support they have received from any element of the State for that too. And symbolically standing over the river, which doubles as the local latrine, was the bridge connecting the two halves of the community. A flood from well over a year ago had broken the structure, and locals had erected a precarious plank based link to the remaining parts of it. Countless promises have been made to fix it, taxes even raised using it as a justification. But still the bridge remains broken.


Amina, who assists an alternative health practitioner used by people who cannot afford to use the local hospital, or to purchase drugs that are frequently only available on the black market, summed it up: the only part of the State that actually works is the tax system. They are very efficient at taking your money.

This is the uncompromising reality of people’s lives. Even if genuine reforms to the way the State interacts and thinks about its citizens started tomorrow it would take generations to turn around the perceptions and expectations of people for whom ‘government’ means predation. So what does that mean for governance reform initiatives like Making All Voices Count?

Perceptions, power and people

Institutions do not rest on technical ‘capacity’, they rest on how they are perceived. Yet donor initiatives frequently fail to recognise this and risk exacerbating the problem. The State exists through institutions. But when those institutions have lost legitimacy in the eyes of the people the answer is not simply to press on with ‘capacity building’ initiatives regardless. Yet this has been precisely the approach of so many ‘state building’ approaches in the last decades. Making the Ministry of Finance more efficient at tax collection is not likely to re-engage Amina. And a view of the State from a Western perspective with strict divisions between the public and private spheres is also likely to fall short, because this is simply not the reality of people’s lives. This has been pointed out for decades, with Douglass North in 1990 re-casting the idea of State institutions as being both formal and informal means of setting:
“…the rules of the game in a society or more formally … the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction”. 
He meant that the State is more than the formal boundaries of institutions with their rules based systems, but the human norms and power assymetries that they encourage. If the rules of the game are stacked against you and the use of power by officials is predatory, then simply building capacity without fundamentally reforming those institutions is likely to make progress less, not more likely.

Sadly many ‘state building’ approaches only do the capacity building part, not the more politically awkward reform. The OECD recently produced work which underlines further the power of perceptions:
“Lack of legitimacy contributes to state fragility by undermining the processes of state-society bargaining that are central to building state capacity”. 
And it is that bargaining which needs to happen; donors ignore this complexity at their peril:
”All donor interventions affect local political processes, and thus state capacity and legitimacy”.
Humility: change takes time & short-termism is harmful

If we accept that the institutions through which the State and citizen conduct their bargaining are more than their tangible parts but include the intangible norms, behaviours and perceived levels of legitimacy, then we must also accept that changing these dynamics takes time. As Jonathan Fox asked during the TALearn week in Indonesia earlier this year: which theory of change had ever proven that you could overturn centuries of power dynamics by the application of a time-bound technocratic project?

The question was of course rhetorical, and reflective of a key conclusion reached by the World Development Report of 2011, produced by that bastion of technocratic short termist approaches the World Bank, which reached the stark conclusion that such change took around 30 years to evolve.

That is not an argument for 30 yearlong projects but it is a warning light to initiatives to avoid short termism in favour of longer term commitments and for short life-span initiatives to have the humility to think about where in that continuum of change they might sit, and design their contributions accordingly.



Innovation is critical, but so is context

Does all this mean global initiatives, with short life-spans and focused on the use of innovation are doomed to fail? No. I would argue that the literature on the role of Positive Deviance and suggestions of Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation point to a different way of conceiving the change we might be looking for and the way we design our approaches to supporting it.

Positive Deviance, the idea that local innovators find new ways of going outside norms to solve a problem, emerged as a theory in the in the early 1990s and has since led to more thinking about how to encourage it. There is a continuing debate about whether that change happens more because of strong local leaders driving it forward, or a more problem-driven approach that responds to change and flexibly adapts, but both schools of thought agree that local leadership is critical. Without it, this change simply does not happen. Which means that achieving a global vision can only ever work if it is pursued from the bottom up rather than imposed from the top down.

Making All Voices Count

Adapting to what you learn makes perfect logical sense but it does not always survive the power of the dreaded logframe. What NGO is going to have an open conversation about how they may have failed in front of the people they rely on for future funding when they think those funders will respond to failure – any failure – negatively. Yet it only takes a cursory look at any donor record to realise that failing is a perfectly normal outcome, just as any look at human experience in facing up to problems includes trial and error.

This programme sets itself a high bar. We want to strive to avoid setbacks but learn from them when they happen, in the ways that others before us have argued; particularly the line of thinking on Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation. We have already fundamentally adapted how we will be working in the coming years, in response to that learning. On that, more soon. When we are long finished we want to have left a body of evidence and experience that can shape the activities of others in ways that enhances the chances of genuinely transformative change; and in so doing having supported human progress. A tall order, certainly. But it’s the least Amina has a right to expect.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Politics, big business & dark data: reflections from OGP Dublin

OGP Europe Regional Meeting


This article first appeared here 

The Open Government Partnership roadshow rolled into the breathtaking grounds of Dublin Castle last week for its European Regional Meeting, with many diehards having themselves trekked form the Asia leg in Bali just days before. 

On the agenda were multiple themes but what stood out for me were three areas which together will do much to determine the impact of OGP on real life governance for good or ill. Despite those challenges, however, the glass remains half full and it’s incumbent on all of us to act as well as argue.

Politics

The meeting took place amidst a scandal which had claimed the scalp of an Irish Justice Minister who, it was alleged, had presided over the leaking of sensitive police data which had exposed whistleblowers within the police service. The relevance of the scandal was not lost on any of the Irish participants, either in the form of Minister for Public Engagement and Reform Brendan Howlin, nor his civil society counterparts.

In the case of the civil society groups they wanted to highlight what they perceived as the Irish Government’s willingness to take international plaudits for openness while intentionally stifling it at home. Their target was the fees the Irish Government had introduced which, at EUR15 per Freedom of Information request was already reducing citizens’ opportunities to hold their leaders to account. Minister Howlin responded angrily to one questioner who invited the international panel to offer their words of corrective advice to his government, denying that there were any plans to raise charges still further and citing the economic crisis as the principal reason for the fees.

Taking those exchanges along with the argument advanced by UK Minister Francis Maude, that there was a constant struggle between reformers and spoilers within government; and the documented trend identifiedby the Independent Reporting Mechanism of some States effectively instrumentalising their OGP membership for PR purposes while acting to reduce scope for citizen engagement at home the political scale of the challenge looms large. Signing accords is one thing, but fundamentally changing political culture and the bureaucracy that depends on it is quite another.

Big business

The larger players of the private sector were well represented here. Google, Microsoft, IBM and others sent delegates who in many cases played a prominent role, including a session aimed at strengthening their role within OGP. Each underlined their firm commitment to the principles of openness and transparency, while being genuinely excited by the role that corporates could play in delivering data and the tools with which to empower citizens to use it.

Yet this session, together with exchanges between business folk and others elsewhere, was disappointing if only for the lack of coherence in approach. In a side session Dejan Cvetković, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft in Central and Eastern Europe, had made the case for private sector led open data; but had to concede that this would only be likely where the data itself could turn a commercial value, which likely ruled out information on care for the elderly or other socially important areas.





Chris Taggart of OpenCorporates was also quick to apply a needle to the corporate balloon by questioning why it was that the commercial rights of those tools and that data had to be retained by the firms themselves. Going further, he demonstrated how data his organisation had collected rather suggested that it might be an idea for business to shine a light on its own commitment to transparency, with a data visualisation of Goldman Sachs’ banking interests. It seems the Cayman Islands have particularly welcoming banks. And almost inevitably Google’s tax arrangements in Europe came under fire too. Real accountability meant real change, argued Taggart, and doing the bare minimum required by law just didn’t cut it.

Dark data 

Finally for me the challenge least responded to by OGP thus far is that of the sinister uses that some elements of the State can put information towards. Smari McCarthy, of the International Modern Media Institute was joined by Irina Balychevsky of the Open Knowledge Foundation to discuss what an Orwellian threat might look like if proper safeguards are not in place.

The Snowden revelations had completely undermined, said McCarthy, any sense of meaningful checks and balances on State security services in the advanced economies, while the continued practice of locking up journalists and human rights activists in OGP countries like Azerbaijan underlined the potential of the threat where the idea of accountable government remains a distant prospect.

Glass half full

There was much criticism of OGP at this conference. In addition to the political challenges facing reformers within Governments, doubts were expressed about the extent to which the structures of the initiative were conducive to genuine accountability among peers.

And yet, and yet.

I was left with the very strong impression that it was down to those same voices pointing out the problems to do something about it. People reasonably asked why the raw data behind the Independent Reporting Mechanism had not been used to its full extent by civil society to ask awkward questions. Looking at this excellent breakdown by Alan Hudson of Global Integrity it strikes me that in many ways the data is more powerful than the narrative reports themselves.

And for those of us in other initiatives associated with open government, such as Making All Voices Count, there are opportunities too. The OGP recently announced their Open Government Awards, aimed at highlighting a practice that “…expands and sustains Citizen Engagement to improve government policies and services”.

Yet only Governments are permitted to nominate – the door is closed for civil society to do so. So we’re thinking about doing something similar but from the bottom up; watch this space – and let us know your own ideas too.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Going local: Innovations to transform citizen-state relations


We have a problem. The only way to transform governance is bottom-up. Yet the attention is all on top-down. Here are some thoughts I published earlier this week on the Local First website, which echoed some of the comments I made recently during the World Bank Spring Meetings on the same theme. In essence I think it is time to junk easy and technocratic phrases, and refocus attention on the messy and complex world of power, politics and inequality. And that is a challenge for all countries not just a few. Here's the piece:

There is a huge global debate taking place about this thing we call ‘governance’. Dominated by buzz-phrases like “the data revolution” it broadly refers to the relationship citizens have with their national or local governments; including in terms of service delivery, anti-corruption or participatory policy making. There is no question that this relationship is critical to human progress, and that its absence from the dominant development paradigm to date has left the poorest and most vulnerable behind; with least advances being made in those states where that relationship is at its most broken. Conflict affected states, for example, have achieved hardly any MDGs, proving that you cannot measure success by aid flows, GDP or technocratic targets when the main factors keeping people poor relate to power, inequality and political exclusion.

But amidst the global hype about what good governance should look like and how it should be measured in a new global development framework there is a largely unspoken problem. How do you translate a global vision into meaningful and locally specific initiatives which fundamentally transform that citizen-state relationship? We know that each context is unique and that a one-size-fits-all approach is doomed to fail; what we do not yet know is how to stimulate and support that sort of innovation in every country. Most development practitioners will recognise the experience of coming across a unique pocket of innovation which exists on a small scale and usually due to one or more charismatic individuals who have gone outside the prevailing ways of doing things and achieved something amazing as a result. This was termed ‘positive deviance’ in the early 1990s and has since led to more thinking about how to encourage it. There is a continuing debate about whether that change happens more because of strong local leaders driving it forward, or a more problem-driven approach that responds to change and flexibly adapts, but both schools of thought agree that local leadership is critical. Without it, this change simply does not happen. Which means that achieving a global vision can only ever work if it is pursued from the bottom up rather than imposed from the top down.

Making All Voices Count

Making All Voices Count is a programme established to seek to encourage and support locally driven and context specific change. We seek to build on the opportunities offered by the technological revolution in how citizens talk to each other, and harness its potential in changing the terms of the conversation between Governments and those they are there to serve. Working across 12 countries we want to put change-makers in touch with each other and facilitate learning between them. How a problem was overcome in Indonesia may offer lessons – when translated into a locally applicable approach – in Uganda, for example.

So who are these change-makers and where to find them? The answer is as complex as the challenges they are trying to meet, but they are potentially everywhere. Civil society, the private sector, local and national government all have a role to play. This was exemplified by the winner of our Global Innovation Competition, the Bahwalpur Service Delivery Unit (BDSU). This small unit within the provincial government of Punjab, Pakistan, are pioneering the use of hand-held devices to monitor and publicly report not only on the attendance of teachers and children at schools but also to open up a local debate about what the children are achieving. This is data being captured, published and informing a wider policy debate which is of direct importance to every family in the province.

Global Innovation Competition winners

So we have innovation coming not, in this case, from traditional civil society holding power to account but from change-makers within government itself. This is positive deviance in action, and the programme will be supporting BDSU through a combination of funding, mentoring and eventually scaling up in size and impact.
A window of local opportunity

The brokering and mentoring Making All Voices Count brings to the table is about harnessing locally driven change in ways that strengthen that impact by addressing gaps in learning, capacity or approach. They will be different in every case.
“We had not thought of BSDU from a gender or disability perspective. Regular feedback is invaluable. Monitoring & Evaluation being built into the development of a project is helpful”
…said BDSU’s Asim Fayaz of the support the project has already received recently.

And what of local power and politics? Despite a short-termism common to most political spaces which mitigates against this sort of long term change the Chief Minister of Punjab has stated that monitoring government workers will now be ‘scaled up’ and undertaken at every level. There is for the time being strong political willingness, and the feedback model which BSDU will incorporate has already received support from local authorities.

This is a window of local opportunity that could do more to achieve the vision of open governance articulated within the global debate than any kind of top down framework in the real lives of real people living in this part of Pakistan. But the implications of its success is that we could learn about making change happen elsewhere.

Asim sums it up succinctly:
“With BSDU citizens will not only be able to voice their concerns, but give feedback to a system which has the capacity to absorb and respond. BSDU will enable citizens to contribute to effective decision-making. We aim to open the doors of government.”
Unusual partnerships. Local innovation. Conversations between change-makers, and grounded in an approach which is responsive to local political, social and economic dynamics. That is surely how we translate the global data revolution so often talked about into a real-life governance revolution on the ground.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Transparency: Learning, Limits & Power


Just off Gatot Subroko road, next to the clogged periphery road looping around a severely congested Jakarta is an open sewer. It sits between gleaming towers of industry and near to an impressive looking Korean Embassy. I walked past it having arrived at the luxurious Gran Melia Hotel a couple of weeks ago, and saw a man wading through it, scavenging for plastic bags. That that was a scene of poverty is self-evident, but it is also a story of power; he has none while the business and political elites around him contest for more.

That theme was seam running through a fascinating week in Jakarta (March 12-15) at the second annualTALearn week for practitioners, researchers and other members of the emerging movement for transparency and accountability. The T/A Initiative deserve huge credit for pulling together such a rich mix of people who got to the heart of present challenges, limitations and new thinking.

Having an honest conversation
The T&A field is relatively new; and a key challenge to its overall effectiveness was laid bare by a presentation from Twaweza which, to me, got across the scale of what that lack of experience means in practice. This NGO had held a meeting, notably chronicled by Duncan Green, in which they openly discussed why it was that their theory of change had not in fact led to the citizen participation they had aimed for. It was a story of living the transparency message as they concluded much of what they had been doing had not worked, with Rakesh describing it as a “bucket of cold water”, and asked the advice and perspectives of others to help them work out new theories of how they might catalyse change.
What struck me was two things about this, apart from the obviously strong relationship Twaweza enjoyed with their core donors in order to even contemplate such an open debate: firstly that the challenge was as much to donors as Twaweza, and secondly that the question of how the movement deals with failure remains far from the mainstream.
For donors Rakesh Rajani had some tough love: he urged practitioners not to follow their whims but to challenge them to think differently, more in accordance with local realities. If they were unable or unwilling, he said, then perhaps they were not suited to be your donors anyway. I was interested in the reaction of my donor peers, who came from both private foundations and government agencies, who were happy to be part of the conversation, and quite prepared to be challenged. Yet I was left with the thought that this was easier said than done when the pressure to justify expenditure classed as “aid” to increasingly sceptical domestic audiences is, if anything, set to increase the impetus towards top-down linear theories of change with short term outputs that are predominantly quantifiable. This runs counter to everything we do know about how governance reform happens; the World Development Report of 2011 describes such change taking place iteratively and over three decades.
Dealing with failure itself remains a thorny issue. While it’s difficult to disagree with the idea of learning from what doesn’t work, and some have even gone to the point of organising “FailFests” to celebrate that approach, it is difficult to see how that becomes a mainstream approach in the short term. One of my colleagues at Ushahidi told me recently that innovators in the private sector accept a failure rate of 90% for all new projects; in order to realise the 10% that succeed. But a private sector product is a very far distance from a governance reform that might take years; and given the domestic context of most donors, this approach must surely remain an insurgent way of doing things in the aid industry for the time being.
And what constitutes failure itself was still open to question; I found it interesting that the academic researchers taking part questioned Twaweza’s own conclusion that they had failed. Actually, they said, their approach had created potentially hugely powerful datasets that yielding critical insights into how local people perceived their own contexts, and how best outsiders might support them. My own programme Making All Voices Count is more in line with this view, adopting a rigorous approach to learning and ensuring that learning is publicly available, as we seek to support innovation in the relationship between citizens and their governments.

Smog bound but beautiful Jakarta

Limits, learning and loops
Having debated, deconstructed and otherwise scratched our heads about limits of what we could achieve, we agreed on the critical need for shared learning which could in turn loop into new forms of interventions. But if there was a golden goose showing us the way forward we never quite found it.
There was, however, clear consensus on the need to further develop the community of practice represented by TALearn and much discussion was had on how to ensure we all learn from experience and contribute those insights to the common weal. Ways of ‘learning while doing’, sharing information and other ideas were part of the mix, drawing from the wealth of knowledge out there from specialists in the field; with specific presentations coming from Norma Garza of the World Bank Institute, Walter Flores of CEGSS and Chris Roche of La Trobe University; in each case sharing personal and organisational thinking about how to generate evidence that actually improves impact, within a context of competing priorities.
While there were real frameworks and insights to take away for participants, I was still left wondering about that last point; competing priorities. What we had in the room were the like-minded champions of reform; advancing the long-term, adaptive and local problem-driven approach the evidence suggests is the only way to effectively engage with complexity and power. But applying a reality check to whether their evidence of these champions about what could be done differently was sufficiently powerful to persuade the decision makers of the larger agencies was a different question. The other side of the reality check was evident in conversations among donors and grantees alike – with all agreeing it would be a good thing to share knowledge and co-ordinate efforts; but how, and what vested interests might that challenge in an environment where grantees were also potential competitors? The ever present risk, therefore, is a relapse into short term and predominantly quantitative approaches.

Rush hour in Jakarta: not that much rushing

That power thing
Which brings me to the power thing. We know, surely, that the only way to work in complex environments is to do so politically, aware of the distribution of power and how we might intentionally or otherwise influence that. Jonathan Fox, who has produced some first class work on this in recent years, argued alongside Hari Kusdaryanto of the Asia Foundation and Aranzazu Guillan Montero of U4 that the route to fundamental change was more about contestation within elites and between them and civil society in various forms; than it ever was about short term outside interventions. He effectively deconstructed the traditional language of T&A – particularly the idea that the relationship between Citizen and State could be fixed by a “feedback loop”; which implied that the problem was technical rather than deeply political. He saved the best till last with a polite question of the audience: which theory of change had ever proven that you could overturn centuries of power dynamics by the application of a time-bound technocratic project?
In this I was reminded of the similar thinking already having been done and often drawn upon by those working in the conflict & fragility field; Douglass North, Sue Unsworth and Jonathan Goodhand spring to mind. But I was also reminded that there were power dynamics among the sector too; specifically between donors and grantees that we would be naïve to avoid thinking about.
Encouraging innovation
Ultimately we all know that what we’re about is finding those small pockets of amazing new ways of doing things, that break the mould somehow, and have the power to re-fashion the ways in which people can make their views known, have them heard and for governments to respond. But while we know that finding, nurturing and supporting those locally led and specific initiatives can be the most transformative form of change, the key to doing so on a large enough scale is learning, doing things differently and renewing our collective efforts to make the case for such a different way of doing things among decision makers internationally.
The man under the bridge in Jakarta deserves nothing less.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Open Government: top-down needs bottom-up

This is a blog post I published recently on the Making All Voices Count site on the progress reports published this month by theIndependent Reporting Mechanism of the Open Government Partnership.


Top-down needs bottom-up

Thirty five progress reports were published this month by the Independent Reporting Mechanism of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) looking into the extent to which countries had delivered on promises made when they joined the initiative, aimed at transforming the relationship between governments and the governed.

The OGP was founded on the principle that good governance requires more than government alone, and its Steering Committee includes members of civil society for that reason. Yet these reports make clear that the extent to which non-governmental actors are meaningfully involved is patchy. They make interesting reading, not least as I am about to join an initiative with similar goals called Making All Voices Count, which invests in bottom-up solutions that utilise innovation and technology to contribute to transparency, accountability and good governance.

The challenges the reports reveal underline that bottom-up is as much part of the picture as top-down.

Four of the progress reports are on countries which are members of the Making All Voices Count initiative (Tanzania, South Africa, Indonesia and The Philippines) and the challenges they reveal seem to revolve around structural weaknesses of the initiative in-country, questionable commitment to implementation and the need to utilise the possibilities of technology to harness the collective power of reformers from within and outside governments in each country. I focus on what each tells us about OGP and the wider push for open governance below.

Structures: OGP, elections, engagement & repression

The reports take several of these countries to task over the relative weakness of the place afforded to the initiative within the government machine. Urging the Philippines to “strengthen the OGP institutionally” the report calls for the formation of cross-departmental working groups and involvement across disciplines to address a lack of co-ordination either in the implementation or monitoring of progress.

Indonesia’s report also surfaces the sensitive issue of elections within the context of the OGP’s governmental home. It notes the OGP remains tied to a Presidential unit rather than a permanent department, rendering it “…dependent on the outcome of the next election.” This has also been found to be a structural weakness of the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, which seeks to pursue similar goals in the most challenging of circumstances, and may reflect the lack of incentives such initiatives offer elites to consider their own political mortality.
Insufficient engagement with civil society is cited in every case except for Indonesia, which scores highly here, with South Africa, The Philippines and Tanzania coming in for trenchant criticism.
South Africa’s use of deadlines expiring within days is compounded by Tanzania’s decision not to publish documents in Kiswahili “…limiting public participation,” made worse by a “weak” consultation process in the drafting stage. Even more worryingly, the report goes on to note the continued existence of repressive legislation which limits press freedom and others which “…counteract and contradict open government principles.”



Above image taken from the OGP website, reflecting all participating countries of the partnership

Commitment: a two way street

It’s also worth noting, however, that civil society in these countries does not escape criticism either. In particular The Filipino Government is taken to task for a lack of documented engagement in the consultation stage, which “…[b]oth the Government and civil society agreed … had been rushed”, while “consultation during implementation did not occur, but both Government and civil society shared responsibility for this … civil society did not cooperate to articulate common goals for OGP or expectations of the Government.”

It is hard to see how Governments can be expected to deliver on this agenda without support from civil society and to their credit the report notes that several organisations acknowledge this failure. But it might also be worth questioning the concept of ‘civil society’ in the first place, which is often taken as short-hand for NGOs, when the reality at local level is far more diverse. How many non-traditional players knew about the opportunity to engage if they were not on NGO mailing lists?

Surely, the only way we can genuinely be sure a fundamental transformation has taken place is when direct citizen engagement is both encouraged, accessible and acted upon; a challenge for global initiatives, but one which is applicable to all countries, North and South.

Tech: closing the feedback loop

Low levels of awareness about the initiative were found in precisely the social and professional groups that most need to be a part of it. In South Africa “…a number of relevant stakeholders are unaware of the OGP” and, worryingly, “[t]he level of awareness is also unsatisfactory among government agencies that do work related to the initiative.” The report calls for a major awareness-raising drive in that country as well as The Philippines and Tanzania and the role of tech in both raising profile, but also facilitating meaningful engagement is centre stage.

In The Philippines the report calls for the use of mobile technology and broadband to “[e]nsure analysis, usefulness and usability of data through open formats…” while in Tanzania the report notes that despite its involvement in the OGP and African Peer Review Mechanism the country still “…struggle[s] with a lack of accountability and loss of public trust.”

To counteract this, the report calls for the government to commit to publish a ‘dashboard’ of progress on OGP implementation online “…and ensure that all … reports are posted on the dashboard in a timely manner.” Lastly the report urges the government to “…take advantage of other communication channels, such as mobile phone/SMS technology, when supplying information to the public.”

That is fine as far as it goes, but supplying information is only part of the equation; interaction is the other essential element, so the manner in which the information is collected, presented and utilised by citizens seems to need attention too. Technology has a potentially transformative role to play, but innovation will need to be matched by sustained political commitment.

Ambition

Amid these manifest challenges, some structural and others political, comes a positive and interesting observation. While South Africa is gently chided for having chosen progress indicators that it had either already achieved or was well on the way towards, potentially instrumentalising the OGP for external validation, both Indonesia and Tanzania are critiqued for being too ambitious. Tanzania’s 25 commitments were “overly ambitious” and should be slimmed down to fewer more strategic ones while Indonesia is encouraged to build on what the report concludes are major advances with “…a more ambitious concept of fostering open government beyond current initiatives”.

Top Down needs Bottom Up

It’s fair to say these are challenging reports for any government to have to deal with in public. And they should all be commended both for their membership of OGP and clear willingness to make progress toward genuinely open and responsive governance.

It’s no easy thing to be critiqued in these ways and the culture shift this demands is often overlooked by campaigners and activists, healthily impatient for more.

In the challenges we find the real value, perhaps, of the OGP’s top-down approach. Exposing structural weaknesses and bureaucratic inertia is a necessary first step to change. But what, arguably, many of these conclusions also do is highlight the need for bottom-up and context specific solutions too. Just as much political science analysis has highlighted how government institutions create their own elites, incentives and dynamics the same is true of civil society structures too; and the critiques made of Filipino civil society organisations would appear to bear this out.

How to reach beyond the usual suspects – within and without government – and to meaningfully engage them in the political priority-making of their own societies remains the holy grail of good governance.

Part of that picture will mean investing in local innovations and where appropriate scaling them up, along with a constant questioning of impact through research. The shared vision of reformers is a world in which all voices genuinely do count, and the more we can harness the complementarity of Making All Voices Count with OGP the better.