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.

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.


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.