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, 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.

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