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.

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