This past week I tuned into a webcast of a panel discussion on citizens and responsive government, “Closing the Feedback Loop“, hosted by the World Bank. The event featured representatives of government (Philippines), civil society (Sunlight Foundation and Communication and Development Institute) and the donor community (Making All Voices Count and the World Bank), and posed the following questions:
- How do we ensure governments become more responsive to citizen feedback?
- Can technology help?
- Which approaches transform feedback into better services and improve development impact?
Before I reflect on this particular conversation, it’s worth going back to an e-dialogue that MAVC hosted at the end of January. One of the themes of the e-dialogue was on the idea of ‘feedback loops’ for government responsiveness (see this summary from Rosie McGee of MAVC and IDS). Many participants in the dialogue, myself included, were wary of the ‘feedback loop’ concept, raising questions about where politics and power fit into the framework and whether this thinking promoted a technical and potentially ‘tokenistic’ version of citizen engagement. The conclusion? As Rosie put it: “What does it take to secure government responsiveness? The answer is, a lot, and don’t let anyone from any disciplinary background tell you otherwise.” So there is the challenge.
Fast forward to the recent discussion. As a prelude to the conversation, the World Bank’s Sara Aviel made some remarks about the institution’s enthusiasm for citizen engagement. She noted that both CSOs and government representatives thought a lack of civil society engagement undermined the success of WB projects. She said that the Bank had taken this lesson to heart, and was working to mainstream citizen engagement throughout the institution’s work as a core issue, not just a box to be ticked.
This is certainly a welcome message from the Bank. Yet, I can’t help but feel some deja vu. The World Bank has been talking about deepening its involvement with citizen engagement for over a decade (see this WB review of participatory development), and being critiqued for its approaches with regards to participation just as long. So what is different now?
Well, enthusiasm about technology (mobiles, SMS, twitter, open data platforms, etc.), for one thing. Several of the panelists discussed opening up data and empowering infomediaries to bring data to citizens that is relevant to their lives. The World Bank has been specifically interested in technology for closing the feedback loop. However, the panel moderator’s introductory comments cautioned about the need to go beyond the initial eagerness (mania?) for tech solutions.
Another element is open government. How can governments get better at listening to citizens (tech is one option)? The representative from the Philippines discussed experiences with instituting participatory budgeting. Others mentioned changing the culture of government towards openness. The Open Government Partnership was brought up as one attempt in this direction. But again, early in the conversation it was said that getting citizen opinions/info to government decision-makers is not sufficient for meaningful change. Some will act on this, others will not. Additionally, there is a need to open spaces for citizens to engage (physical or virtual), but just having an opportunity to participate does not make for meaningful influence.
Overall, I thought the discussion raised a number of important ideas. But there was still a focus on governments consulting citizens, listening to citizens, creating participatory spaces for citizens, responding to citizens. I heard less discussion of political dynamics and incentives that undermine these possibilities. What about governments or government actors who are less interested in citizen feedback? What about citizen voice + teeth? Countervailing power? Deep Democracy? I would have liked to hear much more about the role of autonomous, representative and capable citizens organizations and movements, that may make use of technology, or may not (see my previous post on protest movements and technology).
Now, I should say that some of these points did come up. MAVC’s Chris Underwood stressed the challenges of government legitimacy (or rather, a lack thereof), power asymmetries, contextual variations, and the need to “ground our thinking in challenging reality [of the crisis of government legitimacy, which is a crisis of politics].” Members of the audience raised similar points, noting that there is a need for functioning democratic systems to provide an enabling environment for transparency, citizen engagement and government responsiveness.
Yet many of the countries where efforts are being made to ‘close the feedback loop’, primarily through transparency, open data, citizen voice, are contexts in which politics is driven by systems of patronage, opaque financing, populism, fraud, and other factors that drive the crisis of legitimacy Chris brought up in the panel. So this brings us back to politics, and power. If the ‘feedback loop’ does not grapple with these fundamental questions, its unlikely that real and sustainable government responsiveness will result. For some more of my ideas on this and how to move forward, see my short Think Piece.
Finally, this event was heavily commented on in Twitter. Some key tweets below:
Doesn’t this locate the agency with government actors? With what incentives to engage citizens?
This too. Gov listening and doing. Citizens….giving preferences and then…?
Citizens still ‘being engaged’ by governments and donors.
Ok, that’s a little better.
Voice without teeth, too often the case?
Best tweet so far.
I hope so.