Closing Feedback Loops? (again)

The World Bank has been hosting a series of events over the past several months looking at the concept of the ‘Feedback Loop’.  The feedback loop can be understood in simple terms as citizens expressing their priorities and/or grievances, and governments listening (and presumably responding).  There are some people in the governance field (including myself), who don’t particularly like the framing of the feedback loop (see discussion here).

In a previous post on a World Bank panel on feedback loops, I wrote that there was insufficient attention paid to the dynamics of power and politics inherent in government responsiveness.  There was too much focus on amplifying citizen voice and enabling government listening, and less on the means by which citizens could hold decision-makers to account.  And there is an ongoing fascination with technology as the key to the feedback loop that is neither well theorized nor supported by evidence.

In an effort to respond to these and other pressing challenges, the World Bank has produced a new edited book entitled “Closing the Feedback Loop: Can Technology Bridge the Accountability Gap?” and recently held a panel discussion to launch this new resource.  The book seeks to clarify the conceptual framework and synthesize the available (though still relatively weak) evidence on the role of technology (specifically ICTs) in promoting government responsiveness and accountability.  Before continuing, I should make two confessions.  First, I only scanned some of the introductory and concluding chapters of this book.  So my comments are not from a ‘deep reading’ of the text, and will focus on the concepts rather than the empirical evidence.  And second, I still don’t like the framing of feedback loops.

“Closing the Feedback Loop” is filled with interesting information and the panel discussion was insightful as well.  I want to focus my brief comments on both of these around 2 concepts: empowerment and (no surprise) politics.  Before I touch on those themes, I want to highlight a few of the initial comments made at the launch event by Twaweza’s Rakesh Rajani.  Rakesh, who has a lot of experience working to leverage technology to drive social change, said that 90% of the challenge is not the technology, but the relationships (between and among citizens, governments, service providers, etc.), and that technology in itself is not a driver, its about people and institutions.  I totally agree with Rakesh, but I’m also hearing this repeated refrain, without seeing any real evidence that it is really shifting the prevailing approach to ‘feedback loops’.  I’ll come back to this point, but first empowerment and politics.

Empowerment.   The book tries to lay out a conceptual framework for how ICTs contribute to empowerment.  Empowerment is equated with participation, transparency and government responsiveness, which doesn’t fully capture the two critical elements that the authors identify, agency and opportunity structure.  The authors do highlight the political, economic and social elements of empowerment. Yet they seem to be overly focused on connecting the idea of empowerment to feedback loops, so they miss an opportunity for a broader reflection on how technology can enable more freedom and self-efficacy by poor and marginalized individuals (if, as the authors highlight, those individuals can access and utilize technology, which is often not the case), and to what extent it might play a role in reshaping existing structures of power and exclusion.

That said, the authors do note one very important dimension of technology’s potential to enhance human agency, ICTs as enabling individual participation (e.g. SMS feedback) versus ICTs that reduce barriers to collective action (e.g. social media), enabling new kinds of social networking and mobilization.  The potential for technology to enable collective action can be game changing, but there is a lot more to unpack here, for example the difference between mobilizing and organizing.  Furthermore, when technology has supported citizen mobilizing, it has been around tangible issues, like jobs and services, but also deeper challenges to the perceived corruption and exclusion of the political system.  Does this fit within the concept of feedback loops?

On this point, panellist Jonathan Fox noted the potential for technology and information to help citizens find others who share a common cause, build common ground beyond locality/group, and networks to enable strategic collective action that can influence power relations and incentive structures that determine whether government actors will really respond.  Here he emphasized that all information is not equal, and pointed to the different between feedback loops and right to know.  Both are about information, but right to know campaigns are about movements getting the information they need to pursue their rights agenda (around health, livelihoods, etc.), not what the government decides to release.

Politics. I was struck by the contradiction between the emphasis by World Bank staff, in both the book and at the launch event, on the short route to accountability that was proposed in the 2004 World Development Report as a way to improve service delivery for the poor (i.e. citizens to service providers), and the overriding lessons coming from a recent World Bank event commemorating that report, which focused on the political dimensions, or long route, for effective and equitable services.  Contributors at the WDR 2004 conference emphasized that politics is not just an obstacle to better services, but a means to the solution as well.  Ignoring the politics of accountability by focusing on technology and short route accountability, is most likely to lead to “decent customer service, not accountable government”.

Panellists at the book launch noted that we know much more about citizen voice than about how and why government actors respond in different ways.  Indeed, the book, even while emphasizing that there is not a linear relationship between transparency, citizen engagement and accountability, was light on explanations of concrete mechanisms by which technology can be leveraged to influence government responsiveness.  And indeed, many of the examples given were based on an assumed linear relationship between transparency, citizen engagement and accountability.

Part of this problem is, as I earlier noted, the overriding focus on short routes of accountability, and only a passing interest in political dimensions.  A potential way forward would be to connect two seemingly robust communities within the World Bank: technology/feedback loops and political economy analysis (PEA).  PEA focuses on untangling interests and incentives, and is often focused on decision makers and service providers.  Insights from PEA could help point to more realistic leverage points for ICT-enabled transparency and citizen engagement to meaningfully shift the incentives of government actors and trigger increased government responsiveness.

Yet I think there is a need to go even deeper.  PEA focuses on behaviour change informed by a rational-individualist framework.  However, a political analysis more deeply grounded in a nuanced understanding of power shifts attention to the dynamic interplay between structure and agency, and of the more profound possibilities of transformative political change.  If the fundamental goal is improvements in the lives of poor people, then this should indeed be the focus, as “politics and political change remain the key means by which poverty can be challenged“.  Is it really enough to improve feedback loops on services when political and economic systems are based around concentrating power in the hands of a few?

So returning to Rakesh’s initial point, those who are interested in technology, feedback loops, empowerment and responsive governance need to engage much more critically with power and politics, and begin to think and work more politically (as other other efforts are seeking to do, see here and here).  “Closing the Feedback Loop” represents a good initial step, grappling with the challenging concepts of empowerment and accountability, but future efforts could add more value by learning from the available evidence, and the deep and varied experience of other disciplines and actors in addressing empowerment, accountability and political analysis.  We’ve seen technology play an important role in shifting the balance of power in the relationship between citizens and government actors.  But we also have a wealth of experience on citizen engagement, social organizing and empowerment that has nothing to do with technology.  Bringing together the lessons and insights from these diverse perspectives and insights will give us a much more grounded and nuanced understanding of when and how technology might play a role in enabling more meaningful citizenship and responsive and inclusive governance.


7 thoughts on “Closing Feedback Loops? (again)

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