I recently returned from Buntwani 2015, a two-day workshop in Johannesburg on the role of technology and governance. The title of the workshop was: The Next Step in Innovation for Good Governance: Moving the dialogue forward from potential to impact. Now, I am an outsider in this discussion: I’m no tech expert and would fall more on the Luddite end of the spectrum. Thus, I’m generally fairly skeptical about the role of technology and governance, and the enthusiasm – and funding – that seems to abound with regards to tech and data fixes to what I regard as deeply entrenched power structure challenges. Exhibit A:
— Brendan Halloran (@Halloran_B) August 12, 2015
I’ll admit that I thought that this workshop might well confirm my biases, but more than that I went learn more about how technology and innovation were really being put into practice. I wanted to see if I could find some ways in which they were being used as a part of more strategic and integrated approaches, rather than simplistic, tool-based projects.
I was encouraged by the description of the workshop, which indicated it would be a:
…platform for reflection, analysis and candid dialogue on the impact of technology-supported initiatives aimed at empowering citizens to voice their concerns and demands, and improving governments’ responsiveness and accountability to their citizens.
That was a conversation I wanted to have. Unfortunately, that line of discussion, to the extent that it happened at all, occurred at the periphery of the workshop, rather than at the center. Thus, while I made some useful connections, had some meaningful conversations, and learned some new things, I think Buntwani missed an important opportunity to grapple with some more fundamental questions with a really interesting cross section of practitioners.
Indeed, the Buntwani workshop looked and felt a lot like a workshop that T/AI hosted earlier in the year (and likely many other, similar gatherings, from what I heard), bringing together individuals and organizations leveraging technology and data for ‘Follow the Money’ efforts. Both workshops (expertly facilitated by Allen Gunn) featured lots of networking and connecting, lots of small group sharing of skills, ideas, problems, and innovations, but very little discussion of impacts or of the big challenges for the sector, which quite a few people seem to be aware of and able to articulate, but only over a beer outside the official space of the workshop.
What kind of challenges? Actually, many of the issues in the Tech4Gov field seem to be quite similar (if somewhat more pronounced) to those facing efforts to promote transparency and accountability more broadly, such as:
- Proliferation of simplistic, tool-based approaches that do not reflect contextual realities
- Short-term project funding that doesn’t match long-term social and political change processes
- Isolated and fragmented efforts, rather than strategic partnerships and coalitions
- A generalized failure to learn, both within organizations and in the sector more broadly
- Unrealistic proposals that entail little research or analysis, which are not sufficiently interrogated by funders
These are obviously generalizations, but too often ring true, in the T/A sector, and seemingly in tech-focused work in particular (at least according to my limited perspective).
I was extremely grateful to Ken Banks, who put these questions on the agenda early and repeatedly, and to the workshop organizers for opening a space for small group discussion about these issues. Yet, discussing these challenges could have been much more central to the workshop’s agenda (and I had thought that it would be). Indeed, very early in the workshop, the group surfaced some several key issues around which there were clear opinions, such as:
- Whether Tech4Gov projects were inherently flawed and doomed to failure
- Whether Tech4Gov was just a donor-driven agenda
- Whether open data really makes any difference to communities and excluded groups
- Whether transparency really drives accountability
I thought it was very useful to surface, acknowledge and discuss these key questions, and the differences of opinion around them (that said even those at polar ends of the spectrum on the above questions agreed more than they disagreed). And while that happened in a dynamic format early in the workshop, we quickly moved on to smaller group engagement around specific tools, projects, ideas, issues, etc. At no point did we come back to grapple with any of these broader issues as a group. I would have liked to do so much more, and then workshop description suggested this would be a much more prominent element of the agenda.
Technology and the Accountability Ecosystem
As I said at the outset, I hoped to have a deeper conversation about the impact and role of tech and data in work that seeks to strengthen citizen engagement and accountable governance. Specifically, I wanted to see how tech was being used in ways that could strengthen more integrated civil society campaigns, efforts that seek to have deeper impacts by interfacing with the ecosystem of accountability actors, institutions and mechanisms. I was able to explore these ideas with a few workshop participants, for whom the ideas of integrated approaches and accountability ecosystems resonated. Most people I spoke with did indeed want to be involved in longer-term efforts that respond to the political realities faced by marginalized groups and used tech only to the extent that it served a strategic need in a given campaign.
Yet I still ran across individuals involved in projects to use technology to ‘close the feedback loop’, in political contexts where this seemed challenging at best (I’m not a fan). Others were from more established human rights or advocacy NGOs that used technology in service to their broader goals around rights, justice and inclusion. In South Africa, with its specific historical legacy of democracy struggles, it seems that civil society has incorporated technology, but not been dominated by it. In other countries, with a less mature civil society, funding for technology and data projects could have a much more pronounced influence on the nature of citizen activism and advocacy.
The most impressive organization I came across in the workshop was Amandla.mobi. The executive director, Koketso Moeti, was insightful and articulate, and the work that they are doing, in collaboration with Local Government Action, is exciting. The organization itself seeks to model the social changes they are working for, being led by black women. They work with excluded populations, mixing online and offline mobilization approaches to involve these groups in the struggle to change systems that affect them. Campaign strategy informs decisions about whether and how to use technology. They take a long-term perspective and are thoughtful about their impacts and what constitutes a real win, as well as understanding that mobilization is not the same as organization. Getting a glimpse at the work of Amandla.mobi was encouraging, but was it representative of the types of organizations at Buntwani, or more broadly in the sector?
It’s the funders, stupid
After the workshop finished, Ken invited interested individuals to further discuss the structural issues limiting real impact around technology, data and governance. It was the best, and most challenging, ‘session’ I attended. There was frank discussion. Ideas were proposed. People disagreed with each other. But there was a general consensus on one point: funders are best placed to address the problems and challenges that plague the sector. This was not a finger pointing (‘funders are the problem!’) exercise. People readily acknowledged that organizations in the sector perpetuate negative patterns that undermine the possibilities of real impact. But they often do this responding to the incentives of external funding.
In the discussion, there was an acknowledgement of the constraints and incentives faced by donors themselves, and that those differed between private philanthropies and bilateral development agencies, for example. Yet it seemed clear that if there exists a general collective action problem in the transparency and accountability sector (particularly pronounced in the tech and data wing), then it made sense that coordination among the most powerful and influential actors – for whom coordination is more feasible given their fewer numbers – was the most likely route to meaningful change.
All this is quite relevant to work I’ve been doing over the past two years, and indeed to the raison d’etre of my organization, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, and the donor collaborative that sponsors it. Indeed, we’ve been having similar conversations in our TALEARN community of practice, and have started to pull together resources to explore specific aspects of these challenges in greater depth, such as how grant making practices constrain or support grantee learning.
So, despite being a bit of an outsider at Buntwani – with little practical knowledge of Tech4Gov work – it was useful to connect the issues in this area to the wider conversations I’ve been involved in the transparency and accountability sector. It also makes those discussions that T/AI has been involved in, including revisiting its own focus and strategy, as well as the conversations we support in the TALEARN community, all the more important. I look forward to continuing the dialogue, and am optimistic that there are opportunities to address some of the chronic challenges that practitioners struggle with and occasionally acknowledge, especially over beers at the end of a Tech4Gov workshop.