This past week, around 70 civil society representatives, researchers and funders, all with an interest in learning about how to more effectively promote responsive and accountable governance met for three days in Rio de Janeiro. The objectives of the workshop were to both facilitate very practical sharing that addresses organizations’ specific needs and priorities, as well as to explore some broader ideas and challenges for the field. I put a few ideas on the table to start the conversation, both a discussion paper on what some of us are calling accountability ecosystems and a set of challenges and propositions about working more effectively on these issues.
After three days packed with lively discussion, collaborative thinking, and the sharing of many valuable insights and experiences, here are my initial impressions are around the limitations, but also the opportunities, for learning to make a real difference in this sector.
Learning is essential, but it’s no magic bullet
A comment made by one participant stuck with me throughout the workshop. This individual argued that there are contexts in which some of the approaches often employed in this sector are simply inadequate, and no amount of learning will refine them into something that works, unless we are ready to really challenge our core assumptions. In other words, there is a danger that we ‘add learning’ to existing approaches, like some technocratic social accountability strategies or short-term interventions to close the ‘feedback loop’, that are insufficient to really contribute to strengthening the accountability ecosystem in that particular context.
This reinforces the key ideas that I had hoped to put on the table with the initial inputs for the workshop, about addressing the complexities inherent in efforts to strengthen responsive and accountable governance, and how some of the approaches being pursued are still too narrow or simplistic. In the workshop we unpacked the analytical approaches to power and politics, strategies for coordinated engagement across the ecosystem, and complexities of really engaging with citizen organizations and movements, that suggest the kinds of efforts that can more effectively navigate and influence accountability ecosystems. Learning must then be a key component of such ecosystems approaches.
Not all learning is created equal
TALEARN has never been a celebration of all things learning, but rather a call to both learn more strategically and put our learning into practice, on an individual, organizational, and collective scale. This iteration of the TALEARN conversation was no different, and we hoped throughout the workshop to push our thinking towards the kind of learning that is useful for shaping strategies and practice in an ongoing manner, rather than figuring out ‘what works’ and proceeding to scale up through replication.
In the workshop, participants still challenged each other to go beyond learning as information sharing to learning that can drive real change. Some participants usefully differentiated between simple learning and more complex or adaptive learning. The former may focus on documentation, information sharing and/or impact evaluation (focusing on quantifying impact and proving what works) that does not inform strategy or practice in an ongoing and iterative way to enable navigation in complex systems. Adaptive learning, in contrast, involves more ‘real-time’ elements, spaces for reflection, an organizational culture of questions and exploration, and is more tightly integrated into decision-making processes around strategy and practice, within an organization and among actors with broadly shared goals.
The key reflection is that more is not necessarily better when it comes to learning. More simple learning – that is not tightly integrated into practice – will not help organizations navigate the complexities of accountability ecosystems.
But learning has never been more important
Learning has limitations, but it’s never been more important for those working towards more open and accountable governments. Meaningful lessons have emerged from efforts and approaches in this sector (see here here and here), yet many of these have been slow to be put into practice. Indeed, one researcher in this field agreed strongly with the challenges and propositions that framed the TALEARN workshop, but pointed out that these were not necessarily new and we needed to dig deeper and ask why there has been little progress in some areas. One area that exemplifies this is around technology for transparency and accountability, where the time is ripe for a more open and challenging conversation.
In the TALEARN workshop, participants observed that the conversation – and to a certain extent, practice – around learning has moved forward, but TALEARN needs to be a space for challenging and critiquing ourselves and each other (in the context of shared understanding and respect) if we are to continue to make advances. Participants repeated the unique opportunity to bring together practitioners, funders and researchers, but pushed us towards asking ourselves challenging questions to avoid preaching to the already converted. The opportunity of TALEARN, as one participant pointed out, is to bring together actors working across the accountability ecosystem in diverse contexts, and push our learning towards the approaches, capacities, and support required to meaningfully shift governance in these challenging situations.
I came away from this conversation encouraged. There is much, and more focused, learning to be done. But there is also a shared interest in engaging in meaningful and challenging learning across different actors in this sector. TALEARN participants are ready to both get more practical and specific in their learning – and show the impact it can have – and to push the conversation forward in the sector more broadly. In other words, the original spirit of TALEARN is alive and well, even as we celebrate advances and clarify potential obstacles going forward. I’m proud to be a member of this community and to have made some contribution to supporting and facilitating this important space.
More reflections on TALEARN can be found here.