Getting Strategic about Technology and Accountability: MAVC Learning and Inspiration Event in Manila

Two years ago, Jonathan Fox released a widely read and well-received paper looking at the evidence for citizen-led accountability.  In it, he noted the proliferation of short-term, isolated interventions that often focused information provision as a means to enable citizens and communities to ‘hold government to account’.  He labeled these as ‘tactical social accountability’.  This was contrasted with longer-term, multi-stranded, integrated approaches to promoting accountability, leveraging both citizens and state actors and mechanisms where possible.  Fox argued that the latter represent a more ‘strategic’ approach to citizen-led accountability.

A version of ‘tactical’ social accountability has been common among technology-focused initiatives, particularly those seeking to leverage ICTs (including MAVC) to improve governance.  Often referred to as ‘closing the feedback loop’, this category of projects often generates information from citizens about service provision and makes it available to decision makers and/or service providers (perhaps releasing the information publicly – particularly gaps or problems, and whether they have been resolved) to ‘nudge’ a positive response.  Some of us have been critical of the concept of ‘feedback loops’, believing this approach to responsive governance to be based on big assumptions about capacities, motivations and bottlenecks that don’t seem likely to hold in many contexts in which it was being applied.

I spent last week with staff and grantees of the Making All Voices Count program, at a learning event in Manila, and came away optimistic that practitioners are hungry for more ‘strategic’ thinking, even as a number of existing MAVC projects are still aimed at ‘closing the feedback loop’ in ways that are potentially problematic.  Along with Matt Leighninger and Joy Aceron, I was asked to come to Manila and share some ideas with MAVC grantees and staff to generate new thinking and reflection on the role of technology in advancing more responsive and accountable governance.  Coming just after the release of the most recent IDS Bulletin on “Opening Governance” (my reflections on moving from Open Government to Open Governance here), this was a chance to continue to engage with practitioners in thinking about how to move towards more holistic strategies.

Feedback Loops versus Accountability Ecosystems

In my session with grantees, I drew on recent research by Tiago Peixoto and Jonathan Fox examining the evidence for ICT-enabled platforms to ‘close the feedback loop’ (such as Fix My Street and Check My School) and framed it with the idea of an accountability ecosystem.

Peixoto and Fox found that ICT-platforms that collected information from citizens about service provision and presented it to decision makers rarely resulted in improved services.  When government actors did not have a pre-existing willingness (and capacity) to improve services, the availability of citizen-generated information about service needs or deficits did not lead them to make such changes, even when their inaction was publicized with a website showing reported service needs that had gone unattended.  To put it bluntly, most efforts to ‘close the feedback loop’ don’t actually close the loop.  Conversely, where government actors were interested in improving services, ICT-based platforms could provide them relevant information they could act upon.  In other words, ICT-based platforms don’t influence political will, but where such political will exists, can help decision makers act more effectively.

Peixoto and Fox used this evidence to explain how ICT platforms can strengthen certain kinds of accountability relationships, namely that of service providers to government policy makers or elected officials.  I expanded on this somewhat to encourage workshop participants to think about several accountability pathways and entry point for accountability involving citizens, service providers and government authorities, and how to ‘connect the dots’.  I used the framework of an ‘accountability ecosystem’ to introduce the idea of complex and dynamic accountability relationships that require approaches that are grounded in an analysis of politics and power, support collective action, leverage multiple tools and tactics, and integrate learning and adaptation; what could be called an ‘ecosystems approach’ to accountability.

Moving Towards more Strategic Use of ICTs

I attended the previous MAVC learning workshop almost two years ago, and came away with mixed feelings.  In that conversation there seemed to be a significant gap between emerging ideas about addressing accountability and the tech-focused approaches many MAVC grantees were proposing in their projects (my reflections on this event here, and those of a workshop organizer here), but at least the tension had been raised and acknowledged.  Yet in another Tech4Gov workshop last year, the focus was on sharing and improving tech and data solutions, with little reflection on the real challenges to tech-driven approaches.  Thus, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this next MAVC gathering.

But as I said, I left the MAVC workshop feeling more optimistic about the medium-term prospects of leveraging technology more strategically for citizen-led accountability.  The workshop itself allowed for and facilitated reflection and discussion by grantees about their work and how to contribute to more responsive and accountable governance.  Participants gravitated towards ideas and frameworks that suggested more strategic approaches, including thinking about accountability ecosystems.  In addition, they demonstrated a real interest in continued learning, both in their own organizations and projects, and for the field more broadly.

Fortunately, MAVC has a dedicated component that supports research and learning.  Importantly, while MAVC supports research into key questions related to the program’s core objectives, it also provides resources to grantees to bolster learning in their own work.  At the end of 2017, when MAVC comes to a close, it seems likely that the cumulative impact of this learning, both for individual organizations and for the sector more broadly, may well be the program’s most important legacy.

Yet learning is no silver bullet, and as one workshop organizer put it “the idea is not just to learn from our failures, but to fail less”.  This points to a tension between the insights and discussions in the MAVC learning event, and the manner in which MAVC supports change more directly, through short-term projects often focused on a specific ICT tool or platform.  Evidence suggests this approach is limited in terms of ‘opening up governance’, which requires more strategic and interconnected efforts that address the various pathways and entry points across the accountability ecosystem.

Many MAVC grantees in Manila seemed to recognize this, and for some organizations their MAVC grant was just one element of their broader (and more strategic) efforts, while for others much of their work was narrowly focused around a single technology and its application.  Even among this latter group, a few were building an ICT element that could contribute to a broader ecosystem, while others were deploying classic ‘feedback loop’ approaches.

This presents a final grand challenge for MAVC: applying the lessons that have emerged in this sector, and from the program itself, to move efforts to leverage technology for more open, responsive and accountable governance from the tactical to the strategic.  Indeed, this has always been the core test for MAVC.  There are practical limits to what the program can likely do differently over the next year and a half, but hopefully it will plant enough seeds (of evidence, practical learning, and a more nuanced discourse) so that the community is better equipped to pursue more strategic approaches in the future.

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