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This is the sixth and final installment of an Aspen Institute Communications and Society program series on equitable and accountable governance shared over a six-week period. The series draws on conversations from the 2013 Forum on Communications and Society to encourage constructive dialogue around open government.
Despite the great many initiatives taking root worldwide, the open government movement has yet to achieve its potential. Open data has been used toward civic ends for nearly a decade, yet its current focus appears disproportionately targeted towards improving the quotidian details of our lived experience. I’ll be the first to applaud the streamlining of public services, but a more efficient e-government is not the same as a more accountable open government.
In other words, enough with the gateway drugs. Let’s get to the hard stuff.
Let’s employ open government initiatives in service of scrutinizing special interests that undermine democracy. Let’s bring open government to bear on how campaign finance and electoral systems are considered by government. Let’s close the gap between what could be done in open government and what is being done.
To realize open government’s full potential, scale of adoption is required from both governments and citizens. To achieve scale of adoption, both sides require greater understanding of the full potential of open government.
It’s a classic chicken-and-egg challenge.
FOCAS 2013 participants agreed that establishing larger awareness of open government’s benefits among both government and citizens is a critical next step.
“Government officials need more success stories,” said Kathy Conrad of the US General Services Administration. “Before they invest, they want more proof beyond the same examples they hear all the time.”
Still, given the relative youth of open government, many initiatives struggle to demonstrate the kind of cost-benefit that public agencies or international donors seek. According to Tiago Peixoto of the World Bank, “[Public sector] funders may think a certain open government initiative shows promise, but they need to first understand the return-on-investment.”
Here, civic entrepreneurs have a role to play. “There are many conversations in government about what’s possible [in open government], and prototypes can help crystallize those opportunities,” said Nick Sinai of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “That’s where outside partners can add value.”
Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation agreed. She stressed the value of civic entrepreneurs who, compared to government, are more nimble and have greater freedom to experiment—critical factors in creative problem solving. “In the early days [of open government], we didn’t fully recognize the importance of entrepreneurs to advancing open government. Today, it’s clear. The depth of [civic entrepreneurship] will be the source of innovation.”
But mission-driven entrepreneurs often have a tough time attracting funding, given private investors’ limited understanding of the open government space.
“Venture capitalists and others that fund small companies need to be educated about the potential of open data,” said Caitria O’Neill of Recovers.org. “They want proprietary data, and the concept of open data is anathema to them.”
For open government to move forward, perceptions need to change.
“Part of our work is changing perceptions of what open data is and what it can do,” said ODI’s Gavin Starks at FOCAS. “We want to show how data can help solve problems—it doesn’t matter the sector. We need global momentum from global stories that drive awareness about open data and push for standards.”
ODI’s initiatives are diverse in focus and take many forms. It established a physical hub to give London’s open data community a gathering place. It curates resources to share knowledge about what works—and what doesn’t—when publishing and consuming open data. It commissions open data-driven artwork. And it seeks to encourage shared standards and professionalize practitioners through certification.
To demonstrate open data’s value to a wider audience, ODI’s Open Corporates illustrated the complexity, and potentially dubious practices, of well-known multinationals. It showed, for example, that Goldman Sachs consists of over 4,000 corporate entities globally, some of which are 10 layers removed from its US headquarters. Of those entities, approximately one-third are registered in tax havens. The campaign generated popular interest, including media coverage from Wired, the London Evening Standard and BoingBoing. As ODI’s Sir Nigel Shadboldt explained, to capture popular interest, we first need relatable narratives.
“From early on, we believed that demonstrating economic value was going to be important for the open data movement. This, in turn, would help drive social and environmental value,” said Shaboldt at FOCAS. “For open data to gain traction in the mainstream, we needed compelling stories to increase depth of impact and capture people’s imaginations to envision change.”
So far, ODI’s model seems to be working: 25 countries are seeking to establish their own national chapter, as part of ODI’s vision of a Global Open Network.
FOCAS participants saw the benefits of a US chapter of ODI to promote open data culture among key audiences, including the public sector; support professionalization of the field; and encourage dialogue and coordination between diverse actors.
Much like how Red Hat became the ‘missing’ salespeople for open source software, ODI USA would help prime and educate the market. Activities to help advance open government may include working closely with government officials to understand their current challenges, then to design and implement initiatives that help address them using open government principles or tools. Or helping journalists understand the potential of open data for public benefit and sharing these stories with their readers. Or educating funders about what open data is and what it can do to enable informed, strategic investments.
At FOCAS, several participants, led by open government technologist Waldo Jaquith, signed on to lead the development of ODI USA. They have already begun mapping their plans, answer questions such as: What can be adapted from the UK model and what needs to be different? Where would the US chapter’s efforts be most effectively allocated? What impact can it have on open government in America?
As the open government community works to educate diverse audiences on the potential of inclusive, transparent government, we must also ensure that not only are we preaching accountability, but we are practicing it, too. Since its inception, many have questioned the viability and utility of open government. For all the tools, commitments, and initiatives, how do we ensure they actually achieve their intended impact?
In 2001, political scientist Archon Fung and sociologist Erik Olin Wright questioned the sustainability of participatory governance models. Empowered, deliberative governance is an innovative approach, they believed, but is yet historically unproven. And based on their survey of initiatives at the time, they warned of unintended consequences: “[O]ne might expect that practical demands on [public] institutions might press participants eventually to abandon time-consuming deliberative decision making in favor of oligarchic or technocratic forms. […] After participants have plucked the ‘low-hanging fruit,’ these forms might again ossify into the very bureaucracies that they sought to replace. Or, ordinary citizens may find the reality of participation increasingly burdensome and less rewarding than they had imagined, and engagement may consequently dim from exhaustion and disillusionment.”
In 2007, civic technologist Guglielmo Celata, in reflecting on his Italian e-democracy site Openpolis, noted, “Administrators are interested in e-participation projects, but they want to reduce the possibility of issues emerging directly from citizens, and of course they try to change the nature of the project from a participative one, into a consultative one. A kind of Poll 2.0, if one wants to be cynical.”
From 2007 to 2013, a study from Spain showed that in many participatory governance initiatives, municipal governments simply cherrypick citizen proposals that reinforce the existing positions of political parties, special interest groups, or vetted experts. Other studies have reached similar conclusions: Initiatives are often designed to prevent citizens from freely providing input, only allowing them to choose from proposals already deemed agreeable.
And, in 2013, early reflections on Liberia’s Open Budget Initiative—one of its Open Government Partnership commitments—were not particularly encouraging. Under the Initiative, the Ministry of Finance had set up an electronic billboard outside its office in Monrovia as a bold symbol of openness. Yet several key aspects of the country’s budgets, including government compensation, remain in closed cabinets.
Of course, in discussing open government, we must steer clear of employing false binaries: A government is open or closed. A program is a success or a failure. But we should remember that the way an initiative is designed can help or hinder citizens’ ability to input on the processes of governance, a state’s ability to meaningfully respond, and our collective ability to ensure the initiative’s accountability. If we are to realize the potential of open government, we must be sensitive to these realities.
So as we continue to secure commitments, build tools, and launch programs, let us make sure we hold ourselves accountable for their impact on human livelihoods.
Yes, the open government community is still experimenting. But we must be thoughtful and intentional in our experimentation. We should first clearly define our goals and assess our progress towards them so that, as a movement, we can understand how to build upon our successes and learn from our failures. We should be honest in recognizing our biases to enable our own accountability to those we seek to serve. We should be sensitive to the needs of citizens and governments alike, and design solutions that meet the needs of both and don’t place unreasonable demands on either. And, as noted in this post, we need more widespread understanding of the benefits of open government before we can realize its potential.
The conversations at FOCAS 2013 were positive steps in this direction. Here’s to citizens and civil society, entrepreneurs and technologists, venture capitalists and international donors, and governments the world over collaborating to advance equitable, accountable governance.
This is the fifth installment of an Aspen Institute Communications and Society program series on equitable and accountable governance to be shared over a six-week period. The series draws on conversations from the 2013 Forum on Communications and Society to encourage constructive dialogue around open government.
Bemoaning government ineptitude is a popular pastime. There are times when it feels justified, but usually it just reveals our lack of understanding on how government works.
“Where are the public sector Foursquares and Twitters?” we ask. “Why hasn’t anyone developed a Kickstarter for government?”
The way the public sector is structured hugely constrains government’s ability to do so.
Rather than assuming what government officials are like and pontificating about why they are resistant to change, FOCAS 2013 participants—which included US and former UK government officials at the national, state, and local level—sought to understand their unique challenges.
“[In the private sector,] venture capital provides a dynamic and readily available source of funding to seed innovative initiatives,” explains management professor Sanford Borins, “while compensation through share ownership enables startup firms, their investors, their employees and, increasingly, their suppliers to reap large financial rewards from this activity.”
Compare this with the public sector where funding comes from legislative appropriations, civil servants don’t receive equity, and bonuses are comparatively tiny. Also in the public sector, the costs of failure—so often hailed by the private sector as a necessary step towards success—are unbearable. In a cutthroat political climate and unforgiving media culture, one misstep can end a career.
In short: the carrots are non-existent and the sticks are omnipresent. Put in their shoes, would you be able to ‘innovate’?
“We need to recognize the constraints that [civil servants] face and the culture that has been drilled into them: Minimize risks. A procurement officer’s job is to dot i’s and cross t’s,” said Clay Johnson of The Department of Better Technology at FOCAS. “Government is risk-averse for good reason. We’ve given it the responsibility of protecting taxpayers’ dollars.”
Despite the norms of conservatism, there are ways to enable new ways of thinking and doing. To do so, we must first understand how each government culture works. Just like with “citizens” and “communities”, “government” is not homogenous either.
The Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, recognized to be among the most innovative city governments in the United States, is a unique case. Susan Crawford recently studied the Office to try and dissect what made it so successful.
The secret sauce: leadership and people.
In an era where governments are eager to embrace the latest civic app, Boston Mayor Tom Menino favored human touch over high tech. He long refused to permit voicemail use in City Hall, because he didn’t want Bostonians to get an automatic response when they called. He opted out of adopting the standard, three-digit “311” number for his city services hotline—instead staying with the ten-digit 617-635-4500—because “311 sounded too bureaucratic…faceless.”
But each government institution has its own personalities, dynamics, and idiosyncrasies. What works in one place may not work in another. FOCAS participant Story Bellows of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics said her Office only gained credibility among other city agencies when it was selected a winner in the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge. While it had always had the support of the mayor, the internal institutional validation that was needed to get other agencies engaged only came with this badge of external recognition.
“Buy-in at the top was necessary but insufficient,” said Bellows. “Given the risks associated with doing things differently, we needed external validation of our ideas.”
Of course, not all cities are lucky enough to have Offices of New Urban Mechanics or Chief Innovation Officers. Some cities, as Caitria O’Neill of Recovers.org reminded us at FOCAS, only have Earl the Webmaster. And even if Earl had the time and technical skills, what would be his incentive to try and “open” his local government.
“In small communities, nothing hinders them from implementing open data,” said O’Neill, “but nothing encourages them or facilitates it either.”
At FOCAS, John Bracken of the Knight Foundation noted that several participants were “insider/outsiders”. These are individuals who had worked in government but were now outside, or former corporate or non-profit types that had recently joined government. He encouraged the group to use these unique perspectives to understand how we can enable government innovation. But given the diversity of institutional environments, political will, and resource availability, perhaps we should stop trying to create the perfect conditions for innovation. Rather, perhaps we should empower individuals within government to shape their environments to be more conducive to innovation.
“We haven’t yet had a conscious effort toward helping those working on the inside,” he observed. “How can we find mid-level managers and highlight their work? Can we help accelerate what they are doing by providing support and activating our and their networks?”
With these thoughts, the Government Innovator Cohorts concept was born. The program would support civil servants with a track record in driving public sector innovation. Ideally, fellows would be long-term civil servants that have both executive visibility and operational resources. Short-term political appointees would not be eligible, as they are typically installed to implement a new policy or mandate, and therefore likely to already have high-level support and ready resources.
Selected fellows would be giving skills training in technical (e.g. how to design effective programs), institutional (e.g. how to gain political cover), and managerial (e.g. how to implement public sector change) areas. The curriculum, however, while useful, may not be the key benefit of the Cohort program.
Several FOCAS participants had participated in similar programs. Andrea Saenz of Chicago Public Library is a Broad Residency alum and Jessica Lord of Github and Max Ogden are both former Code for America fellows. All confirmed that the greatest value of their respective fellowship programs was the peer support networks they gained. As Cohort fellows continue in their public service careers, having a network of like-minded peers with whom they can brainstorm, celebrate, and commiserate could be invaluable.
Many open government initiatives are driven by empowered citizens and civil society. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. But there is often an implicit negative bias against government in these initiatives.
In Dave Eggers’ “The Circle”, the main character, Mae, creates Demoxie, a platform where critical society questions are decided by citizen votes. She reflects on her creation: “[Mae] thought of that painting of the Constitutional Convention, all those men in powdered wigs and waistcoats, standing stiffly, all of them wealthy white men who were only passably interested in representing their fellow humans. They were purveyors of an innately flawed kind of democracy, where only the wealthy were elected, where their voices were heard loudest, where they passed their seats in Congress to whatever similarly entitled person they deemed appropriate. There had been some incremental improvements in the system since then, maybe, but Demoxie would explode it all. Demoxie was purer, was the only chance at direct democracy the world had ever known.”
The prose is eerily reminiscent of some of the narrative surrounding open government, rhetoric that serves demand-side goals well. This is narrative that unites organizers, motivates citizens, and attracts funding. This is also a narrative that can ultimately undermine open government.
In democratic societies, citizens select leaders for their vision and their perceived ability to implement those visions. In electing these leaders, citizens also entrust them to act in their best interest over the course of their term. Open government initiatives have the potential to displace a leader’s medium- and long-term plans for the needs of a loud and organized few.
In Uganda, the monitoring of elected community leaders has shown mixed results. On the one hand, some monitoring incentivizes leaders to work harder for their constituents. Too much, however, and competent, effective leaders quit.
As we work toward equitable, accountable governance, we need to balance between demanding transparency and participation and allowing our governments to do what we elected them to do. And we need to ensure our push for “open government” does not lead us down a path where competent leaders with technical expertise and long-term vision are upended by the immediate whims and desires of a small, elite faction. Otherwise, we’re right back to the image of the Constitutional Convention described by Eggers’ protagonist.
Recently I’ve fielded questions from several actors across the international development sector who are wondering what this whole “design” thing is about. The frameworks and concepts of human-centered design are increasingly finding a toehold. They haven’t been fully embraced yet, but there’s a lot of interest in how they might be utilized.
Of course, design thinking is still met with skepticism in parts of the development sector—and for good reason. High-profile examples of flashy gadgets like PlayPumps, SOCCKET and OLPC (especially in its early versions) rankle professionals in the development sector. Indeed, there’s much to scoff at when design is done poorly: by designers far removed from the end-users and their context, but nonetheless filled with assumptions about local needs, and funded by other outsiders who are more enamored with flashy technology than practical solutions. That’s a recipe for failure.
However, we’re starting to see that skepticism subside as the relevance of good, thoughtful design becomes clearer. I’ll admit to being a relatively recent convert myself. As I talk with think tankers and academics, practitioners and policymakers, I’m hearing that the frameworks resonate for two major reasons.
First, design research is inherently multidisciplinary. That makes it well-suited to complex problems that refuse to fit in easy boxes. When done well, it draws out a nuanced understanding of people and their contexts. This characteristic has allowed design to find relevance in a number of sectors. In development, where complexity and wicked problems loom large, the thinking provides a useful alternative to disciplinary silos.
Second, and even more important for development, the human-centered elements of design provide a critical counterbalance to the donor-driven incentives that often result in terrible development practice. The development sector faces countless systemic challenges resulting from the fact that funding comes from one place, while services or products go someplace else. This necessarily draws a strong accountability line away from those who are meant to benefit from the work. Design methods provide mechanisms for keeping our analytical focus on end-users, for operationalizing the empathy that we already feel, and for communicating the findings in a compelling (but still nuanced) way to donors or other outsiders.
These aspects mean that design can directly address some of the sector’s biggest challenges. As we’re starting to see more successful applications of design in development—such as institutional ethnography to understand service providers or iterative user testing for mobile applications—the sector is responding.
When talking with other development professionals, I try to include a word of caution: design thinking is no silver-bullet (nothing is) and it’s not magic. We consider it to be one tool in a larger kit. You can’t just sprinkle magic design dust on a problem and see it go away. But if you bring it to bear in the right ways, you just might unlock some insights and opportunities that were otherwise obscured.
P.S. Want to help us bring thoughtful design principles to development? We’re hiring.
Are we falling into a ‘buzzword trap’ around failure?
Events like FAILFaire, platforms like Admitting Failure, and publications such as Stanford Social Innovation Review’s What Didn’t Work series are proving the old adage “failure is not an option” obsolete. We are recognizing that without failure, we lose the opportunity to learn why something didn’t work—“success goes to the head, but losing goes to the heart.” Failure hits hard and the knowledge we gain from it motivates change.
But while these events and platforms offer invaluable opportunities to open up about failure, how do we harness these discussions on failure to produce failure-informed change?
At FAILFaire, representatives from organizations ranging from UN agencies to social enterprises, media start-ups to design firms exposed their biggest project scaling failures in a 1-hour “Fail Slam”. Some used humor to make it bearable; others embodied the deep frustration failure has caused.
Most of the presentations fell into two general categories. In the first, speakers outlined the program, the failure, and the change that increased success. While helpful, these presentations were most useful for people working in a specific sector or geographic region. Jeff Chapin of CommonMade, for example, talked about his work with IDEO scaling up sales operations for latrine projects in Cambodia. He recognized failure in a sales model centered around Cambodian village health workers and reworked the model—as much as possible given funding constraints—to prioritize training and sustainability.
The second category of speakers focused on insufficient attention and funding from large donor organizations. Tala Dowlatshahi shared her main lessons on how to get attention based on her experience running Reporters Uncensored RUTV broadcasts on poverty and war. “Sex up content as much as possible, with celebrities, etc.,” she suggested to increase viewership. The co-founder of another organization had similar advice: “If you have Matt Damon talking about it, that’s success. That’s sexy.”
Across the board, discussions circled back time and again to deficiencies and constraints in our current systems: lack of attention from donors and intended audiences; inflexible donor funding structures and bureaucracies; the need to “work the system” with sex appeal or whatever is necessary to gain support.
Sexy sells, we know that. But sexy is not a solution.
The overwhelming focus of these discussions on ‘selling’ programs within existing structures trades short-term success for long-term failure because it concedes to the unresponsive systems that are at the root of the problem. Can we use knowledge from our failures to target the heart of the problem: the unresponsive systems themselves?
This is no doubt a far more intimidating challenge. As Jeff said, “We need a change in the system and I don’t know what that is.” FAILFaire is a positive step in this direction by providing a platform to talk openly and humbly about failure. As a next step, inviting program donor counterparts—large organization and government representatives—to engage in the discussion could help change the behavior of donors toward failure and the associated risks. More targeted discussion questions could help us go beyond frustration and placing blame to changing incentives and behaviors that aren’t currently serving those they should be.
Looking forward, let’s capitalize even further on opportunities like FAILFaire to discuss how we can begin to change the systems that enable our failures in the first place.
This is the fourth installment of an Aspen Institute Communications and Society program series on equitable and accountable governance to be shared over a six-week period. The series draws on conversations from the 2013 Forum on Communications and Society to encourage constructive dialogue around open government.
Among open government practitioners, The Citizen is a beloved topic of conversation. We love to talk about how The Citizen is frustrated, how The Citizen should be empowered, and—our favorite—how The Citizen will rise up to solve The Challenge.
But who are these mythical citizens? And, more importantly, what are they frustrated about, how will they be empowered and why on earth do they want to rise up to solve what problem?
At FOCAS 2013, Bryan Sivak of the US Department of Health and Human Services advocated for a more nuanced definition of ‘citizen’: “The term ‘citizen’ needs to be much more fragmented. For them to be an effective part of the open government process and to participate in enabling a cultural shift toward open government, we need greater definition and segmentation.”
Indeed, “citizens” and “communities” are not homogeneous groups. Each citizen or community has distinct aspirations, capacities, and constraints. To develop open government initiatives that citizens find useful, we must start with a more sophisticated understanding of those we seek to serve.
Open government, at its core, believes that citizens care about shaping the processes and outcomes of governance. Is this true?
A study on political engagement in the UK found that 86 percent of respondents believed political processes were in need of reform. Yet of the reform ideas they proposed, only 16 percent of respondents mentioned giving regular people a greater say in politics. While people want improved governance, they don’t necessarily want to be involved in improving it.
Around the world, evidence of citizen appetite for open government values is spotty. Recent Globalbarometer surveys show declining support for democracy throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and the former Soviet Union. Even in Latin America, often touted as a hotbed of civic innovation, surveys found that 54 percent of respondents in the region preferred democracy to other forms of government, and only 28 percent were “fairly” or “very satisfied” with the characteristics of democracy. In many countries, including OGP countries Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Mexico, either a minority or a small majority of people believe democracy is preferable to other forms of government.
Of course, variable faith in democracy does not mean a lack of support for democratic principles. But it does call into question our assumptions about citizen engagement in open government initiatives.
Surely, plenty of organizations have tried, but often they leave something to be desired.
Take the World Bank, for example, which has been committed to open data initiatives since its first Apps for Development Challenge three years ago. Then-President Robert Zoellick urged entrants to “help change the world by using the World Bank’s data collection to help find solutions to today’s development challenges.” Bank staff wanted to “build really useful applications addressing local problems.”
The winning app produces interactive visualizations of World Bank data. Second place was an app that measures progress towards the MDGs, and shows how events like war impact such progress. And taking third place was a tool that enabled people to rank different countries by their personal prioritization of development indicators. While the tools were useful, it’s unclear how they would “address local problems” for citizens in developing countries.
The Bank has tried to improve the accessibility of its tools to diverse user groups. One example is its flagship mobile apps, which lists the World Bank’s portfolio of projects, finances, and procurement data. The app is free, works without a data connection, and is available in nine languages on both the iOS and Android platforms.
That’s the good news.
The bad news? It is 30MB. In Nigeria, a country where over 60 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, the app would cost about USD 3 to download. Accessibility is also limited by the fact that projects are listed by their Bank code, rather than program name. If a user searched for “Fadama”, an agricultural subsidy program with signs all over Nigeria, they would get a blank screen. Only by scrolling through all of the Bank’s listed projects in the country can a user find Fadama. And project finances are categorized as IBRD Loans, IDA Credits, and IDA Grants, without sufficient granularity to be useful to a budget monitoring activist or a community leader. In short, the app’s design limits its ability to “transform the experience of being an engaged citizen.”
No company worth its salt hawking a new product would claim “the consumer” as its market, and with good reason. A company has clear incentives to know exactly which consumers are going to buy which products through which channels. No market intelligence means no sale and no company. Granted, government agencies are obviously without these same incentives but the absence of market intelligence on the citizens that may use or benefit from an open government initiative yields the same results: no uptake and no open government.
Companies are also skilled in attracting and retaining users. They don’t take any user for granted. They design interactions and experiences that engage and delight, and they use sophisticated analytics to ensure their strategies are paying off. When they don’t, they change course.
Open government initiatives would do well to learn from them.
Fortunately, open government initiatives are increasingly attuned to citizen needs and behaviors. Outline, currently in beta, is a public policy simulator that allows citizens to better understand how government budgets and policies will impact them individually. For example, a household can visualize how a tax cut will affect its income or how a new healthcare bill may impact its health insurance costs. Outline pulls data from the Internal Revenue Service, the Census Bureau, and other government agencies and puts that data in context for regular people.
CivOmega is also trying to make open government less obtuse and more useful for people. This initiative allows people to ask questions about government in plain English—for example, “What bills did Eric Cantor sponsor?”—and provides users with answers, pulled from multiple open government datasets.
It’s no Siri just yet, but it’s a start.
Usability challenges include rigid syntax requirements for user queries. “What bills has Eric Cantor sponsored?” is incomprehensible. But the CivOmega team hopes to change that soon by incorporating natural language processing to enable a more intuitive user experience.
Ideas in Practice: The Public Experience Network
The Public Experience Network (PEN), a concept proposed at FOCAS, is a step in the right direction. The premise: many of today’s problems require collaboration beyond government and every citizen has some untapped expertise. So, let’s bring citizen expertise into government to help tackle public sector challenges.
This idea itself is not revolutionary. More interesting, however, was that not once were the words “crowdsourcing” or “new platform” uttered in the concept development conversation. Rather, FOCAS participants spoke of people they knew who might participate in such a program. They wanted to know why and how they might participate, and how government could keep them engaged.
Mark Meckler of Citizens for Self Governance described a friend who was passionate about mountain biking and would be eager to help design and maintain state parks. Alissa Black of the New America Foundation shared the story of an elderly African-American woman in California who had despised government all her life, but when asked to join in a citizen consultation program by her city, she became its most enthusiastic participant. Turns out all she had wanted was for government to ask for her opinion.
Once we understand who the users are, what they care about, and what their lives are like, we could then understand how to work with them. PEN would start by building a network of citizen experts through referrals who would be engaged in specific and discrete tasks relevant to their stated expertise. Participation incentives would be tailored to citizens’ unique motivations. Once the pilot is successful, PEN would experiment with how technology may support or extend existing processes. For example, both government offices and citizens could rate interactions they have with each other so reputations can be a part of structuring assignments.
So we’ve agreed to design solutions that suit citizen needs. But should average citizens be our target user? It depends.
Citizens don’t always have the means, technical skills, or motivation to participate in an open government initiative. Take, for example, Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. Nearly 100 countries have implemented such laws, but their utility and impact have been hard to measure. Filing requests can be cumbersome and time-consuming, meaning citizens often tire of trying. Well-resourced corporations are instead the beneficiaries of FOI. Would resources be better spent helping the average citizen navigate FOI procedures, or would they be better put towards enabling journalists who have the professional motivation to chase hard-to-get data and the technical training to put it into context.
“It’s not enough to give people access to information,” said Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune at FOCAS. “We need intermediaries, such as journalists, to help citizens interpret information and to enable them to be able to act on information.”
Pierre Omidyar agrees. The eBay and Omidyar Network founder launched the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest after he learned that government agencies routinely rejected journalists’ requests for reports, documents, and other information. The Center provides free legal help to journalists seeking to advance open government. His recent investigative journalism venture—founded with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill—is another vote for the role of journalists in ensuring citizens are able to benefit from open government, and governments are held to account for their promises.
Last month, Transparency International (TI) released The Global Corruption Report: Education. A corresponding World Bank blog post, written by one of the report’s contributors, poses the question at the heart of the report’s teacher absenteeism section: How can we help the “real losers…[the] students who yearn for an education but end up receiving no instruction?”
Both the report and the post share findings from multiple countries and discuss increasing monitoring and furthering research to decrease teacher absenteeism, one of the “most serious forms of corruption in education.”
Insights from the TI report include: absences often originate from inefficiency or corruption “upstream”; higher salaries don’t equate higher performance; supervision and disciplinary action could help reduce corruption; and, finally, these systems are failing children.
All of the above are true and worth noting.
But what is less clear in the World Bank post, and underrepresented in the TI report, is the fact that these systems are failing teachers, too.
Teachers stand in the line of fire. They are a highly visible bridge between policy and implementation, an easy scapegoat for underperforming education systems.
Addressing teacher absenteeism requires first understanding the teacher experience. As mentioned in TI’s report, understanding why teachers are absent, and the motivations behind their behavior, is crucial to making improvements. “Sanctioned” and “unsanctioned” absences are less black and white when we understand the pressures teachers face from governments, education boards, inspectors, families, students, parents, and countless others.
We recently came across this question within our portfolio of work in Nigeria. Since the 1970s, Nigeria has sought to provide universal primary education. But misalignments in political incentives, inconsistent lines of accountability, and marginal consequences for failed service delivery have all conspired to reduce the impact of this policy aspiration.
To better understand the causes of teacher absenteeism, we employed qualitative methods to understand the historical, cultural, and institutional factors that surrounded the issue. We engaged diverse stakeholders—from teachers and parents to community leaders and policymakers—both in schools and in their surrounding communities.
We found that a range of historical and systemic challenges within the education sector contribute to low teacher performance and absenteeism. These inefficiencies have left teachers as bystanders—instead of active participants—in the education system.
Public perceptions present one disabling cultural norm. Teaching has come to be viewed as an ‘all-comers job’, widely perceived as a career for second-rate civil servants. Those that choose it do so not out of desire, but out of necessity or convenience. Many teachers feel disrespected and unsupported, and they believe the education system places unrealistic expectations on them.
In terms of technical enablers for performance, teacher training—both preparatory and in-service—is ad-hoc, uncoordinated, and perceived as inequitably distributed. There is a gap between theory and practice in the responsibility for training, leaving teachers scrambling for information, resources, and organized support. The result is low morale among teachers. Combined with a lack of effective teacher management and oversight, these factors lead to high absenteeism and subpar performance.
The policy environment is also understood to place constraints on teacher performance. School assignments are perceived to be opaque and inequitable. When teachers are required to take postings in rural regions far from their families, this lack of inclusion and openness generates frustration and backlash. As one secondary school teacher told us, “I’ve been posted to this village for 14 years, but I know a teacher in [a city] that’s been able to hold on to her post for 24 years! Why can’t I request a similar posting or at least have the chance to rotate among areas?” Once assigned to a new posting, teachers must report for duty within one week, even if the new posting is in a distant, unfamiliar location. It is up to them to determine how they manage the impact of reassignment on their personal life. As a result, they feel powerless and demoralized.
The impacts of inconsistent public financial management also influence the classroom environment, a key aspect of the learning experience. Variable access to key resources poses challenges to teachers that constrain their technical ability to deliver and degrades softer aspects of performance accountability. When payroll is inconsistently met, some local administrators opt for staffing plans that optimize consistency over quality, resulting in some schools having student-teacher ratios as high as 100 to 1. When resources aren’t available for school inspectors, the dis-incentive for absenteeism is also reduced. It’s a two-way street: absences on one end influence performance on the other.
This is not to say that teachers hold none of the responsibility for teacher absenteeism. But our look at absenteeism in at least one region of Nigeria suggests that the accountability systems and improvements to institutional discipline desired in these reports are not addressing the nuanced drivers of this complex problem. While penalizing teachers may yield short-term improvements in teacher attendance, our research found that teachers actually perform better when they feel respected by their administrators and public audiences. Improving teacher performance is likely to require administrative systems that value the inputs of teachers as much as third-party evidence on their performance.
The TI report also acknowledged this viewpoint. Though it did not prioritize it against considerations of corruption, it noted:
“The social role and value of the school and teacher must be placed at the forefront of education policy and anti-corruption efforts. Teachers are often the first targets of corruption allegations, but this is often the result of corruption at the higher level and nonpayment of salaries or simple undervaluation of teachers. National policy-makers should understand the teacher as a role model and the school as a microcosm of society and train teachers to teach by example.”
If we want to help the students, we’ll need to understand and value teachers just as much.
If this is a defensible policy position, perhaps the question we should be asking is: how can our education systems positively reinforce responsible behavior among teachers and motivate them based on personal incentives? Initiatives focused on improving the performance of the education sector would do well by identifying interventions that: i) support teachers’ access to professional development; ii) inclusiveness and participation in key administrative decisions regarding assignments and tenure; and iii) levels of cultural validation for the importance of quality education in local communities. An approach that values the service providers as much as the service beneficiaries may provide unexpected gains to the opportunities presented to willing learners.
This is the third installment of an Aspen Institute Communications and Society program series on equitable and accountable governance to be shared over a six-week period. The series draws on conversations from the 2013 Forum on Communications and Society to encourage constructive dialogue around open government.
The central irony of open government is that it’s often not “open” at all. For all the talk of technology’s broad and inclusive reach, conversations on open government are dominated by those with the means to participate. In one Italian parliamentary monitoring project, participants were mostly men (84 percent) and 3,500 times more likely to hold a PhD than the average citizen. The priorities raised, as a result, represent the views of a narrow and elite group of citizens.
At FOCAS 2013, Kelly Born of the Hewlett Foundation asked attendees, which included senior executives from the Sunlight Foundation, the White House, and the Open Data Institute, “Is this [group of FOCAS participants] the right group of people to set goals for open government? Where are the citizens in this process?”
The practical result of those with power, privilege, and access tinkering for solutions while large citizen segments remain uninvolved is that open government initiatives are clouded by our own biases and tunnel vision.
We seek open government of the people, by the people, for the people—not open government by some people for some other people. To ensure open government does not become a hollow buzzword and lives up to the promise of its name, we need to recognize and address our biases.
With technology as such an obvious and visible driver of open government, the space is dominated by technologists with novel and creative ways to use their skills in the service of the public good. Gaps in their logic are given short shrift, as catapulting toward innovation is far more exciting than deliberating about unintended consequences. Hype-mongers and innovation-hawkers don’t help. And so government officials and civil society groups have been seduced by technology, by its novelty, and its capacity to relieve them from the hard work they have typically done toward social change.
While technologists’ passion has energized open government efforts and given them purpose, it has also left them willfully blind to alternative viewpoints. Do citizens and governments actually want this stuff?
“There seems to be an underlying premise [among the open government community] that government is open to being open,” said Mark Meckler of Citizens for Self-Governance at FOCAS. “But many governments are reluctant. We need to recognize this.”
Instead, technologists have often equated embrace of technology with embrace of open government.
Take Kenya, oft-celebrated as an open government success. Two years ago, the government launched the Kenya Open Data Initiative. At the launch, President Mwai Kibaki said, “I also call upon Kenyans to make use of this Government Data Portal to enhance accountability and improve governance in our country. Indeed, data is the foundation of improving governance and accountability. . . . This way the people can hold government service providers accountable for the use of public resources.”
In that same year, however, at least 28 journalists were threatened or attacked by government bodies for their coverage of state corruption. And today, the country is considering legislation that would further tighten media regulation—already described by local journalists as “emasculating.”
A technocentric view means that as long as a government embraces new technologies, releases some datasets, and makes high-profile commitments to the international community, it is a card-carrying member of the open government community. Whether the government actually allows its citizens to freely and openly use open data is apparently irrelevant.
So what does it mean that 62 countries have joined the Open Government Partnership? On its own, not much. To move beyond our biases, we need to stop chasing white whales and refocus our thinking toward a more humble target.
“New techniques, not just new technologies, are important in advancing open government innovation,” noted Andrew Stott of the UK Transparency Board. He should know. Stott led the work to open up UK government data and create Data.gov.uk. And in his experience, the means are just as important as the ends.
Innovation is, very simply, “a new method, idea or product.” Approaches to innovation should differ based on when, where, and how that innovation is expected to have an impact. Leading CEOs advise against blindly pursuing breakthrough innovation—in many contexts, incremental innovation is the better option.
According to Karl Ulrich, Wharton’s innovation guru, “A lot of companies suffer from intense organizational angst that they are not pursuing radical innovations, the seeds of future growth. This angst is largely misplaced. Most investment in innovation can and should be made in incremental innovation—delivering solutions to customers that are better, faster, and cheaper.”
In the context of risk-averse governments, slow-and-steady innovation indeed seems like a better option.
Incremental innovation demands a more grounded look at a system as it currently exists and an understanding of where concrete wins can occur within that system. In a nutshell: let’s stop trying to build the open government house of the future and refocus our efforts toward fixing the plumbing in the house that we have.
As Michael Maness of the Knight Foundation reminded FOCAS participants, “A lot of the most important opportunities in open government are detailed or mundane. How can we focus on energies towards seizing those opportunities?”
The winners of the recent Knight News Challenge on Open Gov are indicative of the kind of innovations we need: those that look beyond technology and those that focus on the “plumbing” of open government.
Open Gov for the Rest of Us is an engagement campaign that helps enable Chicago’s low-income communities to take advantage of open government tools by providing training on computer skills and data literacy.
At FOCAS, Taryn Roch of OpenGov4Us explained her team’s motivation to found the program: “We were frustrated by the open government’s movement on technologists, and asked, ‘Can citizens be at the center of this?’ OpenGov4Us is about citizen engagement. Technology was just a starting point.”
The campaign hopes that its work will allow diverse and often under-represented communities to help shape Chicago’s open government priorities. Its users, for example, have surfaced unmet data needs that are relevant to them—datasets on immigration and foreclosure. And as most of OpenGov4Us participants are Latino or African-American, who rely on mobile internet more than white Americans, they also seek tools that are mobile-friendly.
On the government side, GitMachines is building infrastructure to enable open government. A lot of open government software is under-adopted because installation is too difficult for public sector agencies. “We are trying to establish digital, networked bureaucracies, but the regulations and policies they must follow were written before we actually knew the potential of open data,” said founder Greg Elin at FOCAS. “The open government community must first develop systems that lower the barrier to entry so that governments and more people can participate.”
Procuring, installing, and running the secure servers necessary for any open government initiative is both a challenge and a risk, and many government IT staff have neither the expertise nor the administrative authorization to do so. As the CIO of the US Federal Communications Commission, Elin saw these challenges firsthand. His solution, GitMachines, allows government agencies to download pre-configured virtual machines tailored to open government projects. This can dramatically lower the IT operational costs of open government projects while also making them more robust in terms of security and compliance.
No doubt, this is work that lacks the marketing value of popular app contests, the adrenaline rush of hackathons, or the sex appeal of nation-states joining hands in a 21st-century League of (Open) Nations. New tools, collaborative innovation, and visionary ambition are all necessary. But so are the building blocks required to enable their adoption and realization.
For open government to succeed, we must look beyond our own biases to the world outside of open government advocates and technologist dreamers. Let’s not forget about the mundane in our drive toward the divine.
This is the second installment of an Aspen Institute Communications and Society program series on equitable and accountable governance to be shared over a six-week period. The series draws on conversations from the 2013 Forum on Communications and Society to encourage constructive dialogue around open government.
What is “open government”? The question is deceivingly difficult to answer.
New York University’s Governance Lab recently listed 30 definitions of the term. Author Justin Longo explains: “Defining what open government means is complicated by the range of definitions, meanings and motivations that exist.”
And that’s precisely the problem: “open government” has become incredibly ambiguous.
The participants at FOCAS 2013 agreed. “Can we break down what open government actually means?” asked Phil Ashlock of Civic Agency. “Is open data the fundamental part of open government? That’s a technocentric view. Where does policy fit into this? […] We need standardization in our use of language so we understand what it is we are talking about.”
More to the point, if we lack consensus and clarity on what “open government” means, how do we know if it is working? The short answer: we don’t.
That the open government umbrella has come to include a range of initiatives is not itself a problem. The problem is that too many open government conversations take place in the context of us all working toward the same goals, which we are not.
Yes, a Congressperson seeking to enact legislation that enables citizens to request information from government, and a software engineer developing a tool that helps citizens understand when their streets will be swept are both, broadly, working toward greater transparency, accountability, and participation in government. But they are working toward fundamentally different goals. The former is focused on democratizing access to public records, while the latter is facilitating public access to government service information.
Too often, this level of specificity is lacking in open government conversations, muddling our understanding of what we are trying to achieve through different and distinct initiatives. At the end of the day, are we trying to make public agencies more efficient, hold elected officials accountable, tackle corruption, influence policy, or achieve any number of other objectives that fall under the open government umbrella? Let’s be clear about what exactly it is we are working toward.
Concepts that cover multiple definitions are tough to operationalize and their results even tougher to measure. Inasmuch as we are “working toward open government,” we need a coherent vision of the goals implicit in that statement. Once we are clear about what we want change to look like, we can then develop appropriate means to evaluate if and how we are making progress.
Rethinking how we evaluate open government initiatives could move us in the right direction.
In the United States, the Obama administration has both pledged to enable an “unprecedented level of openness in government” and heavily restricted the classification and release of government information. Across Africa, countries are opening up about how they plan to spend their budgets, but keeping mum about how they actually spent them. Public finance expert Matt Andrews has shown that across 28 African states, 63 percent of governments are more transparent in budget formulation than in budget execution.
Have these governments succeeded in achieving “open government”? And beyond evaluating their holistic records on transparency and accountability, how do we assess individual projects?
Our current frameworks for evaluation typically equate scale with success. In other words, the more people engaged in an open government initiative, the more “open” government has become. Scale alone, however, is a crude and often inaccurate measure of success.
There’s over one million government datasets online today. The US government alone has released over 98,000; at one point, it was releasing four datasets a day. Impressive? Sure. But what does this tell us about how this data is affecting people’s lives or government policy? Studies that link the number of Twitter followers a government body has with its success in open government also miss the point.
“When assessing the success of consumer applications, you don’t just measure the number of users it has,” said FOCAS participant Michelle Lee of Textizen. “You measure other factors, such as the people returning within seven days, or 30 days, to understand what is happening.”
In short, the number of users downloading a civic tech app doesn’t tell us how that app is changing attitudes toward civic engagement or the culture of governing. To assess the impacts of open government, we must stop measuring outputs and start understanding experiences.
At FOCAS, participants proposed a concept called 100 Worst to spur better public service delivery through competition. Citizens could rank government offices or services in distinctive categories, and the desire to not be labeled one of the “100 worst” in each category could, in theory, motivate offices to improve their operations—particularly those notorious for inefficiency, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
Now, the concept of “Yelp for government” is hardly new, but what was interesting about the conversation at FOCAS was the keen focus on evaluation. Participants didn’t want to build 100 Worst just to build it, they wanted to use the data it generated to assess what effect the project would have on public service delivery (aka “impact evaluation”), and how they may be able to increase the chances that government offices used the data to improve their offerings (aka “process evaluation”). By combining both types of evaluations, we can then see what procedures, strategies, and activities lead to desirable outcomes and why. If, for example, they found a correlation between close collaboration with government officials and improved service delivery, we could structure future implementations to improve the potential for impact.
Data collected could also provide other interesting analyses. Mapping user or demographic data against user ratings, for example, may provide insights into how factors such as race, gender, and average income impact service delivery.
Of course, evaluations can mislead, as they often seek linear, cause-and-effect relationships for complex change processes. Governments, for example, may have very legitimate reasons for poor performance. Staff, for example, may lack sufficient technical training to use new systems. In these scenarios, citizen ratings can identify poor performance; applied ethnography and other qualitative research methods can surface the factors that contribute to poor performance. By blending the approaches, we can ensure government offices are not unfairly judged.
Negative evaluations should be used not just to point fingers at government, but to help it improve. Alissa Black of the New America Foundation noted that an office could leverage a low ranking to its advantage, as the New York Parks Department once had. The Parks Department used negative feedback from 311, the city’s information hotline, to demonstrate that the breadth of its mandate was unachievable given its resource allocations. The department was granted more funding.
And what of citizens? How might participating in such an initiative shift citizen perceptions of government accountability? If a 100 Worst user sees that their actions have an impact on government performance, the positive feedback may shape how they engage with their community. And if they don’t, the lack of feedback may lead them to disengage from 100 Worst, and be more skeptical towards open government initiatives in the future.
The success of an open government initiative is not simply a question of who and how many showed up. Real success will come with shifts in citizens’ sense of agency over the processes of governance that affect their lives, and government’s willingness to work with citizens in revising and implementing these processes. By exploring both sides’ experiences with open government initiatives, we gain a rich understanding of who became engaged and why. We have insight into the specific pain points. And we have a better understanding of real-world impact, and how we can achieve it.
RELATED: Open Government and Its Constraints, the first installment of this Aspen Institute Communications and Society program series on equitable and accountable governance.
Tools are helpful. Processes are important. But when it comes down to it, people are key.
This theme drives plenty of our project work, but last Friday we had the opportunity to step back and apply the concept to our own inner workings.
We were fortunate to benefit from the insights and experience of Ifoda Abdurazakova, a Knowledge Management (KM) Specialist from UNDP and UN Women. Ifoda led a workshop at our New York headquarters on the challenges of building and maintaining effective KM systems.
The question of the day: How can we better manage the ideas that constantly flow in, out, and between our offices?
We are always engaging with new ideas. Our inboxes are full of articles, our walls are lined with books, and our desks are piled high with reports. Our project work constantly challenges us to bring new ideas to bear on complex issues that defy easy resolution.
This flow of knowledge through our offices is wonderful, it’s one of the reasons I keep coming back day after day. But managing that flow of knowledge is incredibly difficult—and incredibly important.
For years, the private sector has recognized the value, some would say the necessity, of a solid KM system. We live in a knowledge economy era, where “knowledge work” has the power to generate economic and social value. McKinsey rakes in $7 billion annually based on its knowledge networks and infrastructure. British Airways’ knowledge initiative is heavily credited with improving the company’s profitability.
The development sector is getting on board, too. The International Fund for Agricultural Development has embedded a knowledge management strategy in the key deliverables of its action plan, recognizing the intertwining of knowledge and development practice. NGOs and multilateral organizations are now adapting KM strategies to their needs and dedicating staff to running them, Ifoda from UNDP and Ian Thorpe from the UN being two examples.
Effective processes and tools for managing, recording, sharing, and utilizing the knowledge an organization is creating and digesting can have a wide range of beneficial effects: mitigating the risks of high employee turnover, making visual thinking tangible, and preventing unnecessary repetition of work, to name a few. KM systems can make or break an organization’s ability to stay at the frontier of new ideas.
But KM isn’t just about managing knowledge, it’s about managing people’s use of knowledge. Designing a KM system should be centered on the people it is meant to serve. The most valuable information is, more often than not, contained in someone else’s head. The goal of a KM system is to make the knowledge that people hold internally accessible to others externally.
This latter point is where KM usually gets hairy and otherwise good efforts can go awry. In developing a KM system, the immediate temptation is to find the best means to pull all the information in our heads out onto paper or screens—to document, in other words.
But, as Ifoda reminded us, good KM is not just a process of knowledge accumulation. Good KM is knowledge sharing.
What Ifoda has found through her experience at UNDP is that without focusing on people, KM is a bridge to nowhere. Rather than attempting to establish large databases of information that reduce the need for interaction, KM has more to gain from a system that helps you find the right person with the right knowledge.
As Ifoda explained, the three pillars of KM are not equal: 70 percent is people, 20 percent is process, and 10 percent is technology. Some knowledge is made explicit through databases and processes, but the majority stays in our minds. So how do we go beyond explicit knowledge, the tip of the KM iceberg, to the wealth of tacit knowledge buried underneath?
UNDP’s solution was to base their KM system around user profiles. Each employee can see the expertise, projects, and outputs of colleagues. Think of it like a KM social network, which provides a user-friendly platform to easily identify the person who holds the insights you’re looking for. An internal blog, crowdsourcing conference themes, and thematic webinars are just a few of the initiatives that support UNDP colleagues’ connections with one another.
Still, people-based KM systems have their challenges. Incentivizing people to participate seems to be one of the biggest obstacles for Ifoda and many other organizations spanning cultures around the world. Incorporating new knowledge at a rapid, ever-quickening pace, keeping up with technology, aligning knowledge management objectives with organizational strategy, and encouraging a shift in culture from knowledge accumulation to knowledge sharing are difficult tasks.
In beginning to build Reboot’s KM system over the past few months, I have started to work through these challenges by turning to my colleagues in New York and Nigeria who would be using the system.
I have sat with people from our various working groups and asked what they would want from a KM system. I’ve tried to learn about their tasks and what most frustrated them in their day-to-day work. When possible, I’ve stepped into their shoes and helped with their projects to get a taste for what their needs really were. These first-hand interactions have allowed me to better identify priorities and the most suitable character for a Reboot KM system.
Our session with Ifoda gave us new ideas and confirmed the importance of engaging with people, in all their complexity and inefficiency. Recording lessons learned and managing comprehensive databases of guides or past work is helpful, but it’s no replacement for real knowledge sharing. Having a conversation with someone who originally earned the knowledge provides important context. What they record are only data points.
My hunch is that encouraging and facilitating conversation, while seemingly less efficient than systematizing knowledge inputs and outputs, is the most effective way to go.
When all is said and done, we can only search for the information we think we need. Often, the most valuable questions are those we don’t know enough to ask. That’s where we need other people to help us.
This is the first installment of an Aspen Institute Communications and Society program series on equitable and accountable governance to be shared over the next five weeks. The series draws on conversations from the 2013 Forum on Communications and Society to encourage constructive dialogue around open government.
“Open government” is everywhere.
Search the term and you’ll find OpenGovernment.org, OpenTheGovernment.org, Open Government Initiative, Open Gov Hub and the Open Gov Foundation; you’ll find open government initiatives for New York City, Boston, Kansas, Virginia, Tennessee and the list goes on; you’ll find dedicated open government plans for the White House, State Department, USAID, Treasury, Justice Department, Commerce, Energy and just about every other major federal agency. Even the departments of Defense and Homeland Security are in on open government.
And that’s just in the United States.
There is Open Government Africa, Open Government in the EU and Open Government Data. The World Bank has an Open Government Data Toolkit and recently announced a three-year initiative to help developing countries leverage open data. And this week, over 1,000 delegates from over 60 countries are in London for the annual meeting of the Open Government Partnership, which has grown from 8 to 60 member states in just two years.
Fair to say, “open government” has entered the big leagues. However, just as the global movement is gaining momentum, those of us in the open government community seem to be plowing forth without a clear game plan.
Many of us have no consensus or clarity on just what exactly “open government” is, what we hope to achieve from it or how to measure our progress. Too often, our initiatives are designed through the narrow lenses of our own biases and without a concrete understanding of those they are intended for—both those in and out of government.
If we hope to realize the promise of more open governments, let’s be clear about the barriers we face so that we may start to overcome them.
Open government is… not new, for starters.
A product of the Enlightenment and freedom of press movements, the enshrining principles of open government—such as transparency, accountability and participation—have been the hallmarks of modern democracy since its inception. The contemporary use of the term stems from the global push for freedom of information legislation beginning in the mid-20th century.
More recently, the ideas and activities known as “open government” have ballooned with enabling trends in technology usage, such as the growth of social media, mobile phones and Big Data. And that’s precisely the problem: “open government” has become incredibly ambiguous.
There is much spoken about empowering citizens to hold their governments accountable. Yet many initiatives under the open government umbrella focus on obtaining information about public services or resources: when my street will be swept, whether my car was towed or where the nearest parking spot is.
Part of the challenge is that we are using the same term to describe too many different and distinct initiatives. Are we trying to make public agencies more efficient, hold elected officials accountable, tackle corruption, influence policy, or achieve any number of other objectives that we associate with open government?
As much as we are working toward “open government,” we need a coherent vision of what exactly that is and how we hope to achieve it.
The central irony of open government is that it’s often not “open” at all. Conversations on open government are dominated by those with the means to participate. Studies—including those from Turkey, Japan and Italy—show that participants in open government and civic engagement initiatives are often more privileged members of society. Demographics differ in context, but over-represented groups include: the young or educated, who know how to use the technologies that enable many open government initiatives; those already politically active individuals who have another channel to push their agenda; and the relatively wealthy, who can afford both the time and the tools to participate.
The practical result of those with power, privilege and access tinkering for solutions, while large citizen segments remain uninvolved, is that open government initiatives are clouded by our own biases and tunnel vision. As advocates of open government, we assume that citizens and governments are eager to join the movement. As technologists, we assume everyone is an enthusiast and early adopter.
So when there’s low uptake on a new app, site or other initiative, we scratch our heads and say, “the space is too young,” “citizens just don’t care enough,” or “governments are so outdated.”
“Why don’t they get it?” we ask.
“Why don’t we get it?” is the better question.
We want open government of the people, by the people, for the people—not open government by some people, for some other people. To ensure open government does not become a hollow buzzword and lives up to the promise of its name, we need to overcome our biases.
Open government practitioners love to speak of “the citizen” and “the government.” But who exactly are these people? Too often, we don’t really know. We are builders, makers and creators with insufficient understanding of whom we are building, making and creating for.
No company worth its salt hawking a new product would claim “the consumer” is its market. And with good reason. A company has clear incentives to ensure it knows exactly which consumers are going to buy which products. No market intelligence means no sale and no company. Granted, government agencies are obviously without these same incentives. But the absence of market intelligence on the citizens that may use or benefit from an open government initiative yields the same results: no uptake and no open government.
On the flip side, who do we mean by “the government?” And why, gosh darn it, is it so slow to innovate? Simply put, “the government” is comprised of individual people working in environments that are not conducive to innovation. Management professor Sanford Borins explains:
Innovations developed by public servants in the employ of government are generally government property. Public sector organizations are funded by legislative appropriations; there are no venture capitalists to seed public management innovations. There is no share ownership in the public sector, and public servants are paid fixed salaries, with bonuses that, at best, are minuscule in comparison to those in the private sector. In other words, the rewards for successful innovations in the public sector are meager.
If we hope to get beyond a world of perpetual pilots with few success stories, we need to move beyond “the citizen” and “the government,” and toward sophisticated and informed understanding of the people we seek to serve and influence.
For open government to realize its potential, we must overcome these barriers.
This is the first post of a six-part series that grew out the 16th Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS 2013) held earlier this year at the Aspen Institute. Titled “Beyond the Tools: Connecting Citizens and their Government,” and sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, this year’s Forum aimed to advance participatory governance by improving the interactions between citizens and government. As Charlie Firestone, executive director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program, framed the opening session, “How can we encourage citizen demand of open government? How do we institutionalize projects? How do we evaluate successes?
The discussions at FOCAS balanced the need for reflection with the need for action. Participants deliberated on the current state of open government and barriers preventing the movement from fulfilling its promise. And they proposed—and, in some cases, moved forward with—concepts to represent the next phase of open government.
“[The participants here] are not just edge thinkers, but edge builders as well,” remarked Deloitte Center for the Edge’s John Seely Brown at the Forum. “Let us take these ideas from the edge to drive change within and outside of government. Let us think bigger in terms of what we can achieve with open government.”
There’s no shortage of “open government”.
A simple search will pull up OpenGovernment.org, OpenTheGovernment.org, Open Government Initiative, Open Gov Hub, and the Open Gov Foundation. Since 2011, over 60 countries have joined the Open Government Partnership. The World Bank has an Open Government Data Toolkit and recently announced a three-year initiative to help developing countries leverage open data.
But despite all the ambition and innovation, the utility of this movement is yet unproven. Many initiatives seek transparent, participatory, and accountable governance, but is the practice of open government living up to the promise behind these three pillars?
Let’s start with transparency. Liberia’s Open Budget Initiative—one of the country’s Open Government Partnership commitments—set up an electronic billboard outside its office in Monrovia as a bold symbol of openness, but several key aspects of the country’s budgets—including government compensation—remain in closed cabinets.
Further, are countries becoming more transparent in meaningful ways?
Across Africa, countries are opening up about how they plan to spend their budgets, but keeping mum about how they actually spent them. Public finance expert Matt Andrews has shown that across 28 African states, governments are 63 percent more transparent in budget formulation than in budget execution.
And what of participation? For all the talk of technology’s broad and inclusive reach, conversations on open government are dominated by those with the means to participate. In one Italian parliamentary monitoring project, it was found that participants were mostly men (84 percent) and 3,500 times more likely to hold a PhD than the average citizen. The priorities raised, as a result, represent the views of a narrow and elite set of citizens.
Other studies—including those from Turkey and Japan—show that participants in open government initiatives are often the more privileged members of a society. Over-represented groups include: the young or educated who know how to use digital technologies, those already politically active, and the relatively wealthy who can afford both the time and means to participate.
And finally, our collective end goal: accountability. Kenya is an oft-celebrated model of open government success. Two years ago, the government launched the Kenya Open Data Initiative. At the launch, President Mwai Kibaki said, “I also call upon Kenyans to make use of this Government Data Portal to enhance accountability and improve governance in our country. Indeed, data is the foundation of improving governance and accountability. […] This way the people can hold government service providers accountable for the use of public resources.” The Initiative has neat apps, a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and has enabled the Code for Kenya program. In 2012, Kenya joined the Open Government Partnership.
That same year, however, at least 28 journalists were threatened or attacked by government bodies for their coverage of state corruption. Today, the country is considering legislation that would further tighten media regulation—already described by local journalists as “emasculating.”
In the United States, the Obama administration has pledged to enable an “unprecedented level of openness in government.” And while Data.gov has, to date, released over 98,000 datasets, the administration has also heavily restricted the classification and release of government information.
What these diverse initiatives illustrate is the challenge of a technocentric view of open government. This is understandable. With technology such an obvious and visible driver of innovation, the space is dominated by technologists with novel and creative ways to use their skills in the service of the public good. And government officials and civil society groups alike have been seduced by technology’s novelty and capacities to relieve them from the hard work that social change has historically required.
So long as a government embraces new technologies, releases some datasets, and makes high-profile commitments to the international community, it is a card-carrying member of the open government community. But as we work to advance open government, we must also ensure that we not only preach accountability, but practice it, too.
In 2001, political scientist Archon Fung and sociologist Erik Olin Wright questioned the sustainability of participatory governance models. Empowered, deliberative governance is indeed innovative, they wrote, but it is yet historically unproven to lead to better outcomes. And based on their survey of such initiatives, they warned against unintended consequences: “[O]ne might expect that practical demands on these institutions might press participants eventually to abandon time-consuming deliberative decision making in favor of oligarchic or technocratic forms. […] After participants have plucked the ‘low-hanging fruit,’ these forms might again ossify into the very bureaucracies that they sought to replace.”
In 2007, civic technologist Guglielmo Celata noted upon reflecting on his Italian e-democracy site Openpolis, “[Government] administrators are interested in e-participation projects, but they want to reduce the possibility of issues emerging directly from citizens, and of course they try to change the nature of the project from a participative one, into a consultative one. A kind of Poll 2.0, if one wants to be cynical.”
A study of municipal participatory governance processes—implemented between 2007 and 2011 in Spain—shows that in many cases, local governments simply cherry-pick proposals from citizens they like, or views that reinforce those of political parties, special interest groups, or vetted experts. Other studies have reached similar conclusions.
The design of an open government initiative can help or hinder citizens’ ability to input on the processes of governance, governments’ ability to respond, and our collective ability to ensure the initiative’s accountability. If we are to realize the potential of open government, we must be sensitive to these realities.
So as we continue to build tools, secure commitments, and launch programs, let us make sure we hold ourselves accountable for their impact on human livelihoods as well.
Over 1,000 delegates from 60-plus countries are now in London for the Open Government Annual Summit—this is our chance to discuss how we might make good on our ambitions. The Summit is billed an “opportunity for the open government movement to consolidate and build momentum, to reflect on what is working and what is not, and to inspire all participants to return home equipped to pursue an even more ambitious reform agenda.”
Let’s make sure this agenda can deliver.
Is it possible for design to be too user-centered?
Though never explicitly asked, this question carried through a number of talks at the Service Experience Conference two weeks ago in San Francisco.
I joined a line-up of speakers from organizations whose work is very different from ours. They ranged from GroupOn to the Mayo Clinic to Booz Allen. There was talk of car insurance and hotels, retail stores, and libraries.
But across this diverse range of topics, the importance of understanding organizations persistently emerged in a variety of situations.
I talked about Reboot’s work in Nigeria, with a particular focus on governments as service delivering organizations. Much of Reboot’s work aims to understand those organizations as an important step in helping them work more effectively. We’ll often conduct institutional ethnography to map out the actors, identify their relationships, and surface norms and unspoken practices that can have as much impact within an organization as formal organizational charts or processes.
My main point was that we can’t forego understanding those service delivering organizations or the people within them. We can’t make assumptions about key links in the service delivery process and then expect delivery. Too often, the development sector does just that.
To be honest, I thought my talk would be a bit of an outlier. The other presenters had a largely domestic and private sector focus. I worried that Reboot’s work wouldn’t resonate with the audience.
So I was a bit surprised to hear various designers and consultants describe challenges that arise from understanding service delivering organizations.
Dave Gray’s opening keynote made a brilliant point about how designing a better user experience often requires cutting across organizational silos, thus threatening existing power centers and making design an inherently political act within an organization. In closing out the first day, Jamin Hegeman sounded a similar note in discussing service design as both outside-in (from the user to the company) and inside-out (from the company to the user).
This two-way street of service design resonates with Reboot’s experience working with governments; in understanding the inner workings of our methods of delivery (government agencies) we can make sure services get delivered (to citizens).
Which brings me to my cheeky question: Is it possible for design to be too user-centered?
I think the answer is yes in cases where we limit our definition of the ‘user’ to only beneficiaries, customers, or other end-users. Their perspectives are critical of course, but designing for end-users along risks producing service models that are misaligned with the capabilities and incentives of service providers. The needs and abilities of end-users must always meet in the middle with those attempting to serve them.
Many thanks to Adaptive Path for organizing the conference. We will share links here once the videos from the event have been posted.
On September 22, Reboot Co-founder and Principal Zack Brisson took the mainstage at TEDxCarthage. Addressing the event theme of “Trust As New Currency?”, Zack spoke to how the crisis of legitimacy facing governments worldwide is evidence that our social contracts are due for renegotiation. The video and full text of the talk are below.
Do you trust your government? If you do, you’re in the minority. Just last month Gallup reported that Tunisians’ confidence in government has plummeted to 32%. Approval of leadership is an even more disparaging 23%.
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Last week I woke up to this headline, “Fewer Americans Than Ever Trust Government to Handle Problems”. It was the latest in a slew of similar headlines to appear worldwide in recent years. Headlines like these only affirm what events have told us, in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya; in the streets of Rio, Moscow, Athens and New York; in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus…
…the list goes on.
Our trust in government is in deficit because our governments are proving deficient at managing the trials of our time.
At the dawn of the 21st century, humanity is the most connected, imaginative and capable we’ve ever been. Yet our modern age is rife with vast instability and conflict, unrest and unpredictability. Struggle and strife and dissatisfaction are palpable the world over.
These are symptoms of the bigger tensions tearing at the fabric of our global society—resource scarcity, economic inequality, geopolitical transformation, technological upheaval. All while we seemingly lack the appropriate mechanisms to manage them.
Historically, we’ve relied on our families, communities and governments to grant us some protection from these threats. Yet their modern scale is well beyond what we can expect of our families and neighbors. And our governments seem unable, or unwilling to manage.
I know that argument may provoke criticism, but I stand on recent events. For instance, in America, we recently saw our government allow Wall Street to destabilize the entire world economy through a combination of weak regulation, and the institutional embrace of greed. Globally, nations simply can’t agree to curb the existential threats of nuclear war and catastrophic climate change.
Today in 2013, our contest for survival appears no more guaranteed than a thousand years prior, and perhaps even less certain.
But, I promise, I didn’t come here to depress you. While recognizing the scale of our challenges, I remain an optimist for the human experiment.
I’m a student of history and philosophy, and these traditions have given me a common hope for civilization. For when we look inside ourselves, we see that we are social and creative. And an examination of our history shows that time and again we’ve found ways to work together to overcome existential challenges.
And I believe that it is precisely the high stakes of our current contest for survival that can give us all space for optimism.
The history of social progress, after all, is the story of how we managed our most critical contests:
Complex language formed as a necessary means of rising beyond our primal conflicts;
The agricultural revolution was the result of growing populations seeking to overcome constrained resources; and
Modern public administration arose from powerful elites seeking to check the authority and excesses of absolute monarchs.
When populations, proximity or public resources have changed, our societies have advanced to cope and survive. This is the story of the human spirit triumphing over our instincts and environment. In our contests to improve failing governments, this has sometimes meant a turn towards revolution.
Revolution is an important means for progress, and I believe in the spirit of 1776, 1848, 1989—and of course, 2011. But equally important, I believe that the euphoria of revolution does not end with the overthrow of an autocrat. Radical change much be accompanied by an equal contest to build something better.
This is the contest we’re engaged in now, not just here in Tunisia, but the world over. And this contest has the potential to yield one of our greatest social innovations yet: a 21st century social contract.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a social contract as “an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits”. In other words, I, a member of the public, accept the authority of a governing institution from which I expect services—security, infrastructure, education, health care—in return.
As the bedrock of all governing legitimacy, a social contract must be inclusive by definition. Absent sufficient buy-in from the public in the powers that be, there is no social contract—there is no legitimacy.
Sound familiar? Without legitimacy, our governments fail us. At best, they simply fail to meet our needs. At worst, they abuse us and impede the progress of civilization.
The crisis of legitimacy afflicting governments worldwide suggests that our social contract is due for renegotiation. And with good reason!
Our most influential governing institutions no longer seem up to the job. In the face of the complex tensions facing our global society, they operate from the altogether different era they are from. An era with markedly different circumstances:
One where major political contests could be managed around the interests of a small set of elite actors;
One where information was scarce, costly and hard to use; and
One where physical proximity and boundaries were immovable constraints on human interaction.
It doesn’t take much reflection to find the shortcomings of these ‘operating principles’. We live in a reality:
Where major political contests are overwhelmed by the interests of an exponentially greater number and diversity of actors;
Where information is in abundance, inexpensive and easy to use; and
Where physical proximity and boundaries are permeable constraints and decreasingly relevant to dominant modes of exchange.
In short: Our world has changed, but our governing institutions have not. And so our previous social contract is no longer adequate. The result is the instability and conflict, unrest and unpredictability around us. Some, understandably, see this reality as the breakdown of civilization.
I see this as the clarion call to revitalize and reboot how we govern human affairs; I see this as the opportunity to create a 21st century social contract.
What then might that look like?
Well first and foremost, a new social contract must be exponentially more inclusive. Yes, the last several centuries have seen incremental increases in inclusiveness. We’ve slowly ended slavery, empowered women and recognized diverse beliefs within our societies. But this hasn’t been nearly enough. Billions around the world are still excluded from economic opportunity, forced into fear for their safety and ignored in the halls of government.
We can’t begin to speak of a 21st century social contract without first addressing the structural flaws of the previous one.
Achieving this level of inclusivity will be difficult. It will take more than just SMS crowdsourcing tools and open government portals releasing datasets of limited public utility. These advances in our capabilities are only socially useful when they create meaningful opportunities for engagement between the public and those that govern them.
I suspect most of us in this room will agree. But how exactly do we do that?
I’ve been fortunate in my work with Reboot to test many of these themes on the ground working with governments, civil society and international organizations; in contexts as diverse as the United States, Pakistan, Nigeria and here in Tunisia. I by no means pretend to have a pocketful of solutions to these foundational issues of governance—no one does. But I have picked up a few ideas along the way that I hope can seed further exploration of how to structurally evolve our models of governing
First, we should not fear the contests defining our time, but rather embrace them.
Remember, the history of social progress is the story of how we managed our most critical contests. These are an inevitable component of human existence and the coming period is likely to see greater contestation than ever before.
Yet so many of our policies and so much of our discourse is based on the premise that contests are bad and should be avoided or minimized. But contests are not intrinsically negative in their process and outcomes. In a world of scarcity, contests are the central starting point for constructive collective action.
Rather than making policies meant to quell or dismiss contests, we should turn our thinking to their socially constructive role. Contests represent areas where diverse interest groups have the incentive and capability to find collective solutions. Those exchanges can be fostered with nurturing for contests that are more inclusive or likely to produce mutually beneficial outcomes.
We see in our history contests that produced some of the most transformative and durable social advances. It was the contest between tyrannical monarchs and increasingly wealth nobility that led to representative governments of checks and balances. Elite merchants fostered this contests and built new institutions to compete with traditional forms of government. In an alternative case, as capital and labor contested the terms of the industrial revolution, trade unions emerged to aggregate worker’s demands, increasing access to rights and inclusion.
Second, authorities must be much more empathetic to those they serve.
Our interests are mingled and complex. Those are core, unchangeable constraints on how we interact. But the way we govern often exacerbates these constraints by removing human experience from the exercise of policymaking and public administration.
Government officials sitting in capital cities hundreds or thousands of kilometers from those they serve have an understandably difficult time relating to the complex lived experiences of their citizens. Gaps of empathy and accountability are the result.
We must develop forms of government that are more tangibly connected to the specific people and places they relate to. This will lead to greater accountability and improved public service delivery.
And finally, embracing failure can improve process and outcomes.
The bulk of human ingenuity and invention has been the result of trying something new in response to previous failures in problem solving. It’s clear then: Failure is an inevitable and necessary part of ‘progress’.
Yet our governments and other institutions of authority seem allergic to the notion of failure.
In matters of life and death, this conservative outlook is understandable. But it leads to an inevitable myopia and hubris. We so often hear the refrain “failure is not an option”. But of course failure is always an option, and so often the result. We are very far from utopia. By discouraging the norm of failure, we lose the ability to learn why something didn’t work, and adapt our approach to hopefully get things better the next time.
But it’s equally shortsighted to place the burden for this embrace of failure on governments alone. We as civil society and activists must also change how we think.
Our instincts are to scrutinize, criticize and challenge those in authority. This is understandable, given we’re usually excluded from the exercise of power. Yet it is also self-defeating. If we assault our governments every time they fail, they will remain conservative and fearful from including us in decision-making.
As the theme of today suggests, we must build more forgiving partnerships where we accept government failures as necessary steps towards progress.
This will be easier to accept if diverse perspectives are meaningfully included in the process of governing. And if we have credible means of holding our governments accountable when they fail to learn from mistakes that all can see.
If we embrace the idea that all progress is ‘failure based’, then we will have more empathy for each other when we realize we’re not where we want to be.
I do not stand here naïve or blind-eyed about the incredible difficulty of achieving substantial social progress. Countless brave souls have given their lives and livelihoods to advancing the arc of justice. More will do so. But I remain optimistic.
In part, because there are plenty of examples of positive progress already around us. Take for instance, the Open Government movement. Yes, it is in its infancy and has yet to find fully formed models of how government can work better. But the ethos, no matter the label of the day, has achieved widespread embrace, here in Tunisia and the world over. This shows the common appetite for the ideologies of participation, transparency, and inclusion.
And we see positive change in our most influential institutions. Take the case of the World Bank, a body that has long faced criticism for its opacity and unaccountable governance. Yet cultural shifts are happening inside the organization faster than any critic’s expectations. For instance, a recent internal evaluation reported that 70% of initiatives involving technology failed. The Bank openly released the report, publicly acknowledging its problems in delivering impact. And the World Bank is continuing to invest meaningful resources in technology, with open acceptance that failure will be a necessary and value added part of the process.
But beyond these constructive glimmers of what could be, I am optimistic for deeper reasons.
While we may have lost trust in our governments, I trust our collective ability to reshape our governing institutions in the image we need. I believe it’s possible, because the risks to our collective well-being are grave enough, that even the most entrenched interests have incentive to facilitate more inclusive governance.
I believe it’s possible, because I trust in the empathy of the human spirit, and because I know that more humans than ever before are engaged in the contests for civilization. This is increasing the opportunities for our better natures to shine. And I believe it’s possible, because of my experience working with communities just like this one. This work has taught me that when people have the means and opportunity to create and share, we would rather be constructive than destructive.
So despite the many challenges and uncertainties we face, I believe now is the best opportunity we’ve ever had to build the institutions we need to thrive in the 21st century. I also worry, we don’t have time to wait.
Thank you for letting me come and share a little bit of how I understand the world and how we might think about working together to make it better.
There’s a new acronym on the minds of the wonks and academics who set the agenda on governance reforms: PDIA.
“Problem-driven iterative adaption” in its full form—or just “purposive muddling” to its friends—represents a new approach to reforming governance institutions in developing countries. The framework is articulated in a recent book by Matt Andrews called The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development. Andrews grounds the framework in a variety of case studies and research findings, making a strong case for the approach. It’s significantly advancing the discourse on governance reform.
In brief, PDIA is about starting with locally defined problems rather than externally defined solutions, and pursuing incremental reforms in an iterative manner, with the end goal of creating adaptive institutions. The framework addresses many of the failures inherent to typical approaches to institutional reforms, while also explaining some of the rare success cases.
If you’re interested in digging further into PDIA, start with this post and consider reading the book. Fair warning though: this is not a pop development book for the general audience. Andrews is a heavyweight.
The book’s analytical rigor almost made me forgive it for its one major oversight: the lack of people. As Andrews describes cases of reform—both failures and successes—you rarely find the name of a particular actor involved. The Minister of Finance, the World Bank consultant, the local government official—they’re all relevant to the reform efforts, but they’re conspicuously absent from the book.
This is a strength, in one sense. Otherwise smart people who try to write for general audiences often rely on narrative hand-waving to gloss over gaps in their theories, suggesting they have explanatory power without actually explaining. In international affairs, this manifests as the “my taxi driver says” type of evidence. Andrews avoids that, building instead on much more solid ground.
However, there are two drawbacks. First, a story with no characters makes for a dry read. That’s a minor stylistic point.
The more critical point is that PDIA sans people provides less insight into one critical dimension of reform: how individuals actually change. We all know that institutional change is deeper than new rules and regulations. Institutions are composed of people, and institutional change involves those individuals changing their behaviors, social norms, and cognitive frameworks.
This point isn’t entirely missing from the book’s evidence base. For example, Andrews digs into the nature of multi-agent leadership in promoting successful reforms, as contrasted with the myth of the heroic reform champion. He also highlights that external agents (e.g. international donor staff) are most helpful when they’re stationed in the country over long periods, so that they’re known and trusted by those in the reforming institutions. But the research went no deeper on these successful reform agents.
Without those insights, even the detailed case studies leave us with an incomplete picture of the reforms. The evidence base draws heavily from World Bank evaluation reports, making the result feel like a desk study. I’d love to see Andrews bring more observations from his work “in the field”—as it were—while acknowledging the risks of the “taxi driver” syndrome.
The individuals who make decisions—whether the big decisions about the course of reform, or small ones about whether to go along with it—should be at the center of our analysis.
Who was making these decisions and what influences did they face? What relationships did the various reform partners have with one another? How did they navigate the obstacles and opponents to reform? What were the dynamics and inflection points in social norms, management practices, communication channels, conceptual frameworks, and other dimensions that shaped the contours of reforms? These elements would give future reformers much greater insight into how they should proceed in new situations.
The human-centered research that can surface these insights takes a mix of methodologies and data sources. Reboot draws heavily from ethnography, journalistic inquiry, and political analysis to understand actors, norms, and relationships. We apply these methods to topics you wouldn’t expect—like our ongoing “fiscal ethnography” study that’s pioneering a completely new approach to understanding public financial management. (More on that at a later date.)
Despite my eagerness for an additional human dimension, Andrews’ PDIA framework is driving fresh new thinking on institutional reform. Even while these ideas get debated and refined, experimentation with specific mechanisms and methodologies for putting these ideas into action is underway. We’re excited to be part of that, in our own small way.
In recent years, civic innovation fellowships have shown great promise to improve the relationships between citizens and government. In the United States, Code for America and the Presidential Innovation Fellows have demonstrated the positive impact a small group of technologists can have working hand-in-hand with government. With the launch of Code for All, Code for Europe, Code4Kenya, and Code4Africa, among others, the model is going global.
But despite the increasing popularity of civic innovation fellowships, there are few templates for how a “Code for” program can be adapted to a different context. In the US, the success of Code for America has drawn from a wealth of tech talent eager to volunteer skills, public and private support, and the active participation of municipal governments. Elsewhere, new “Code for” programs are surely going to have to operate within a different set of capacities and constraints.
Over the past year, we’ve kept these thoughts in mind working with the SlashRoots Foundation (SlashRoots), the Mona School Of Business, and the Caribbean Open Institute to incubate Code for the Caribbean (CftC). CftC is a new initiative that partners with government agencies in the Caribbean to help them become more agile, open, and participatory. CftC is supported by the International Development Research Centre and is a founding member of the Code for All network, Code for America’s international program, and based in Kingston, Jamaica.
The inaugural class of Fellows began this past June and is working with Jamaica’s Rural Area Development Agency (RADA), an agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, to explore inventive solutions for combating praedial larceny (the theft of agricultural produce and livestock). Praedial larceny is one of the biggest problems plaguing Jamaica’s agricultural industry, which employs one in five citizens.
We were thrilled to join the Fellows in Kingston last month to deliver a training seminar covering ethnographic research, design methods, and good practice for engaging with institutional partners. Our training focused on how to understand complex challenges, and how to map relevant actors and efforts to identify promising interventions. The Fellows have a doubly difficult task—they are trying to tackle praedial larceny, in addition to using their engagement to encourage the government to address social challenges differently—so we wanted to make sure they were well prepared.
Beyond providing support to the Fellows, the training experience was instructive to our own understanding of how to structure and replicate a civic innovation fellowship in an entirely new context. Specifically, those looking to launch a new “Code for” should:
Having met many Code for America Fellows, I entered the training with the assumption that the CftC Fellows were in the room for similar reasons, namely the desire to help government become more effective to, in turn, deliver better social outcomes.
While this motivation was undoubtedly present, there was an additional, equally significant motivation among the participants: the desire for access to the training and resources offered by the fellowship. Hosted in a new incubator space in Kingston and advised by many of the country’s most innovative minds in technology and communications, CftC provides access to training that is typically not available in the country. (Read the decision-making process articulated by one of the fellows here.) As a result, Fellows were invariably interested in how design practices could be applied to their broader professional pursuits.
When new civic innovation fellowships are conceived and launched globally, considering the contours of their respective talent markets would be a wise first step: what do participants hope to gain from the experience, what opportunities have they been exposed to previously, and what are the employment opportunities post-fellowship? While many participants may recognize the importance of civic progress, it may also be seen as an unviable path to a sustainable income in their context, and therefore a luxury.
Jamaica has the fourth-highest poverty rate in the Americas. Of the 23 countries in the region, Jamaica has the second highest unequal distribution of income (as measured by the Gini coefficient), which contributes to a high crime rate, particularly in urban centers. Yes, social inequality is a very real challenge, but so is personal safety. The willingness of Fellows to cross social divides in pursuit of civic outcomes, therefore, can vary by individual.
And so when telling Fellows that all individuals have needs and aspirations that are worth understanding, or when asking them to travel to parts of town that they aren’t comfortable in, programs need to understand the pressures this may place on Fellows. While programs may be unaware of the previous experiences that make Fellows more or less are open to engaging in such work, they must still respect personal boundaries.
And we must be prepared to facilitate conversations around these sensitive topics, particularly as fellowship programs may bring together people of very different backgrounds.
In the US, there is a whole ecosystem of professional communities, media outlets, and other cheerleaders that applaud the work of civic innovators.
While public sector wages in the US are low in comparison to the private sector, social-minded professions have a history of being culturally celebrated. Professionals with careers committed to the social good also enjoy support systems—psychologically, professionally, and financially—to help match the benefits of working in the private sector.
In other contexts, the absence of such support can constrain those who seek to be civic innovators. With Jamaica’s high youth unemployment, giving up a job for an untested civic innovation fellowship is a difficult choice to make. A lack of precedents and support networks amplify the risks that Fellows take on.
These inaugural CftC Fellows and their supporters are visionary, brave, and selfless. The Fellows earn a stipend that does not compare to what they could earn in the private sector. The Slashroots team is largely volunteers who also have their own day jobs and engagements. They do what they do as a labor of love and because they believe in the potential of these models for the development of their country and its people.
The CftC team deserve our admiration and need our support. Here’s to their upward trajectory!
Maribel smiled softly as she spoke about her aspirations for her first child, eight-month-old Pablo. “There are a lot of things that work to open little kids’ minds. We grew up with grown people’s minds. [I want my son to have] access to better opportunities that I didn’t have.”
Maribel (whose name we’ve changed here to protect her privacy) was one of the first mothers we interviewed in Puerto Cabezas, the capital of Nicaragua’s Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN). Inviting us into her family’s small concrete-floored bungalow, she explained how she had done everything in her power to ensure that Pablo gets a strong start in life. With no doctors present in her rural community, she endured hot and bumpy five-hour bus rides to the regional capital for each prenatal medical visit. She scrimped to afford the healthy diet her doctor recommended throughout her pregnancy.
She is optimistic about who Pablo will become as he grows into adulthood. She envisions a healthy, well-educated, and polite boy ready to work for a better life for himself and his family. But she knows that raising her son in RAAN, both her and Pablo will face many obstacles to achieving this vision.
Throughout Nicaragua, a host of constraints inhibit children from achieving their full potential. Half of the country’s children live in poverty. Nineteen percent live in extreme poverty. Still, over the last decade, Nicaragua has made great strides toward improving the lives of its children. But these gains have not reached all children equally.
A child in RAAN, especially a minority or indigenous child, is more likely to live in poverty than a child in Managua. And though childhood malnutrition has decreased in the region, it remains a severe problem that is much more pronounced than malnutrition in Nicaragua as a whole. Almost across the board—in terms of education, access to clean water and safe sanitation facilities, birth registration, and other key development factors—RAAN’s children face significant obstacles to healthy growth.
In response to this situation, officials in the regional autonomous government are working toward a long-held dream of creating a regional policy that will support the rights of children across RAAN. In partnership with UNICEF Nicaragua, they kicked off the process late last year.
The severity of underdevelopment in the region is only one of the hurdles to a successful policy. The ethnic and cultural diversity that gives RAAN its vibrancy also complicates the policymaking process. While Nicaragua’s Pacific coastal regions are overwhelmingly Mestizo, Spanish-speaking, and Roman Catholic, RAAN is home to people representing several different indigenous and non-indigenous cultures, who speak different languages, practice different religions, and hold distinct views on child rearing.
Given the complexity of the region, how could policymakers begin to understand the diversity of experiences of children and families across the region, much less address this array of needs through a single policy?
In April and May of this year, we traveled to RAAN to explore this question in partnership with UNICEF and the regional autonomous government. Our goals were twofold: enable empathy in the policymaking process by bringing officials closer to parents and children like Maribel and Pablo; and to support them in giving that empathy meaning in the development of a living policy framework.
Together with our partners we spoke with and joined the daily lives of more than 200 residents, including children, mothers and fathers, teachers, school directors, health providers, and public servants. Through this exercise, we sought to identify priorities, aspirations, and pain points as perceived by the people of the region. Additionally, through a series of community consultations, research activities and synthesis sessions, we immersed regional policymakers in the context of their communities, training them in the tools and techniques of design research.
According to one official in our group: “[Participating in the research] made me acknowledge that maybe we need to visit more—it’s not just the business of monitoring. We need to give an answer.”
For us, this collaboration was compelling for two reasons. We were excited to have a hand in creating real improvements in the lives of children and families in the near-term. Additionally, looking at the bigger picture, we saw a great opportunity to support long-term social change in the region by giving the regional autonomous government and UNICEF the tools to take a human-centered approach to policymaking moving forward.
Over the course of the coming weeks and months, we’ll be sharing more from our experiences of operationalizing empathy in RAAN’s policymaking process. Stay tuned for updates!
Start of a bad #opengov joke?
Not exactly. This was the start of the 2013 Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS) recently hosted by the Aspen Institute. These four individuals were among the 37 participants seeking to advance the promise of open government.
FOCAS has a history of bringing together thinkers, makers, and doers to leverage information and communication technologies to benefit society. Past forums have featured Madeleine Albright, Marissa Mayer, Craig Newmark, and Eric Schmidt, to name a few. These forums have resulted in initiatives like the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, which helped frame the Federal Communications Commission’s New Media Inquiry.
Titled “Beyond the Tools: Connecting Citizens and their Governments” and sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, this year’s FOCAS aimed to advance participatory governance by surfacing new approaches to improve both citizen-government interaction and measuring the impact of open government.
Participants were practitioners working on a range of open government initiatives, including federal and local government officials, civic technologists, and academics. Several were winners of the Knight News Challenge on Open Government, including Open Gov for the Rest of Us, Procure.io, GitMachines, and Plan in a Box.
After three days, the Forum’s working groups proposed four initiatives: a program to enable citizens with specialized expertise to help address civic challenges; an initiative to support institutional innovators within government; a platform to improve public service delivery by stimulating competition between government agencies; and a new advocacy organization to advance open data culture in the US.
The Forum raised several key challenges raised preventing the realization of open government’s full potential. These included ambiguity around the term “open government”, lack of awareness of and technical ability to leverage open data among the broader public, and difficulty in overcoming legacy systems. Policy challenges also remain, but there are a number of disruptive innovators who have not traditionally worked in the public sector trying to drive change from within.
As Greg Elin, a recent Obama recruit to the Federal Communications Commission, put it: “We are developing the systems to lower barriers to entry [to open government] so that more people can participate.”
Nick Sinai, a venture capitalist until 2009 and now the US Deputy Chief Technology Officer, agreed that the government needs a range of partners to be successful in this space: “There are a lot of conversations in government about what’s possible [in terms of open government], but prototypes and MVPs [minimum viable products] can help crystallize the opportunities. That’s where outside partners can add value.”
From these wide-ranging conversations around the state of open government and how to realize its promise, several principles for the design and implementation of open government initiatives were identified. But as Ellen Miller, Executive Director of the Sunlight Foundation, pointed out, implementation doesn’t need to be uniform and models will inevitably vary.
Below is a summary of the key points. A more complete report is forthcoming.
Open government initiatives must be rooted in a sophisticated understanding of citizens.
One question open government folks often ask is: “How do we stimulate citizen demand for open data?” The secret: citizens don’t want open data; they want useful services. Citizen embrace of open government, therefore, depends on understanding and designing for citizen needs—and not for technological function.
Many bemoan the lack of citizen awareness about the benefits of open government. But is it lack of awareness or is it lack of demonstrated utility? And if it’s the latter, how can we build tools and initiatives that transform the experience of being an engaged citizen?
Speaking of which, who is this mystical “citizen”? Greater segmentation and definition of citizens and the intermediaries that may use open government tools to better serve them (e.g. social workers) would enable well-designed solutions that are tailored to users’ specific needs. Much as private companies don’t sell to “the person”, public agencies should not seek to serve “the citizen”.
Initiatives must be informed by empathy for government workers.
Open government advocates frequently cite lessons the District can take from the Valley. But government culture and start-up culture are vastly different. A Silicon Valley axiom is “if you don’t break something, you’re doing something wrong”. Put simply, innovation requires risk-taking.
The public sector, however, is naturally risk-averse, and with good reason: government’s duty is to protect the public interest. While venture capitalists accept failure as a necessary cost of innovation, taxpayers may not be so forgiving. There is disconnect between what the Open Government Initiative asks of civil servants and what the institutional culture they work within permits.
Greater empathy for government officials is needed. We must adapt human resource policy, offer appropriate incentives, and provide appropriate political cover to allow public officers to experiment and innovate.
The City of Philadelphia has done this well but, similar to “citizens”, “government officials”, too, must be segmented. The needs and capacities of a San Francisco or a New York are very different from that of a small town. Similarly, the ability of a political appointee to navigate bureaucratic challenges and get things done may be wholly different from that of a long-time civil servant.
Know thy audience and design accordingly.
We need to understand what works and what doesn’t.
For all the talk of the promise of open government, we need more empirical evidence on the progress being made. To do so, we first need more precision and standardization in our use of language. What do we mean when we say “open government”? Are we trying to enable civic engagement, government accountability, quality public service delivery, or economic development?
Once we define each project’s goals, we need to understand whether they are working. Scale is an overused metric. The number of people using a civic platform is a crude and often inaccurate measure of success. Understanding whether an initiative made citizens more engaged or changed the attitudes of government offices are more telling indicators of progress. Capturing unintended negative consequences will also allow us to design better next time.
By better understanding how civic innovation happens, we can be more strategic and evidence-driven in our open government investments in the future.
The above principles can guide the design of open government initiatives, and the Forum’s working groups proposed four such concepts. In aggregate, they underscore key FOCAS themes—citizen experience, institutional change, demonstrating impact—and speak to the need for enabling conditions for open government. A summary of the concepts follow, with links to notes from the relevant conversations at FOCAS:
There are ongoing discussions around next steps for these proposals, and some have early prototypes in development. The working groups encourage public input through the above links.
For a group largely comprised of technologists, the conversations at FOCAS were largely (and refreshingly) not dominated by technology. Digital tools, participants widely agreed, are but means to enable collaboration and catalyze innovation, and not ends in themselves.
“Don’t try to find technology solutions for people problems,” warned Harper Reed, formerly of the Obama campaign. “Instead, start by building products people love.
Still, some of the side conversations outside the (livestreamed) plenary were less rosy, touching on how recent public revelations around government secrecy may impact the open government movement. As Alec Ross, the former Senior Advisor for Innovation at the State Department, noted, the culture within the administration is not particularly fertile for open government outside a few anomalies.
Health and Human Services, for example, has embraced open data and greatly benefits from the crowd using its data with minimal risk. Law enforcement agencies, on the other hand, see the opening up of data as a threat to their ability to conduct their duties. There are still swathes of government officials that are hostile to open government, Ross noted, perceptions that are not helped by their recent experiences with Wikileaks and the Snowden affair.
Overcoming these institutional culture hurdles will require especially well designed and implemented initiatives moving forward.
The 16th Aspen Institute Forum on Communications and Society took place from July 10 to 13, 2013. See the agenda and participants. Recordings from the event can be found here. A full report from the event is forthcoming and will be available on the Aspen Institute and Knight Foundation websites.
The mechanics of American democracy are due for a modernization. Finding out how to vote, when to vote, and where to vote is too often a test of jumping through bureaucratic hoops. On Election Day, long lines, registration obstacles and machine failures further plague the American voting experience.
The Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which convened its first public meeting this past Friday and has a second scheduled for June 28, would do well to recall that in the United States there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to elections administration.
The commission is one of two big federal initiatives seeking to make the American voting experience meet the expectations of 21st century citizens. “Established to identify best practices and make recommendations to the President on the efficient administration of elections,” the commission is exploring poll site management, poll worker training, voting machine technology, voting accessibility and voter education, among a slew of other issues. The Voter Empowerment Act, the second big federal initiative, aims to require that all states offer online voter registration.
These are interesting initiatives. But for all the talk about what may (or may not) come out of Washington, the reality is that elections administration in the United States is an entirely local affair.
Each of the more than 10,000 US election jurisdictions has its own unique systems that define the voting experience locally. While administrators must comply with federal guidelines, elections are ultimately organized, implemented, and assessed according to local regulations. They are locally funded and deeply reflective of local political history. Even during Friday’s briefing, the Commission’s research director noted that while its directive is national in scope, elections administration is famously determined at the local level.
To identify “best practices” and make recommendations on the “efficient administration of elections,” context matters. Earlier this spring, my organization conducted a six-city research investigation into a diverse subset of election offices around the country. Our aim was to understand the human motivations, technological systems and institutional landscapes that define elections administration at the most local levels.
Our research team found that irrespective of what happens in Washington, many election administrators are already troubleshooting their way to providing their residents a better voting experience.
Take Wendy Noren, for example, who is the Boone County Clerk in Columbia, Missouri. Wendy has worked on local elections administration in the clerk’s office since 1978 and remembers the 1980 presidential election well. “We got slammed,” she recalls. “There were thousands of people waiting in line to register to vote. We never recovered from processing all those registrations.”
In the wake of the 1980 election, Wendy taught herself the programming language COBOL to build the tools she knew she needed to improve the Boone County voting experience. To alleviate long lines during the last election cycle, Wendy custom coded a system that redirects voters quickly by sending real-time updates to digital poll books, soon to be stored on a network of iPads across the county’s poll sites.
Other examples abound. In Travis County, Texas, home to the tech savvy city of Austin, voters will soon be able to use a new online tool to select polling locations based on the number of people waiting in line. In Martin County, Florida, a jurisdiction more commonly associated with its “snowbird” retiree population, the Supervisor of Elections has launched a “Pledge to Vote” drive to engage pre-registered teens in the political process. In Jefferson County, Kentucky administrators have custom coded a two-in-one system that allows them to input voter information once and have it automatically uploaded to both the state and local databases.
Granted, not every election office has the tech talent of Austin or the resolve of Wendy Noren. And even these bright spots on the elections administration map are constrained by regulatory friction, budget reductions and political influence, all of which conspire to make improvements difficult and slow.
But there are more successful examples of vision and entrepreneurship than headlines about system failures like 8-hour lines to vote in Miami-Dade or the redeployment of voting technology from the 1890s in New York City would suggest. These ideas have also typically been tested and refined over multiple election cycles. The challenge is that election administration innovations often occur in isolation, preventing good ideas from spreading.
The Presidential Commission can help surface, popularize and remix these ideas to encourage greater uptake across the country. But ultimately, the federal government is far from the sole provenance of elections administration reform. Organizations like Code for America, New Organizing Institute and TurboVote have demonstrated the positive impact a small group of technologists can have working hand-in-hand with local government. Rallying the creative talents of the country to bolster the capabilities of existing innovators like Wendy Noren can make tangible and immediate improvements.
Voting should not be a burden. The future of American elections administration should not be plagued by more long lines and high barriers to participation. Rather, voting should fit the way we live. By focusing energy at the most local levels, helping good ideas grow and spread, reformers can build a future for the American voting experience that is seamless, accessible and completely in sync with the expectations of 21st century citizens.
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This post was originally published in Politico.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s $50 billion worth of damage to New York City, resilience has become the new buzzword. Last week’s report release from the Mayor’s Office Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency explores how this term applies to NYC. Titled “A Stronger, More Resilient New York”, the report offers a series of recommendations for “rebuilding the communities impacted by Sandy and increasing the resilience of infrastructure and buildings citywide.”
So, what exactly is a more resilient NYC?
Simply defined, resilience is the ability to recover readily from adversity. Put in the context of a disaster affected community, resilience translates to the ability of a population to return to its everyday functions after being subjected to a shock.
In the post-Sandy exploration of approaches to boost NYC’s resilience, discussions have largely focused on the merits of hard versus soft infrastructure. Hard infrastructure, such as flood walls, are defense systems to keep the sea out. Hard infrastructure systems have been employed in the Netherlands and Venice with great success, but also at great cost. Soft infrastructure, such as wetlands or sand dunes, utilizes natural barriers and is generally less costly.
There are advocates for each approach, and others who advocate a strategy that makes use of both. But all of these voices ignore a third–and equally critical pillar–to resilience: social infrastructure.
Unlike static engineered solutions, whether hard or soft, social infrastructure provides communities the ability to respond, reorganize, and adapt at a highly local level to cope with shocks. Soft infrastructure taps into existing community capital, institutions, and networks to build trust, enable learning, and provide individuals with the resources to prepare and respond to crises. Social infrastructure can often be simplistic, but it is also extremely impactful.
In the response to Sandy, for example, local community organizers with established networks were best able to communicate with those in need to provide crucial resources. Pat Simon of the Ocean Bay Community Development Corporation organized private donations to help her community when multiple emergency response groups failed to deliver what was needed, such as diapers and baby formula. Instead, the response groups brought generic goods like blankets and ready-to-eat meals, which resulted in a surplus of unwanted items and an undersupply of what really mattered.
Similarly, another Rockaway community relied on social infrastructure, the Beach 91st Street Community Garden, to meet their needs after Sandy. The vegetable garden served as their primary food source during the days the community was isolated from transportation networks and outside assistance.
“During the first weeks after the storm, a group of people gathered at the farm every night to build a fire and cook dinner,” Lee Altman, a Five Borough Farm initiative fellow at the Design Trust for Public Space, explains. “The garden offered a valuable community resource in creating a gathering place for people to share food and conversation when they had no electricity or heat and very little else to rely on.”
Stories like these illustrate the importance of developing and strengthening NYC’s social infrastructure. But Governor Cuomo’s home buyout program announced earlier this year, which will use federal disaster relief funds to purchase homes in vulnerable areas of New York for public reclamation, could actually do the opposite. The program will likely displace many low-income residents who cannot afford disaster repairs. The program also poses a prisoner’s dilemma to residents: what will happen to the community if some families leave but others choose to stay? Most likely, the community will lose existing social infrastructure and the ability to recover quickly–this is the antithesis of resilience.
For those like Susie (she declined to provide her full name), a retiree from the Rockaways who was displaced during Sandy, these issues are all too real. “This is my home,” she says, “I’m not going to move because of this storm or the next storm.”
To cope during the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, she relied on friends in her neighborhood for housing and other basic needs. In the absence of this social infrastructure, Susie would have had nowhere else to go. The surge in displaced residents following the storm sent rents through the roof, making affordable housing extremely difficult to find, especially since Susie has yet to receive any relief aid to rebuild or relocate. Social infrastructure filled the void where the official response fell short.
Last week Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city will not retreat from it’s shoreline. The newly released report solicits strategies to build robust transportation, coastal defense, and other technical infrastructure to allow communities to remain where they are. But, if New York City is really to ‘build back stronger’, the social infrastructure of its neighborhoods cannot be ignored.
Megan Marini is a designer, urban planner, and former Rebooter. She is currently the co-founder of 3×3 Design.
Since joining Reboot, there’s one word in particular I’ve been using more and more: empathy.
Empathy allows us to understand and share in someone else’s experiences. The concept plays a prominent role in design methods—where understanding the user experience is critical—but this kind of thinking is less apparent in the international aid and development space.
This might sound surprising. A deep empathy with victims of poverty or disaster should be central to the approach of donor organizations, NGOs, and social enterprises.
The caricature of aid workers and development consultants who parachute in, spend all their time meeting officials in the capital, and fail to relate to the people on whose behalf decisions are made, however, does have its truths. The typical fundraiser’s or journalist’s portrayal of aid recipients is also often dehumanizing. They’ve earned the moniker “poverty porn” and drawn calls for reform for a reason.
I would call these failures of empathy. Although I didn’t use this term regularly a few months ago, I’ve since found that empathy provides a useful framework for much of the critical analysis of the aid industry that I’ve articulated over the years.
The aid industry’s empathy failures don’t result from any lack of personal empathy among those working for donors or NGOs. In fact, the industry naturally draws people with high levels of empathy. Rather, the failures result from institutional and funding structures that produce a lack of collective and operationalized empathy.
We should think of empathy as a capability similar to creativity or analytical thinking. Similar to these other capabilities, some individuals may be more empathetic than others. And just as we can work together to produce more creative outputs or better analysis than we could alone, we can work together to be more empathetic than we are individually.
This is the essence of operationalized empathy: creating work practices and mechanisms that leverage our individual capabilities to better understand the needs of the people we’re serving.
At Reboot, where we do research and implementation, we see both the methodological and programmatic dimensions to operationalizing empathy. In our research, we draw from applied ethnography to understand people in their contexts and relationships, with all the complexity that entails. For our recent project exploring media development in Pakistan’s tribal areas, this meant hiring a local research team, training them to conduct open-ended interviews that avoided biasing responses, and helping them to interpret what the findings meant for their own communities. The process took time and reached fewer total respondents than a survey.
This approach also yielded greater depth of insight. When discussing elections and voting habits, the research team found that formal politics was far removed from the day-to-day concerns of residents in the tribal areas. Meanwhile, policymakers had trouble overcoming infrastructure and communication barriers to get to know these communities. The result is a deep disconnect felt on both sides. Lack of voter participation is merely a symptom of that deeper disengagement.
Instead of the detachment, objectivity, and external validity that’s so highly valued in academic research, we seek to understand people and communities at a very human level. Empathy informs our analytical categories as well. Where an economic or political framework might see corruption, an empathetic one surfaces the cultural norms and social expectations facing public servants. A broad label like “corruption” obscures the diversity of activities and motivations that have to be understood before a coherent policy response is possible.
On the programmatic side, empathy is trickier. It doesn’t mean touchy-feely management (though home-baked cookies do often appear in our office!). Rather, empathy calls for staffing and communication practices that reduce the gap between the source of funding and the people that funding seeks to help. Cultural translation is facilitated by hiring and promoting staff from the communities we serve, as well as staff who have lived in multiple contexts. Other useful principles include minimizing organizational hierarchy, trusting your team, and recognizing that much of the work is done in the field by the most junior staff.
Similar to analytical thinking or creativity, empathy also has its limits. The question of whether anyone can ever truly understand someone else’s perspective is best left to philosophers. We don’t expect to fully grasp what it means to be an elections official in a small American town or a teacher in northern Nicaragua, but empathy—deliberately operationalized and leveraged—helps us get closer.