Last year, we hosted four incredible interviews with folks driving radical collaborations across the globe. Our world has transformed so much in the time since, but the wisdom of these great leaders sustains. Take a listen.
We are actively engaged in the dialogue and debates of our space: on issues of social justice, global development, and democratic innovation, and on the ethics and methodological evolution of design, mediation, and co-creation practice. More of our writing can be found at Medium.
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.
Dave Algoso will lead a talk on “New Approaches to Social Accountability and Institution Building” at NYU Wagner on October 17. Co-sponsored by Bridge: Students for Social Innovation and the International Public Service Association, the event will spotlight Reboot’s pioneering methods and models of engagement in Nigeria, and discuss these approaches within the broader sector.
Ethan Wilkes and Jennifer Thibault will speak to “Human-Centered Solutions for the Public” at the Head, Heart, and Hand: AIGA Design Conference in Minneapolis on October 12. They will discuss how Reboot incorporates four disciplines of design—design research, communications design, service design, and interaction design—to create governance and development solutions worldwide.
Reboot is thrilled to welcome Faaria Volinski and Lauren Weinstein to our growing family. Faaria joins us as Writer & Editor, coming on the heels of two years in China researching and reporting on Islam in rural China. Lauren is our new Associate. A cross-disciplinary designer, Lauren will be contributing to service, systems, programs, and policy design.
Ethan Wilkes will be speaking at SXSW ECO in Austin, Texas on Monday, October 7. Alongside designers and panelists from the World Bank and USAID, he will explore underlying assumptions in design thinking that often go unchallenged and unverified during service preparation.
Dave Algoso will speak at the Service Experience Conference in San Francisco on October 3. He will discuss ethnographic approaches to better service delivery alongside a diverse line-up of designers and business leaders addressing the challenges of service design practice and execution.
Zack Brisson will be speaking at Media Rise in Washington DC on September 28. Joining the “Policy and Civic Innovation Panel” with panelists from the World Bank and Sunlight Foundation, he’ll discuss how to transform the way individuals interact with government and nonprofit organizations.
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.
Zack Brisson will take the mainstage at TEDxCarthage this Sunday, September 22. Addressing the event theme of “Trust As New Currency?”, Zack will speak to how the crisis of legitimacy facing governments worldwide is evidence that our social contracts are due for renegotiation.
Dave Algoso is speaking today at “Mobile Money: Technology to Transform Transactions“, hosted by the Center for Effective Global Action at the University of California. The conference explores the possibility of anyone with a phone being able to send and receive money across the market stand, or across the world conveniently, reliably, and securely. Dave is joining the panels “Engaging Clients and Customizing Products” and “Integrating Support for Financial Decision Making”.
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.
Reboot is pleased to present the launch of A Promise to Every Child: Developing a Regional Policy for Children in Nicaragua’s Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region. With this latest project, we explored how to operationalize empathy in the policymaking process. Working with UNICEF, our goal was to equip officials in Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Autonomous Region with the tools and perspectives to engage their own communities toward the creation of a children’s rights policy.
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!
We are delighted to welcome Kristen Malone and Adam Parker to our growing team. Kristen is Reboot’s finance czar, charged with advancing our financial and administrative systems as our business grows. Adam joins the creative team as design wizard, bringing new talent to crafting all our visual materials.
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!
The final stop on this week’s empathy talk shop, we’re hosting Putting People First: Enabling Empathy in Policymaking at the Centre for Social Innovation tonight. Joined by a select group of practitioners, policymakers, and thought leaders, we’ll explore the potential of greater uses of empathy in policymaking in the context of international development.
Ethan Wilkes and Zack Brisson are continuing Reboot’s talk shop on operationalizing empathy today at UNICEF with Natalia Adler and Rafael Villa. For this event, they’ll explore empathy as a tenet of social innovation in development through recent work in Nicaragua.