Yesterday, I had the chance to attend the public launch of a new government transparency and accountability funding mechanism – Making All Voices Count. Held at USAID headquarters, the discussion featured a veritable who’s who of open government and transparency practitioners in the Washington area; probably 250 people were packed into the room. (Announcing a new funding opportunity certainly helps attract a crowd; it’s like blood in the water for sharks.)
For the less familiar, Making All Voices Count (MAVC) is a giant new pot of money put together by DFID, Omidyar Network, USAID, and the Swedish government to fund new approaches to leveraging technology for citizen feedback loops. The basic idea is to invest in new ways of using technology to better connect governments with citizens and to promote greater citizen monitoring of government service delivery and performance. Hopefully, this will lead to both improved service delivery and greater government accountability. While not directly linked to the ascendant Open Government Partnership, it’s clear that MAVC is taking its cues from the rise of the OGP and the “open government” agenda writ large as the new paradigm for driving public sector governance reform in countries around the world. It’s an exciting idea and the donors behind MAVC deserve some serious applause for putting their resources behind it.
MAVC is no sure thing, however, and runs some non-trivial risks. Chief among those is the forthcoming selection of the MAVC fund manager, likely to be a consortium of NGOs and accounting firms that will play a central role in designing and executing the strategy for doling out these new gobs of money (full disclosure: Global Integrity recently put forth a consortium of groups to manage the fund, a proposal that was rejected a few weeks ago). The selection of the manager really matters, if prior experience is any indication.
Several years ago DFID put up 130 million pounds through a similar “giant pot of money for governance reforms” mechanism, the Governance and Transparency Fund. KPMG-South Africa was selected to manage the fund and review all applications. If you’re wondering what a Big Four accounting firm knows about public sector governance reform, you’re not alone. Unsurprisingly, a sizeable chunk of the money went to large international NGOs deemed safe and established. For MAVC to be successful, it is absolutely essential that the fund manager be led by organizations that know the tech-for-government transparency space cold, not green eye shade types. (Another disclosure: Global Integrity applied for and failed to tap the DFID fund, so feel free to take any of this with a grain of salt even though we’re not striving for a sour grapes sort of post!)
Just how different MAVC ends up being from previous attempts to jolt the good governance agenda through cash shock therapy remains an open question. Compare these two quotes, one from the 2008 DFID Governance and Transparency Fund and the other from the MAVC website:
The ability of citizens to make their voices heard and hold their governments to account is fundamental to good government. Its absence fosters an environment in which corruption can flourish, and citizens are unable to assess the decisions of their leaders, or make informed choices about who they elect to serve as their representatives.
To address some of these issues, DFID created a £130 million Governance and Transparency Fund (GTF). The fund has been designed to help citizens hold their governments to account through strengthening the wide range of groups that can empower and support them.
(DFID Governance and Transparency Fund, 2008)
Open, democratic governance requires both citizens giving robust feedback on how government is performing and constructive response by government to that feedback. Transparent, accessible and accountable governments can better respond to citizens and ensure that political and economic progress reaches all citizens.
Our unique partnership will seek inclusive ways to empower all citizens to voice their concerns and demands, and to improve governments’ responsiveness and accountability to those citizens.
Feel like you’ve seen this movie before? Yes, MAVC has a much heavier focus on leveraging technology for citizen feedback mechanisms, and also encourages collaborations with government and even private investments in for-profit startups. That’s different from the 2008 fund. But it’s arguable that the two initiatives are more similar than different in key respects. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we hope that some serious digging into the successes and failures of the DFID Governance and Transparency Fund was done ahead of the MAVC launch.
Here at Global Integrity, we’re certainly hopefully that MAVC is different and more aggressive in its investment strategy than the previous DFID fund (we’re close to some of the players behind MAVC, notably the Omidyar Network), and we want this fund to succeed. The devil will be in the details, not in the top-line amount of money offered: fleshing out an explicit and aggressive investment strategy that goes beyond the simple rhetoric of “open government,” ensuring a creative fund manager is in place, and being ruthless in rejecting proposals that don’t push the boundaries.