Is There a Case Against Citizen Feedback Loops?

Global Integrity
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Last week, I had a chance to attend the three-year stocktaking retreat for the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, an important donor collaborative comprising several leading foundations and non-governmental organizations active at the international level in promoting government transparency and accountability.

During one of the discussions focused on the community's challenges around learning and evidence-based strategy, I raised a heretical point: are citizen feedback loops overhyped? The glib comment came in the context of a discussion around the new Making All Voices Count grand challenge for development, where several donors are committing nearly $50 million to seeding, scaling, and learning from citizen feedback loop interventions in the coming years. (It also came a day before a big World Bank-sponsored conference in Washington, Citizen Voices, focused on the very same topics.)

Shortly after the discussion, I was cornered by friends involved in the fund who asked the obvious question: what could be wrong with supporting citizen feedback loops? My response: I hope and believe they're important too, but do we have concrete evidence that citizen feedback loops are always a good thing? Are they an automatic net win, or are there circumstances under which encouraging the use of citizen feedback loops for participatory policymaking and/or service delivery monitoring might actually be detrimental? Do we really know any of this with certainty or is our enthusiasm for citizen feedback loops more aspirational than evidence-based?

While I was admittedly tired and punchy when I sought to stir the pot at the meeting, I've been reflecting further on the moment since. I posed myself the concrete thought experiment: do we know of a situation where encouraging the use of citizen feedback loops might have been a bad idea?

I came up with one interesting case that I'd value feedback on: the financial industry bailout in the United States in the fall of 2008. The $700 billion injection of capital into US financial institutions (eventually known as "TARP") was concocted in just days by an incredibly small number of elite policymakers and bureaucrats within the executive branch; Congress was barely consulted, never mind the public. Despite hand wringing over executive overreach, TARP was quickly passed and the growing historical consensus is that it was the right medicine at the right time to avert a financial depression.

Would TARP have worked had US policymakers taken the time to poll a million Americans via SMS to solicit their opinions on whether it was a good idea? I doubt it. The right approach in the fall of 2008 was most likely the exact opposite of a citizen feedback loop: top-down non-public policymaking.

The bailout is an admittedly extreme situation, but perhaps it suggests that we should at least identify typologies of scenarios where citizen feedback loops are likely to be helpful, harmful, or neutral. If nothing else, these thought experiments need to be vigorously debated before we launch a salvo of activity around Making All Voices Count, Yelp for Development, or any of the emerging proposals focused on promoting the use of citizen feedback loops. Citizen voice absolutely matters, but it may not always be the panacea it's assumed to be.

For more good reading on this, check out Erica Hagen of Groundtruth Initiative: On citizen engagement and "feedback loops."

Nathaniel Heller

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Global Integrity
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