The Value of Open Governance: Adaptive learning and development


By Alan Hudson — January 21, 2016.

Open governance is governance that puts into practice principles of transparency, participation and accountability. Proponents of open governance tend to make their case on the basis of two sets of arguments. Normative, or intrinsic value, arguments hold that open governance is a good thing in itself. The idea here is that people have a right to open governance, regardless of its outcomes. Instrumental, or extrinsic value, arguments make the case that open governance is important because it contributes to better outcomes; less corruption, lower poverty, greater prosperity, for instance.

Both sets of arguments have their weaknesses. My aim in this post is to outline these vulnerabilities and then to suggest an alternative way of thinking about the value of open governance, a conceptual framework that has practical implications for those of us working to harness the potential of open governance.

On the intrinsic side, the idea that open governance, or rights, are good things in themselves is questionable. Normative arguments can be useful, but not everyone thinks that the same things are “good” (see my post on moving “beyond the Good Governance mantra” for more). This is particularly problematic when normative arguments are made about the form that governance should take, rather than the functions that it should enable (see Matt Andrews on “hippos in the Sahara”). On the extrinsic side, the evidence about whether more open governance leads to better development outcomes remains decidedly patchy, despite substantial investments in exploring “what works”. We need, I would argue, to think not just harder, but also differently, about the ways in which open processes of governance can make a difference.

In some cases, organizations (including Global Integrity at times) hedge their bets, asserting both that citizens have a right to open governance and that open governance can lead to better development outcomes. This can be a reasonable argument to make, and may have some pragmatic benefits, but it has led to a situation where the theory of change about how open governance can contribute to better development outcomes remains unclear and under-examined. This has contributed to unrealistic expectations being placed on the open governance agenda, and complicates the task of marshaling the evidence to assess what works in order to inform more effective action. On the ground this can mean that investments in supporting the open governance agenda are misdirected and fail to deliver the expected benefits.

Global Integrity’s strategy, developed in 2015, sets out a somewhat different argument as to why open governance matters. Open governance, we argue, can play an important role in enabling the adaptive learning process that is key to finding solutions that work in particular political contexts. Transparency helps to enrich the informational environment in which adaptive learning takes place; participation helps to ensure that adaptive learning is citizen-centric; and smarter accountability mechanisms can help to ensure that adaptive learning leads to effective action (see. p.11 of our full strategy). Put another way: openness enables the emergence of effective solutions in complex systems.

This theory of change helps to sharpen the argument and the conceptual framework for thinking about open governance. Open governance matters, not because it is a good thing in itself, or because it leads directly to better development outcomes (it rarely does). Instead, open governance matters because it enhances the ability of communities, to try, learn and adapt their way towards better development outcomes. This, it should be noted, is always about using evidence to navigate and engage with the prevailing political dynamics.

So, for example, a country’s efforts to reduce maternal mortality, through a process of implementing new policies and procedures, assessing their effectiveness, and making adjustments, will be more effective: if information is available about the measures taken and the impact they have had (and, perhaps, about other countries’ experience); if citizens are involved in the design and assessment of the interventions; and if accountability mechanisms are in place to ensure that service providers and public agencies deliver on their responsibilities by responding to citizens’ demands in an evidence-informed way.

Alan's blogpost diagram

This argument draws from and builds on the latest thinking on transparency, accountability and open governance, for instance Jonathan Fox’s paper on “what does the evidence really say?”, the work of Tom Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher on “a new development consensus?”, and the Hewlett Foundation’s revised strategy to make transparency matter, with its acknowledgment of the fact that solutions that work in one place might not work in another.

It is also in line with recent work on governance and development more broadly from Leni Wild (adapting development), Craig Valters (a radical approach to learning) and other colleagues at the Overseas Development Institute, from Duncan Green on how change happens, from Matt Andrews and colleagues on escaping capability traps through problem-driven iterative adaptation, and from Owen Barder and others on complexity, adaptation and development. The common core to this work is the idea that development is a process of trying, learning and adapting, with solutions emerging from the complexity of particular contexts and their political dynamics.

My hope is that a conceptual framework that puts trying, learning and adapting – adaptive learning – center-stage will provide a more helpful framework for collecting and interpreting evidence about the impact of open governance; that this in turn will provide a better basis for informing action; and that ultimately this will enhance the impact of the open governance agenda on development outcomes.

Image: Courtesy of Jennifer McKinney – Open Post

Alan Hudson
Executive Director

7 comments on “The Value of Open Governance: Adaptive learning and development

  • Alan, I really like the framing here and how you’ve managed to synthesize a lot of the latest thinking in the open governance and Doing Development Differently conversations. It seems to me like you’re still making an extrinsic value argument, but you’re going a step further and proposing a pathway through which “open governance” (a term we use loosely) facilitates feedback loops between a complex ecosystem of actors. Our hope is that those feedback loops will lead to 1) greater evidence of what works, 2) more policymaking informed by evidence, 3) greater responsiveness of services and policies to the needs of citizens, 4) co-creation of services and policies to meet the aspirations of citizens, 5) a virtuous feedback cycle that iteratively improves services and policies. We hope for all of this while soberly recognizing that the main driver of policy and public services is political self-preservation.

    I think that you’ve helped advanced our thinking by framing things differently. I’d love to see you go a step further and apply the above framework to different contexts — similar to what Steve and Archon do in pages 12-20 of Does Transparency Improve Governance?

  • Thanks for the feedback David. Yep, at the end of the day, the argument I lay out is that open processes of governance can play an important role in enabling communities to try, learn and adapt their way toward better development outcomes. So it’s extrinsic. But it also aims to build a bridge between the intrinsic and extrinsic positions, making the case that norms of open governance are valuable (including across contexts), but that their value is seen in their practical application in specific contexts.

    I welcome your encouragement to apply the framework to different contexts (and your nudge to re-read the Kosack and Fung piece). The project ideas that we are in the process of developing to implement our strategy do this, to some extent. We would love to be able to play a role in a wider and more systematic initiative to apply the framework and explore its value across different contexts, perhaps by working alongside the Open Government Partnership, TALEARN and the Doing Development Differently community of practice. Watch this space!

  • It is a good read Alan. Congrats. I enjoyed the framing of the problem from a different (even if at the end extrinsic or instrumental) perspective. I have two comments about the iterative process of trying, learning and adapting. It seems a bit like a ‘policy cycle’ to me and I assume reality will be much messier. In particular , I think that is worth asking who learns what when and how. In this way it is possible to understand how exactly the process unfolded (or is expected to unfold) in a specific area. The second comment, linked to this is the idea that key actors get to appropriate the learning from the process, building capacity at the end of it, even if the development outcomes where not achieved. It also acts like a safeguard in contexts where open governance could be resisted or even worst, where actors particularly in the civil society side, could face more serious threats. It also helps with preventing isomorphic (also known as copy -paste) reforms or initiatives. A larger discussion is of course about the the implicit value of the term ‘open governance ‘and its pluralistic underpinning, which can work well in contexts or sectors where everyone has (potentially) a similar chance to be involved , but may well not be functional in contexts where open governance could actually reinforce a logic of exclusion or dominance by established actors.

  • Alan Hudson says:

    Yep, exploring who learns, about what, how, where and when is super-important. This was something that I was keen to push on at the TALEARN event in November to get past a situation where everyone’s talking about learning, but meaning somewhat different and unspecified things. It’s also something which Craig Valters’ work and that of the Asia Foundation is very helpful on.

    Here’s my piece from TALEARN

    Here’s an excellent piece by Craig Valters

    And an awesome piece on “strategy testing” by Debra Ladner, with the Asia Foundation


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