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.
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