Building Bridges: Opening government and solving problems locally

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May 23, 2018

Alan Hudson, Executive Director

Last week at the Open Gov Hub we hosted a discussion with Michael Woolcock, one of the co-authors – along with Matt Andrews and Lant Pritchett – of “Building State Capability”. A full write-up, including insightful contributions from Sandra Naranjo, the former Vice President of Ecuador, and Rachel Kleinfeld, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, will follow. For now, I thought I’d share my comments, as a contribution to the emerging conversation about the relationship between the “open government” and “doing development differently” agendas.

Global Integrity is one of a small number of organizations that have been actively engaged both in the emergence of the Doing Development Differently (DDD) agenda, and in the evolution of the open government (OpenGov) agenda, including in relation to the Open Government Partnership. We were at the kick off meeting of the Doing Development Differently community of practice, and an early signatory to the manifesto that emerged from that event. We were involved at the infancy of the Open Government Partnership in 2011, through our former Executive Director and incoming co-chair of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) for 2018-19, Nathaniel Heller. And, in my former role as transparency and accountability lead at the ONE Campaign, I also helped nudge along the evolution of the open government agenda.

From our vantage point, we see two complementary agendas with huge potential for cross-fertilization, but a lack of exchange and learning. Few of the key players in the DDD community have been heavily involved in the OpenGov community, and the movers and shakers in the OpenGov community have been somewhat absent from the DDD conversation.

From the DDD community, there is a tendency to regard the OpenGov agenda – and the transparency and accountability agenda more broadly – as an example of overly normative one-size fits-all solutions. This perspective is helpfully made explicit in the recent valedictory lecture given by David Booth, at the Overseas Development Institute. If you’ve not seen it, the full speech is definitely worth reading; the history of promoting “Good Governance” by encouraging the adoption of supposed “best practice”, as Matt Andrews’ previous book on the limits of institutional reform made clear, is not a successful one.

I look forward to seeing how the primary funders, and others in the transparency and accountability space, including champions of open governance from the global south, respond to David’s important challenge. For what it’s worth, my take is that exploring whether principles of open governance can provide a conducive environment for trying, learning and adapting, and how local actors are putting them into practice, in different ways, in different contexts (see my recent post on What’s Cooking?), is rather different than pushing particular institutional forms as solutions to governance-related challenges.

From the OpenGov community, there is a tendency to regard DDD as just common sense, and to think that this is very much the approach that OpenGov initiatives are already taking. Again, I think there is an element of truth to this; Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) is pretty much common sense, and the emphasis that OpenGov initiatives such as OGP give to  country-ownership is not simply rhetorical. However while PDIA and the Doing Development Differently agenda might be common sense, they are not common practice, perhaps in part because they may not fit well with donors’ agendas and ways of working (see Duncan Green’s recent post). And, sometimes, the rhetoric of country ownership does exceed the reality.

We have been working to bring together the strengths of the OpenGov and DDD agendas in our programs and projects, for instance in our work on Learning to Open Government, in our Learning Journeys work with civil society organizations working to engage their governments under the auspices of OGP, and in our work on fiscal governance in Mexico. We’ve also been encouraging and supporting others to do the same, including bilateral and multilateral donors such as DFID and the World Bank, and multi-stakeholder governance initiatives such as OGP. We think that conversations and practical action to explore how one might combine the strengths of the OpenGov and DDD agendas are useful. And, that bridges between the two communities can be built.

One way of building bridges might be to consider the extent to which OpenGov initiatives – whether that’s the Open Government Partnership, the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative, the Open Contracting Partnership, or the Global Initiative on Fiscal Transparency – currently incorporate, or might incorporate, key features of Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation. That is, do they focus on locally-led efforts to address locally-prioritized problems through cycles of experimentation and learning that involve a range of stakeholders?

From our engagement with various open governance initiatives, we see the picture as pretty mixed. Yes, they are intended to be locally-driven efforts to address locally-prioritized problems in ways that involve a range of stakeholders. But the starting point for many OpenGov initiatives is norms that are claimed to be global as much as it is local problems, with plenty of encouragement to countries to focus on particular themes, and sometimes a tendency to copy and paste solutions from one context to another, whether that’s fiscal transparency portals or model commitments on beneficial ownership or access to information.

There are some good reasons why this happens. But the question of whether the balance between global norms and local problems is appropriate, and effective in supporting local problem-solving, is an important one. This is perhaps particularly so at a time when the normative appeal of open governance is being challenged, and the poverty-reducing success of a number of countries that have not bought in to the norm of open governance is increasingly clear (See, for instance, our late 2017 event with Yuen Yuen Ang on “How China Escaped the Poverty Trap”).

In addition, while open government initiatives are increasingly focused on addressing specific problems – in our view, a welcome rebalancing beyond normative arguments for good, or open, governance – the approach to assessing progress has not yet caught up and remains largely focused on assessing compliance with procedures. So, for instance, while a recent report from the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) makes useful recommendations about how commitments could be improved, the IRM looks primarily at completion of commitments rather than taking on the much more difficult task of tracking progress toward outcomes and impact. This means that the data that is needed about progress towards outcomes (that is, solved problems), and which could feed into cycles of learning and adaptation, is not being generated as effectively as it might.

Another way of fostering dialogue between the OpenGov and Doing Development Differently agendas would be to consider how the practical experience of efforts to open government, across more than 70 countries, and now at sub-national level too, can inform the DDD agenda. For instance, the DDD agenda might be enriched by considering:

  • How does the fact that civil society is an equal partner across many multi-stakeholder governance initiatives, including the Open Government Partnership, help in terms of building not just the capability but also the legitimacy of states?
  • How might the practice of cross-country peer learning that has been central to the Open Government Partnership – and has itself evolved through multiple cycles – be applied more widely to issues of institutional reform?
  • How can the evidence and insights from multi-stakeholder governance initiatives about the interplay between principles and practice, and between global and local action, be leveraged to drive more effective action across the wider development agenda?

Closing the implementation gaps that beset efforts to address complex challenges is common ground for the OpenGov and DDD communities. We think there is much to be gained by comparing their perspectives, and, perhaps, by combining their strengths. Openness can support the processes of trying, learning and adapting that are central to solving complex problems and to building capability. And processes of trying, learning and adapting can, in turn, support progress towards more open, more accountable and, most importantly, more effective institutions.

There is much terrain to explore, and many voices to be heard (see here for a follow up to Gilbert Myumbu’s usefully provocative piece about how DDD can better listen to and engage with southern civil society). Our take – reflected, for example in some work we have been doing with colleagues at the Open Data Charter and Open North – is that putting problem-focused, data-driven, learning-centered and adaptive approaches at the heart of multi-stakeholder governance initiatives can strengthen synergies between global norms and local problem-solving. And that this can help to ensure that such initiatives can be leveraged to close implementation and impact gaps, and to enable states and their civil society partners to build the capabilities they need. We look forward to being part of the conversation.

Alan Hudson
Executive Director

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