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Open governance – the complexity of scale

Blog | December 6, 2016 | Duncan Edwards

It’s been a busy few months in Making All Voices Count. The programme’s strategic focus has shifted towards maximising opportunities for learning from the wide range of innovative projects and research the programme has supported.

While I’ve been managing the MAVC research programme, we have built up a diverse portfolio of over 60 research projects, some completed, the majority coming to an end over the next year.

That’s a lot of new knowledge and evidence to bolster and inform the work of the diverse actors engaging in the open government space.


In my quieter moments, I’ve been pushing forward my own research, looking at innovation and technology in the context of transparency and accountability. I’ve also found time to participate in a number of fascinating events, such as IODC 2016, the inception meeting of the new IDS-led Empowerment and Accountability Research Programme, and the Open Up event hosted by Omidyar Network. This post is a reflection on some common threads that have emerged from these different spaces and experiences.

Tech, open governance and how change happens

At IODC and Open Up there was a real thirst to get to grips with where the recent explosion of technological innovations really fits, and how these innovations can realise their potential for enabling citizens to better hold their governments accountable. An exciting new paper by Jonathan Fox – co-published by Making All Voices Count and the IDS-led Empowerment and Accountability Research Programme – offers some key pointers on this, by drawing back from the coalface and looking at the bigger picture. What accountability strategies seem to be showing most promise? And where within these strategies do technologies appear to offer useful additions to the processes of monitoring, advocacy and collective action?

Jonathan – and others, like Brendan Halloran and Joy Aceron – having been arguing for a while now that we need to operate in more strategic, systemic, vertically integrated and politically savvy ways to be more effective in achieving accountability. But how much of our work utilising technology is really taking this on board?

An issue related to this question, that I’ve discussed numerous times with people working on open government over the past few years, came up again during the Empowerment and Accountability Research Programme inception meeting, regarding an input by Oxfam’s Duncan Green. When we think and talk about ‘theories of change’, we tend to be too grandiose, placing ourselves too close to the centre of the change process, and conflating our ‘theory of change’ with our ‘theory of action’. To drop the jargon for a moment – we mix up how we think change happens with what we think our actions will do to contribute to change.

For example, when we looked at Making All Voices Count’s theory of change after two years, we could see that things labelled 'assumptions' were not actually assumptions at all: they were the aspirations of the programme designers, rather than true reflections of the way tech-induced changes in governance were actually happening. So we revised our theory of change, and now they are not framed as starting assumptions but as the outputs and activities the programme needs to deliver – that is, the changes we want to see.

One of the problems with mistaking what we want to see with what we actually see – and overestimating our own influence as change agents – is that the whole endeavour becomes huge, complex and difficult to operationalise with the limited resources, skills, relationships and experience we bring to bear in our initiatives. So, when we look at calls for more strategic, vertically integrated or ecosystem approaches, does the whole thing just look too big to be dealt with by a single initiative – say, the establishment of a feedback loop in the delivery of a health programme? Might it be more useful if this single initiative, while focusing on getting the feedback loop working, is also very clear on what it is not seeking to achieve directly, and also how it fits within a bigger, broader picture where others are taking on other parts of the system?

When we do recognise that we need to be more strategic – to work with others to build coalitions – is the way we can forge and build these links constrained by the way our work is funded? Donor pressure to demonstrate specific, attributable results is such that practitioners may be perversely driven towards more ‘containable’ and tactical projects which can be more easily reported on. Does this mean that we are actually being driven away from working in the coalitions which have the best chance of achieving the changes we’re working towards?

Rather than seeing a vertically integrated approach to accountability as a blueprint or grand plan – and painting over reality with our own aspirations – would it be more useful to be humble? What if we cut out the ‘open wishing’ and over-promising and recognise that we can’t possibly do everything? Could we then use these approaches to give us the strategic guidance to maximise the chances that our part of the jigsaw fit in to a wider, systemic change? Within MAVC learning spaces we’ve used work by Fox, Aceron and Halloran as a frameworks for learning. We’ve found that viewing what we’re doing through the lens of vertical integration can give us valuable pointers to help inform the strategies we adopt and the coalitions we build to create the change we want to see.

Broadening our horizons to take scale into account

Another hurdle in working more strategically is that it inevitably requires engaging with people who don’t think and talk like we do. If we’re attempting to work at different levels of government and across the breadth of civil society, this can be difficult. Different actors have diverse perspectives and ways of understanding and talking about how change happens. It is so easy to get stuck in our own bubbles where we share the same jargon and follow the same Twitter feeds. It may be comfortable inside our own self-referential communities and networks, but staying inside them does little to broaden our horizons. To work collaboratively we need to break out of our comfort zones. We need to set sail into uncharted waters.

Within the open data community, we are seeing a lot of exciting work linking different sources of data, both vertically and horizontally, within government and the private sector, and into many other open data sets. This may be helping lay the technical plumbing to allow access to data at different levels, but is it helping to link the non-technical parts of the accountability ecosystem? Do we need to think about how we collaborate with other actors in more strategic and interoperable ways to drive greater accountability?

Fox’s new paper adds useful thinking for answering these questions. It considers a term which is often thrown about with very little thought – scale. It’s a word used to mean many different things – scaling up, scaling down, scaling out, perhaps even ‘designing for scale’ – but rarely does the concept get interrogated. This is surprising – if we’re ‘designing for scale’, surely we should be very clear what we actually mean?

This week many pioneers of the open government movement arrive in Paris for the OGP Summit to reflect on progress, and chart pathways forward to greater government transparency, participation and accountability. At this pivotal moment, when several OGP countries are looking to deepen engagement through subnational pilots, Jonathan provides some valuable and timely clarity and food for thought on how we can take scale into account for transparency and accountability, and where technologies might offer greatest potential.


About the author

Duncan Edwards is Programme Manager of Making All Voices Count’s research, evidence and learning component. He can be followed on Twitter: @duncan_ids
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