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From ‘feedback loops’ to ‘responsive governance’

Blog | January 29, 2014 | Rosemary McGee

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Making All Voices Count’s Research and Evidence Component last week undertook a series of thematic discussions as part of a sequenced learning process. Below is a summary of the third discussion which took place, led by Researcher Rosemary McGee:

The concept of ‘feedback loops’

The concept of ‘feedback loops’, prominent in the thinking that gave rise to the Making All Voices Count programme, is not universally popular among all proponents of responsive, accountable governance.  I kicked off this debate by asking participants’ views on the advantages and disadvantages of using this concept.  The views came thick and fast.

Participants pointed to various aspects of ‘feedback loop’ thinking that detract from the depth and scale of change needed if governance is to become responsive, as distinct from governments giving the odd response to citizens:

  • ‘Feedback loop’ thinking suggests that the role for citizens is downstream, once a policy or service has already been delivered to them, with decision-making and budget allocation continuing to happen far upstream, without any citizens being engaged in them (John Gaventa; Albert van Zyl).
  • ‘Feedback loops’ are technical loops, happening in the midst of accountability ecosystems which are dominated by political cycles and dynamics. Focusing on them cuts out of the picture crucial historical and electoral dimensions (Brendan Halloran).
  • Rather than conveying to governments the full measure of what responsiveness actually entails, the term allows them to develop a no-pain version – it acts as ‘an open door to tokenistic participation and responsiveness’ (Tiago Peixoto).

As for what to do about these limitations, there was no shortage of ideas

Conceptually speaking, some participants agreed on the need to think and research more systematically about the incentives and motivations that contribute to or inhibit government responsiveness. In proposing to explore government responsiveness by trying to identify incentives and motivations, these dialogue participants were taking a political economy approach.  A similar approach is taken by some recent studies which highlight the advantages of political economy framings over the traditional political science approach to theorizing accountability relationships, usually referred to as the ‘principal-agent problem’, which is particularly inadequate for explaining social accountability relationships.  (See for instance the recently concluded African Power and Politics Programme led by the Overseas Development Institute, or World Bank policy research such as Devaranjan, Khemani & Walton’s 2011 paper on ‘Civil Society, Public Action and Accountability in Africa’). 

Applying the lens of incentives enables researchers to untangle, for instance, intrinsic from extrinsic motivations and incentives. That distinction helps in formulating initiatives aiming to trigger the ‘right’ incentives to deliver government responsiveness (Paolo de Renzio; Vera Schattan Coelho).

But can and should accountability actors – government ‘accountability-givers’ and citizen ‘accountability-seekers’ – be reduced to utility-maximising individuals making rational choices in response to incentives?

Other e-Dialogue participants were more inclined to view the problem through the lens of critical democratic theory.  As they saw it, those attempting to enhance government responsiveness need to engage with the broader political dynamics of governance in very imperfect democratic systems, and ask themselves how well our accountability interventions adapt to these realities.  Seen thus, a ‘deepening democracy’ approach is needed, to move towards a more robust form of accountability than feedback loop thinking allows for – one which ‘includes inclusion and answerability to citizens throughout the entire policy and governance cycle, not just as one fragile piece of a larger loop’ (Gaventa).

The way these participants understand accountability is not as a neat, predictable, single linear relationship between two fully ‘knowable’ parties, but as a complex ecosystem, in which many and diverse organisms are involved.  Participants urged each other to ‘keep the concepts complex and messy, like reality’ (Brendan Halloran), and to ‘stick to the terminology of government responsiveness’ rather than ‘the feedback loop’ (Tiago Peixoto).

Altogether, then, a lively and enjoyable debate on the concept of the ‘feedback loop’, enlivened by a real-life example of fully-fledged responsive government from the Philippines.

Having established that ‘government responsiveness’ is a more conceptually accurate and operationally useful concept than the ‘feedback loop’, the dialogue moved onto the question of what it takes.

The experience shared of the Citizen Participatory Auditing project of the Commission on Audit (COA), the Supreme Audit Institution of the Republic of the Philippines, shows that this issue goes way beyond one-off responses. It involves the cultivation of a whole different set of attitudes and behaviours among both government actors, and citizens and their leaders (Aida Maria Ayaso Talavera).

What’s more, it takes a lot to sustain responsiveness.  Brazil was pointed to as a case of significant recent gains in government accountability and responsiveness which, although much-publicised, are fragile.  Electoral cycles contribute to this problem.  More robust actions to support these far-reaching and fragile steps require more a robust knowledge base on what motivates and obstructs them (Vera Schattan Coelho).

The Making All Voices Count programme was urged by some participants to ‘identify and define entry points for government in this process’ (Stephen Davenport).  As a programme operated by a consortium of non-governmental actors whose existing networks are predominantly non-governmental actors, we in the Making All Voices Count programme are busy trying to figuring out ways to engage government people.  We’re aware of the need to work in coalition, and to (re)shape ourselves a bit so as to offer more handles for government actors to take hold of.

But it is not only about offering them convenient handles.  Moving towards responsive governance or government can be inconvenient and uncomfortable.  It means changing norms of behaviour and thinking.  We were prompted to think about approaches to norm-changing as a way to grapple with the bottom of the iceberg that is power.  We need to:

  • unpack ‘government responsiveness’ so as to lay bare its informal as well as its formal sides;
  • think governance interfaces rather than governments;
  • think traditional as well as ‘modern’;
  • think electoral systems as well as user contracts or citizens’ rights;
  • think in terms of responsiveness by powerful actors supposedly regulated by governments (ie. private sector extractive industries or utility companies) as well as responsiveness directly by governments (Jo Rowlands).

To sum up:

1. How did the feedback loop come out of this dialogue? In participants’ views, there are dangers associated with feedback loop thinking:

  • excessive reductionism
  • the ‘ahistorical’ and disembodied nature of the feedback loop concept.
  • the danger of promoting ‘clicktivist’ ways of operating rather than more substantial engagement

These aren’t only terminological niceties: they may hamper the effectiveness of attempts to enhance government responsiveness.

2. What does it take to secure government responsiveness? The answer is, a lot, and don’t let anyone from any disciplinary background tell you otherwise.  More research that takes into account power dynamics rather than just technocratic incentives.  Greater familiarity between citizens and government actors, and between applied researchers and the messy realities of governance.

A late but by no means least contribution in this dialogue was that when a programme funded and implemented by aid agencies promotes responsiveness, the spotlight is on those aid agencies themselves to be responsive to its stakeholders’ claims and needs.  In this spirit of responsiveness, we will now go away and digest and think deeply about what you all said.  We’ll ask ourselves what we as a programme can learn from it and how we can best make use of it to help further our shared objective of more responsive governance.

List of participants: Aida Maria Ayaso, Albert van Zyl, Bartholomew Sullivan, Brendan Halloran, Erica Hagen, Irenei Kiria, Jaume Fortuny, Jo Rowlands, John Gaventa, Paolo de Renzio’, Stephen Davenport, Tim Davies, Tiago Piexoto, Tala Vera, Vera Schattan Coelho.

This e-discussion took place as part of a week long discussion hosted by Making All Voices Count from 20-24th January, 2014 which explored:

• Makingunderstanding of the conditions for fostering the right kind of innovation to Make All Voices Count
• Allthe aim of inclusiveness in transparency and accountability (T&A) work, and within Making All Voices Count
• Voicesthe expression of citizen engagement with the state or corporate actors on issues related to transparency and accountability(in tech-for-T&A initiatives, mediated by technology)
• Countgovernment responsiveness to citizens’ exercise of voice


About the author

Rosemary McGee, IDS researcher and Manager of Making All Voices Count‘s Research & Evidence component
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