Blog | March 7, 2017 | Michael Moses and Sue Shoal

Recent events are sowing doubts about the longevity of the open government movement. Elected leaders all over the world – from Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to Jacob Zuma in South Africa to Donald Trump in the United States – are regularly flouting democratic norms.

How should open government advocates respond? How can they maintain momentum for open governance when elected officials take steps to reduce transparency and accountability?

In late January 2017, a small group of reformers from across the world came together in Johannesburg to engage with these questions, reflect on the work we’ve been doing in the past six months, and try to generate some tentative answers.

This reflective learning workshop, the second of four organised and run by Global Integrity as part of the Learning to Make All Voices Count project, brought together six project teams from five countries – The Philippines, Indonesia, Tanzania, South Africa and Kenya. With the support of Making All Voices Count (MAVC), Global Integrity is working with these teams, and facilitating their efforts to take a structured approach to learning by doing – a process that involves regular, iterative cycles of implementing, monitoring, reflecting, and adapting – as they engage their governments through the Open Government Partnership (OGP). In Johannesburg, we spent two days in conversation, reflecting as a community on our projects thus far. Our goals were to:

  1. Identify what we are learning about power, politics, and participation, individually and collectively.
  2. See how we’re adapting to emerging lessons, and incorporating them into our everyday work.
  3. Reflect on, adjust and strengthen the adaptive learning process we’re using to sharpen our effectiveness.

Learning and adapting – emerging trends from project experiences

We collectively identified two trends that are emerging from the projects:

First, many project countries have recently undergone, or may soon undergo, political transitions. This poses risks for projects that focus on securing sustained support from elected officials at national level. And in response to these events, our partners are pivoting away from national level politics. Instead, they’re using the adaptive learning process to explore how grassroots participation – working from the ground up, with open government champions and institutions in municipal and regional governments, and strengthening demand for open governance in local communities – might be a means of navigating unfavourable country-level political dynamics (the OGP’s ongoing subnational pilot takes a similar strategic, grassroots-focused approach).

Second, partners are finding it useful to integrate learning into their everyday project activities. They’re monitoring and regularly reflecting on how things are going, and tracking how their strategies are playing out in practice in real time (instead of gathering data primarily for post-hoc reporting purposes). In doing, so they’re figuring out how to more quickly understand, engage with and shape the political dynamics that prevail in their contexts.

In South Africa, for example, our partners at the Democratic Governance & Rights Unit (DGRU) are closely tracking how the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA) is trying to involve other government agencies, and CSOs, in the design and implementation of an open data portal. Because the DPSA is thus far taking a more inclusive approach than initially anticipated, our DGRU colleagues are regularly, and strategically, exploring how they can more effectively leverage unexpected openings to maximise the usefulness of the data featured in that portal.

For other partners, using participatory processes for observation, reflection and learning has opened other dimensions of engagement with people at the grassroots. Including project beneficiaries in project reflection activities, for example, has inspired our colleagues at Prakarsa, in Indonesia, to adjust their initial workplan, and make sure that their research on e-government captures the experiences of local CSOs working on open government issues in their communities.

Broader takeaways – What are we learning about the potential value of adaptive approaches?

More broadly, are there general takeaways from these projects? What, if anything, are we learning about the potential of structured, iterative approaches to project implementation, that might be of relevance beyond MAVC, in the broader development community — especially for those of us working on open governance and the OGP?

With a few broad caveats — that these projects are still in relatively early days, and that any conclusions are extremely tentative — at least two takeaways are worth highlighting:

First, we’re seeing that, especially with the increasingly authoritarian tilt of many countries, domestic reformers pursuing open governance can in fact benefit from intentionally exploring and learning about local power and political dynamics in the systems in which they work. Project experiences to date suggest that, if open government advocates are able to take advantage of what they learn, and iterate on inclusive approaches to engaging with and shaping those dynamics over time, they may strengthen their effectiveness.

Second, the support that external actors – INGOs, donors, and others – provide to local change efforts may benefit from being adaptive. Organisations like Global Integrity and Making All Voices Count might sharpen our impact, and that of our partners, if we ourselves pay very close attention to how we can flexibly structure, and restructure, our support processes in order to help our local colleagues succeed on their own terms. For example, in Johannesburg we realised that our monitoring process can do a better job of helping our partners capture all of the evidence they’re collecting, from both formal and informal sources, and we’ve worked together to adapt our tools accordingly, with good initial results.

So given current events, and the challenges open government champions face across the world, even in OGP countries, what are we learning from these projects? Nothing, of course, is definitive. But early results suggest that, perhaps, in facilitating the application of more adaptive approaches to development work, external actors might be able to more effectively support and sustain progress towards open governance in today’s challenging environment, including in OGP countries.

In the coming months, we’ll be continuing on our learning journeys – individually as projects, and collectively in the moments where we come together to reflect and share. New challenges and lessons will undoubtedly emerge, and we’ll work out how to adapt as they do. And as we go forward, we’ll also be trying to effectively synthesise the experiences of our partners, with a view towards producing lessons that can speak to the broader development community.


About the author

Michael Moses is Director of Advocacy & Programs, Global Integrity and Sue Shoal is an independent facilitation consultant.

About this blog

Get in touch with us — how are you and your colleagues, especially those working on OGP, responding to the global drift towards populism? How are you learning and adapting over time, and / or supporting others in doing the same? Contact us on Twitter at @GlobalIntegrity and @AllVoicesCount. This blog was also posted by Global Integrity and the OGP.