In 2015, Accountability Lab won one of the top spots in Making All Voices Count's Global Innovation Competition with their project that brings tech-savvy youth activists together with Pakistan's open data movement.
A year on, the team discuss one of their biggest successes - unblocking funding for building colleges in Punjab - and why they think that we must invest in better public campaigns; in time to build government relationships; and in understanding that "success is as much about perseverance as innovation".
In February, we reported on the progress we were making in our efforts- with Making All Voices Count support- to close the loop on key service delivery issues in Rawalpindi, Punjab.
Through ongoing outreach, social media and public pressure campaign, we managed to secure a series of pledges for reform in the education sector; signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the district government for ongoing monitoring not just of schools, but of public health facilities; and trained Members of the Provincial Assembly (MPAs) on citizen inputs to fill constitutional gaps around service delivery issues. These inputs were then discussed at the provincial assembly of Punjab.
Making our voices count
This represented incredible progress, but since then we’ve taken this work even further. We’ve found that the process of making people in government accountable for their decisions- when it works- can lead to a virtuous cycle of reforms. Our next step was to focus on two colleges that the government of Rawalpindi had begun to build in 2007 but which remain incomplete and abandoned, despite government expenditure of over Rs. 4.2 million. As a result, thousands of young students in these areas have to travel elsewhere- at great time and expense- for their studies.
We discovered that the estimated cost for the completion of the colleges is Rs. 46 million and immediately set about advocating for this amount to be allocated within the provincial budget for the necessary construction. It is our right- as students ourselves, after all- to have access to education in a fair, affordable and accessible manner. Our campaign to make our voices count on this issue had four key elements- both on and off line:
- Social and mainstream media outreach - we continued to take photos and videos of the conditions of the colleges, and began tweeting at journalists to make them aware of the issues and of our efforts. Soon, we began to garner significant attention in both the newspapers and television. We also wrote articles and letters ourselves on our Tumbhibolo blog, local and national newspapers- including the Express Tribune, the Pakistani partner publication of the New York Times. This helped us build widespread awareness among people in Rawalpindi about our campaign- to the point where it was very difficult for people in power to ignore our voices.
- Public rallies - we then moved in tandem from media outreach to old-fashioned rallying. We mobilized a campaign in front of the colleges for their completion which brought several hundred people together to call for their rights. Local residents came out in droves to support our campaign, mobilizing further interest from the media. At this point, the issue of the colleges had become a central conversation point in Rawalpindi, with many citizens beyond out networks beginning to comment on the issue in their communities and online.
- Door-to-door campaigning - we fanned out across the municipality with flyers about the campaign and began knocking on doors, telling residents, shopkeepers and religious leaders about why the completion of the colleges is our right. We visited over 130 community members, answered questions about the campaign and used our visits as the basis for a larger discussion with citizens about the role of government, the need for information on public spending and services, and the rights of citizens to speak-up.
- Awareness camp - we also organized an awareness camp in front of the two Dhoke Syedan colleges and invited the heads of all of the major political parties at the local, provincial and national levels (Tehreek-e-Insaf, Jamat-e-Islami, Pakistan Peoples’ Party, Pakistan Muslim League (N) and Pakistan Muslim League (Q)) to attend. The event also included a number of well-known local personalities and commentators and was a rare example of political opponents sitting under the same tent- literally and figuratively- in support of a cause.
As a result of these efforts, a Member of the Provincial Assembly (MPA) filed an adjournment motion in the assembly against the delay in completion of the colleges; and a local Member of the National Assembly (MNA) promised work would begin on the colleges in 10 days, with work to be completed within 6 months. To make sure that this happened, we filed RTI requests with the directorate of colleges and received a notice indicating the approval of funds in the budget, and we are now monitoring construction to make sure classes can begin soon, as promised.
What are we learning?
This was the first citizens’ campaign in Rawalpindi that used a combination of collaborative techniques - social and traditional media, rallies, campaigning and awareness-raising and RTI requests - to generate real, tangible public service delivery changes. We’ve learned three key lessons about how to close the feedback loop through this phase of our work.
First, move from the general to the specific. That is to say that campaigns to generate accountability work best when there is a core, manageable and achievable target. Previously, when we spoke to community members about accountability, the concept could be confusing. But when we came to them with a specific campaign to build colleges, they understood immediately why raising their voices in support was important.
Second, build political relationships over time. We managed to bring all of the political parties under one tent not by asking them to attend our awareness camp on the day- but by getting to know them over the past year. We built trust with them through repeated visits, updates and positive conversations about what we wanted and why. So when it was time to bring them together in a show of support, we could demonstrate political buy-in from across the spectrum.
Third, success is as much about perseverance as innovation. There is a lot of emphasis on new, creative ideas for accountability tools and approaches. These are important and we have certainly used ICT tools among others as part of our efforts. But what really made the difference for our campaign seems to have been our perseverance- we have dedicated our spare time to this over almost a year, constantly tweeting at decision-makers, filing RTI requests and spreading the word. These efforts individually may feel disparate, but over time, they can collectively build momentum.
Encouraged by our success to date and the realization that we can bring about the change we want to see through careful and coordinated activism, we’re scaling up our ambitions. We are now planning to carry out similar campaigns with our friends in other parts of Punjab, and have already started a sister campaign labeled #JawabDahiMeraHaq (#accountabilityismyright) through which we are engaging young people across the province. Too often in Pakistan, governance appears to be an exclusionary process through which corrupt and inefficient systems are perpetuated by a narrow political elite. We’ve shown that opening up governance to citizens is possible- and now the process has started, we’re not going to let it stop.