The city of La Paz in Bolivia is piloting a new tool called Barrio Digital—or Digital Neighborhood—to communicate more effectively and efficiently with citizens living in areas that fall within Barrios de Verdad, or PBCV, an urban upgrading program that provides better services and living conditions to people in poor neighborhoods.
The goals of Barrio Digital are to:
Increase citizen participation for evidence-based decision-making,
Reduce the cost of submitting a claim and shorten the amount of time it takes for the municipality to respond, and
Strengthen the technical skills and capacity within the municipality to use ICT tools for citizen engagement.
While independent journalists are bastions in support of good government, “independence” is not always an available choice. In Nigeria, for example, in a highly competitive job market that underpays and has little respect for journalists, many sway their coverage according to explicit and implicit political pressures and are sometimes expected to take bribes. One member of the media explained it this way:
“If there’s a cholera outbreak from contaminated water sources and the Ministry of Water Resources is doing an event, reporters will cover the event and not bother about the cholera outbreak itself. This is not because they don’t care; [editorial choices] have mostly become economic decisions. The Ministry will pay for the event to be covered, that is how the system works. You aren’t supposed to pay for news but you can pay to make news.”
In a media landscape like this one, where economic and editorial decisions are in conflict, international donors can provide vital financial support to independent media organizations, empowering them to hold governments accountable. But as my team at Reboot detailed in a report published this summer, providing strategic support requires a holistic approach, beyond program funding.
Because of its flourishing media ecosystem, Nigeria is a powerful regional case study for how funders might take such an approach. Even though Nigeria formally ended state-owned media monopolies when it deregulated broadcasting in 1992, the government maintains informal control of the news through political patronage, corrupt practices, and direct threats and violence. This is true both at the federal level as well as subnational; state and local governments, to varying degrees, use these tools to bend media coverage.
Examples can be found across West Africa, such as in Ghana, where we learned that the practice of purchasing coverage is so widespread it has entered common parlance under the word “soli,” or solidarity money. In this landscape, independent media struggles to be truly independent.
Nevertheless, the rise of the digital age is democratizing coverage control in West Africa. Citizens are breaking news and analyzing stories through social media. Their voices are transforming media—upending the traditional media models and inspiring new ones—and demanding that media uncover corruption and hold leaders accountable. This citizen-powered media landscape has in turn pushed the government to become more responsive to public discourse, potentially driving more citizen engagement.
The introduction of “citizen engagement” into law is an idea that is gaining popularity around the world.
New provisions in Kenya’s recent Constitution enshrine openness, accountability and public participation as guiding principles for public financial management. Yet, as citizen engagement practitioners know, translating participation laws into meaningful action on the ground is no simple task. Experience has shown that in the absence of commitment from leaders and citizens and without appropriate capacities and methodologies, public participation provisions may lead to simple “tick the box” exercises.
Thanks to the support from the Kenya Participatory Budgeting Initiative (KPBI)* and the commitment from West Pokot and Makueni** County leaders, participatory budgeting (PB) is being tested as a way to achieve more inclusive and effective citizen engagement processes while complying with national legal provisions. The initial results are quite encouraging.
Citizen Engagement (CE) mechanisms are most effective when the operating environment is conducive. A well-informed citizenry, an enabling regulatory framework, such as freedom of association, access to information, and petition rights, as well as institutional structures including well-organized media and a dynamic CSO-landscape rooted in communities all play an important role in making CE mechanisms function more effectively.
How about where such conditions are not available—like in fragile and conflict-affected situations? Are there any benefits in integrating CE mechanisms in development programs in such situations? Can CE mechanisms still help citizens engage with the state constructively when the state clearly lacks the capacity to respond?
Task teams at the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have been grappling with these questions since launching a pilot initiative three years ago to strengthen citizen engagement throughout its operations, responding to an increased demand for voice and participation in the region. The new MENA strategy also put citizen engagement at the center of one of its main pillars, to renew the social contract. Citizen engagement was no longer an option—it had to be integrated across projects even in contexts where institutional capacities were extremely weak and state’s authority was often contested.
Despite the initial trepidation, the actual integration of citizen engagement in fragile situations defied all expectations. True, the absence of conducive environments did pose additional challenges in making public institutions more responsive and accountable. However, these deficiencies were easily compensated for. CE mechanisms filled crucial gaps of state institutions, whether they were non-existent, weak, or compromised, by delegating tasks such as monitoring and prioritization of needs to communities.
Citizen engagement also helped in some contexts to reinforce positive interactions between the state and citizens. There is emerging consensus among scholars that state legitimacy is enhanced not by service delivery per se but by the opportunities the process provides for citizens to interact with the state positively. And citizen engagement provides exactly that by getting citizens involved in identifying priority needs, registering complaints, voicing disagreements, and providing feedback etc.
In other words, MENA’s experience in integrating CE mechanisms in development programs in fragile and conflict-affected situations has highlighted the transformative potential of citizen engagement, not only in improving development results, but also in addressing issues at the heart of fragility and conflict. CE mechanisms tend to empower citizens by giving them the space and channels to hold the state accountable. It facilitates a gradual change in stakeholders’ mindset with citizens realizing that they can influence the quality of services and resource allocations—issues that are typically at the heart of societal tensions.
When citizens engage with government officials, the state becomes visible and citizens gain more knowledge about government processes as well as constraints that affect government performance. They also gain skills that help them better negotiate and communicate with the government in presenting their demands more coherently. Such interactions often tend to strengthen the vertical link between the state and society.
Furthermore, citizen engagement can also strengthen horizontal links in society by increasing face-to-face interaction among community members. This enhances social cohesion by promoting trust across community members and improving social cooperation. By promoting collective action, citizen engagement activities also engender a sense of community, generating consensus and a common understanding of problems as well as potential solutions. Such collaboration strengthens associational links and helps build social cohesion.
For instance under the Municipal Development Program in West Bank and Gaza, citizens in each targeted municipality participate in planning committees on Strategic Development and Investment Planning. This process allows citizens to voice their priorities, have insights into the budget making process and participate in decision making regarding how resources are allocated and used. While improving the quality of services this process has also increased inter-community collaboration.
There are few better ways to reveal whether a government’s rhetoric matches reality than examining how it raises and spends public money. Are funds being spent on the things it said they would be? Are these investments achieving the outcomes that were intended? In short, are government budgets accountable?
The traditional model for how accountability functions is rather simple. "Horizontal accountability" describes the oversight exerted over the executive arm of government by independent state bodies such as parliaments and supreme audit institutions. "Vertical accountability" describes the influence citizens hold through the ballot box.
Between elections and outside of formal institutions, however, opportunities for influencing how governments manage public resources are limited. As a consequence, this simple vertical/horizontal model has proved increasingly inadequate for capturing how budget accountability works (or doesn’t) in the real world; this is especially true in developing countries, where democratic processes and formal oversight institutions can be somewhat fragile and ineffective.
Too often, government leaders fail to adopt and implement policies that they know are necessary for sustained economic development. Political constraints can prevent leaders from following sound technical advice, even when leaders have the best of intentions. Making Politics Work for Development: Harnessing Transparency and Citizen Engagement focuses on two forces—citizen engagement and transparency—that hold the key to solving government failures by shaping how political markets function.
The most challenging notion to take on board in the governance of today’s world is that not all that counts can be counted. We increasingly rely on numbers as shortcuts to information about the world that we do not have time to digest. The name of the game is governance “as if” the world counts. It might be a smart shortcut sometimes, but we are in deep trouble if we forget that we are doing it “as if” the world counts. Leadership should take making good decisions seriously. If the method by which we get knowledge and the method by which we make decisions is limited to what can be numbered, we are setting up a system of governance that’s systematically getting stuff that actually counts wrong.
Improving services for the bottom 40 percent of the population requires more than policy reforms and capacity building. The Inclusive Growth conference suggested that Bank operations may need to further encourage transparency of state performance, help internalize citizen feedback in the public sector, and empower local leaders to experiment and inspire others.
An active player in the transparency space, the World Bank just released its fifth Access to Information (AI) Annual Report. The report presents the evolution and progress of the Policy on Access to Information (the Policy) since it was launched on July 1, 2010, provides a variety of statistics, and highlights a range of transparency activities carried out in fiscal 2015. Since 2010, the Bank has pushed the frontiers to disclose more information and twice revised the Policy to keep abreast of evolving public demand—in 2013 to clarify declassification of certain Board transcripts, and in 2015 to align the treatment of the documents and records of the Board of Governors with the treatment of those of the Executive Directors. The following are select highlights from the past five years.
Enhanced information access. The Policy has provided the public with access to a broad range of historical and current information on operations, research, corporate matters, and Board decisions. The Bank has also received and responded to more than 3,000 access to information requests. The number of requests declined from 700 in 2010 to 474 in 2015, due to the Bank’s proactive and systematic efforts to disclose information online. The main entry points to the Bank’s wealth of information are the Projects and Operations portal, which provides detailed information on lending operations, and the Documents and Reports repository, which contains more than 200,000 documents that are freely accessible to the public. Further, the Archives Holdings website offers a growing collection of digitized records dating to the 1940s.
Governance structure and appeals. The Policy has established two robust bodies to manage the appeals process—the AI Committee and the external AI Appeals Board. A new chair of the AI Committee was appointed last fall, Stefan Koeberle, Bank director of strategy, results and risk. In 2015, the membership of the AI Appeals Board was renewed with the selection of a new member and the re-appointment of two previous members. The number of appeals submitted to these bodies has been low, possibly indicating that proactive disclosure and the system for responding to requests are working well. The appeals mechanism ensures that the Bank implements the Policy effectively.
Government reformers and development practitioners in the open government space are experiencing the heady times associated with a newly-defined agenda. The opportunity for innovation and positive change can at times feel boundless. Yet, working in a nascent field also means a relative lack of “proven” tools and solutions (to such extent as they ever exist in development).
More research on the potential for open government initiatives to improve lives is well underway. However, keeping up with the rapidly evolving landscape of ongoing research, emerging hypotheses, and high-priority knowledge gaps has been a challenge, even as investment in open government activities has accelerated. This becomes increasing important as we gather to talk progress at the OGP Africa Regional Meeting 2016 and GIFT consultations in Cape Town next week (May 4-6) .