Thinking through unorthodox ideas for governance change in difficult contexts

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 Accountability Lab/Morgana Wingard We are curating a new monthly series on Digital Gov. in developing countries. The series seeks fresh perspectives and insights into the policy, institutional and technical dimensions of technology and public management to understand how to make services work for businesses and citizens. In the second post of the series, we reflect on unorthodox, locally adapted solutions for institutional transformation in fragile states.

Some 1.5 billion people live in fragile states, “a group of countries at the bottom that are falling behind, and often falling apart” ( The Bottom Billion, Collier, 2007). These states are marked by repeated cycles of violence, and weak institutional capacity and an inability to deliver basic services to their citizens.

To break cycles of insecurity and to restore processes of governance, the WDR 2011 stressed that the priority should be on transforming institutions that provide citizens with security, justice and jobs. Building popular confidence in governance requires efforts to build inclusive coalitions at all levels- from the national to the local- to transform institutions.
However, the capacity of organizations to deliver change and sustain reforms is often weak in fragile states. One reason is that too many demands and expectations are placed on nascent institutions in a short period of time. Some countries have used unorthodox “best-fit” reform approaches that drive changes that are different from the more standard model for building institutions in fragile environments. These approaches allow for greater flexibility and innovation, although progress is often slow and uneven.

Nonetheless, compared to the processes of reconstruction that took place as recently as the 1990s, 21st century institutional transformation efforts have seen greater momentum. One reason is that information can no longer be held by a few at the center of power. In the internet and smart phone era, information can travel to the furthest and most remote corners of the world. More than ever before, citizens are aware of shortcomings in governance and public services in their countries and can hold governments to account. Another reason is that there is a greater willingness to experiment with unorthodox, locally adapted methods of service delivery. Technology based approaches to capacity building can focus efforts on specific capabilities that modern governments require. Rising citizen expectations, technology-based approaches and risk-taking by non-traditional actors in these states are placing pressure on governments to bootstrap their own transformation efforts.
Blair Glencorse is Executive Director of the Accountability Lab, an organization that is co-creating unorthodox tools and locally adapted technology based solutions to improve governance in fragile states. We got together recently to reflect on the kind of approaches that are proving effective in building justice, public finance and public administration systems in countries ranging from Liberia to Nepal. Ideas we discussed include the need to:

  1. Develop contextually specific solutions: In fragile states, it is usually the poor who lack access to information and public services. Understanding the context in which these citizens live is key to designing user-centered and accountable systems. In Liberia for example, the Lab spoke to hundreds of students to understand challenges within the educational system, and to help students create and incubate their own solutions to the problems that they face. Before long, the students developed a confidential SMS (short messaging service) suggestions box called “Tell-it-True” through which problems can be reported to an anonymous administrator who synthesizes data and works with the administrations and student governments to make changes. The system is now available to over 4,000 students in 5 schools and has recently been adopted for all public schools in the city of Monrovia.    
  2. Experiment with low-tech methods for digital inclusion: Even in the most tech savvy societies, a segment of the population are late-adopters or beyond the reach of newer technologies. In fragile states, access can still be extremely difficult or expensive for large majorities of the population. A recent paper from the National Endowment for Democracy, for example, indicates that in 9 of 15 West African countries, internet penetration is less than 4%. Digital inclusion approaches, therefore, have to be part of a broader strategy that includes low-tech or no-tech activities.  In Monrovia, a citizen journalist called Alfred Sirleaf writes up succinct news reports on chalkboards at key intersections of the city. His “Daily Talk” draws up to 10,000 visitors a day, supplying free and useful information in a form Liberians understand. A modest investment of US$3,000 (which was crowd-funded) is expanding the scope of the “Daily Talk” to information on government budgets, services, and laws
  3. Engage proactively with communities to draw participation. Providing citizens with an SMS feedback number or a website to report corruption is rarely enough. Engaging communities to contribute to improving institutional performance requires a proactive approach. Let’s look at two examples, one by a government (Pakistan) and the other by civil society (Nepal). In Pakistan, the government of Punjab has developed a citizen feedback model that sends out a robo-call by the Chief Minister to encourage citizens who have used public services to use their mobile phones to report back on any issues they faced. The government examines feedback data patterns to manage service delivery performance (more about this project here).  In Nepal, a non-profit organization called Galli Galli is bringing information on public services closer to citizens through an online tool called Nalibeli, to tap into the collective knowledge of the crowd. Public service problems raised through this approach are solved off-line through coordination with relevant government agencies in charge of the issues. The site is proving popular and has been accessed almost 200,000 times in less than a year.
  4. Consider open source software to lower costs and improve flexibility: While many public organizations have been slower to adopt open source software, civil society organizations have been leading the way, side-stepping licensing costs and drastically reducing implementation time. Tools such as Frontline SMS and Ushahidi are well-known and have been deployed hundreds of times, demonstrating the value of open source software for local tech-experts to use and adapt. In Kenya, mySociety has helped an NGO develop an open source, independent parliamentary monitoring platform called Pombola. Anyone anywhere in the world can modify the software to develop a similar parliamentary monitoring program in their countries. 
  5. Be persistent, design and iterate: Success takes a great deal of determination and flexibility to adapt over time Mozambique, which has made impressive strides after emerging from conflict two decades ago, developed the state-of-the-art e-SISTAFE public financial management system over many years. However officials, while recognizing its success, ‘lament the missed opportunity’ to design a system that ‘works to solve their specific needs* (Pritchett et al, 2010; Andrews, 2012). While non-profit innovators may not have deep pockets to build complex systems, they are successfully employing tight feedback loops to design and iterate simple solutions to governance problems. In Nigeria, for example, a core problem among Nigerians is a lack of awareness of their rights and responsibilities as citizens- making it difficult to hold the government accountable. Therefore, after several earlier iterations, the Co-Creation Hub, a social innovation center developed a mobile Nigeria Constitution App. The tool makes the constitution more easily accessible to Nigerians via mobile devices, and has been downloaded over 500,000 times. In addition, it also includes a directory of lawyers to help citizens access legal help offline.
*In a sign of public sector openness to untraditional ideas, a new e-SISTAFE activity in Mozambique will design mobile payment of teacher salaries (in 2 districts to start) to manage payments to staff in remote locations and to improve teacher attendance.
The importance of solving problems rather than selling solutions in fragile states cannot be emphasized enough. While technology is certainly not a panacea for governance problems, a combination of no-tech, low-tech and high-tech approaches can be embedded where appropriate into broader strategies for transparency, accountability and service delivery. As we can see, the pace of change is quickening and there is still plenty to learn- but it is in some of the most difficult parts of the world that the most innovative solutions for positive change are taking root.
Share your thoughts with us.What kind of approaches to governance change in difficult contexts works, what doesn’t, and why?
Note: Thanks to Furqan Ahmad Saleem, Sr. Financial Management Specialist, (Mozambique) and Joel A. Turkewitz, Lead Public Sector Specialist (East Asia Pacific region) for helpful input.

Photo Caption: Daily Talk in Action - Liberia

Photo credit: Accountability Lab/Morgana Wingard


Tina George Karippacheril

Sr. Social Protection Specialist

Blair Glencorse

Executive Director, Accountability Lab

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