Dragons, UNDP and re-thinking empowerment

In UNDP, there be dragons. After three days of exploration and ideation, UNDP practitioners at a meeting in Istanbul on ICTs, inclusive governance and conflict prevention faced a Dragons’ Den. Six ideas for ICT-enabled solutions were pitched – quite an interesting mix, reviewed below, with some general concluding thoughts. (I was a facilitator at the event – all opinions my own!).

Citizens speaking up

Two ideas tackled related questions of citizen participation in democratic processes,  from slightly different angles.

One considered how to give people tools for civic action in a society where most people aren’t putting pressure on government to deliver on its commitments. These tools would be based on data about government actions and would target making MPs accountable to their constituents. Two specific tools were mentioned: making info-graphics out of budgetary figures and tracking MP votes and actions in an easy-to-follow way.

With more time, the team could probably come up with other similar tools that make existing open data easier to digest by the public. They would also do well to look into existing work in this area, including the US Congressional Budget Office’s use of infographics,  this US initiative to help citizens track representatives and  this Swiss site that matches your views to those of candidates (read about it here too). Of course having access to data does not mean people will necessarily take up advocacy. Still, using tech to help citizens digest data is a great enabling action that UNDP can take in countries where there is some space for democratic dialogue.

The other idea tackling citizen voice looked at a specific mechanism to channel information about the quality of public services from the local level to the national level. The initiative would set up public councils to monitor the quality of services locally, using an online platform to process information coming from SMS, radio, social media and online forms. These public councils would be part of an Association of Public Councils that would report to the relevant parliamentary committees.

Whilst the idea of using technology to collect information on the quality of services has some merit, this project is setting up a parallel bureaucracy to report to a parliamentary committee. Perhaps it would be best to stick with a tool to create better information on the quality of services, without trying to prescribe up-front how that information is then used by citizens. There is a growing movement in many countries to use community scorecards as a tool for citizen advocacy on public service quality. One possibility for UNDP is to focus its resources on finding how ICT can make scorecards both more effective and less costly to conduct, perhaps by adding a simple mobile data collection tool and some neat infographics to present the data.

UNDP listening: to itself, to the data, to communities

Three of the ideas presented were ways for UNDP staff to have better access to existing data and experiences from other countries when developing new projects. One idea was to revamp the existing UNDP finance software (Atlas) to allow for simpler information sharing – an unlikely suggestion given that Atlas is proprietary software and this would be very costly. A second idea was to provide opportunities for UNDP staff to collect information directly from communities and feed it in to programs. The third idea brought these two together and proposed a comprehensive online platform for UNDP staff to design new programs. The platform would include a database (also incorporating information from communities), analysis tools and a link to Atlas.

UNDP already has a number of complex back-end systems (such as Atlas) to process information. I’m not sure another system (or a re-vamped system) would really help, but there is something to be said for giving UNDP staff tools to collaboratively mature concept notes (the first thing written on a new project) into project documents (the final document that gets funded). One of the dragons suggested that an analysis tool such as Atlas.ti could serve this purpose, and that perhaps what we need is a user-friendly frontend tool that pulls from all our existing backend systems.

I’m not certain we need something as complex as Atlas.ti, but I do think a user-friendly frontend for collaboratively maturing concept notes is a great idea. My sense is that UNDP staff don’t lack data or analysis capabilities, but they are lacking a place to think through how all this information should inform what to do, and what their theories of change are for any given situation. They need a place to share hypotheses, back them up with data and get feedback. Enter Hunchworks – a UN-inspired tool for collectively verifying hypotheses.

I’ve been testing Hunchworks for the past few weeks, and I think it’s the kind of intuitive tool that could change how UNDP staff come up with new projects. Of course no tech tool is on it’s own going to re-engineer the programming process – that’s a big organizational change! But as one of the dragons put it, we need tools that will liberate people to test new ideas.

Connecting peace committees

The sixth idea was a response to the problem of how to optimize conflict prevention responses through better information from people affected by conflict. The team came up with an initiative that would establish local peace committees and connect them to the police, to community radio stations and to each other via SMS. Alerts on rising tensions would be quickly cascaded through this network, and would enable faster and better informed responses from police and from local peace committees. They would also inform radio programming to alert neighboring communities. The strength of this idea is that it is rooted in a growing practice area that includes efforts like those of SUDIA in Sudan or Internews in the Central African Republic. Perhaps most notably, UNDP’s own Uwiano project has rolled out this style of connected peace committees across Kenya.

It’s great to see other UNDP offices taking up this notion of tech-enabled local infrastructures for peace. Communication of early warning alerts is an important component of optimizing conflict management responses through better information from people affected by conflict. But people affected by conflict have much richer insights than just alerts on tensions rising – and some of UNDP’s interventions could also look at how ICTs can enable dialogue to optimize conflict prevention responses. This is also a growing practice area. For example, USIP and PEPL have done some great work on using radio and SMS to set up two-way communication systems in conflict-affected areas of Pakistan. Sisi Ni Amani is experimenting with SMS pre-emptive messages on non-violence in Kenya. If we can get targeted peace messages out, perhaps collecting early warning alerts will become less important.

Maybe we need to re-think empowerment

Despite some valiant attempts to tackle big governance and conflict prevention questions in a short period of time, the ideas above are still very generic. That’s not to say they can’t go places! My feeling is they need to be broken down into more concrete initiatives that tackle only one part of the problem at hand. Too often in UNDP, there is a temptation to look for the comprehensive platform or system that will tackle all aspects of a problem. The ultimate forum for citizen engagement in policy-maing. The all-encompassing system for evidence-based programming.

Why this approach to problem-solving? In many ways, it’s a reflection of how UNDP sees its role vis-à-vis institutions, communities and citizens. Much of UNDP’s work is aimed at supporting governments deliver better for their citizens. This is important work – and it biases the attention of UNDP staff towards comprehensive, systemic solutions. Institutional solutions, perhaps participatory, but almost certainly rigid and uni-directional. Engagement with communities and citizens is mostly through and towards institutions, and it is institutions that are viewed as change-makers.

I’m not saying this is the only thing UNDP does – but it is a big element, and rightly so given many of the issues it deals with. I’m just not sure this type of problem-solving fits with the kinds of things you can do with tech. Or rather, it leads to a possibly naive tech-enabled solution: one that sees the tech platform or system as central to the solution, rather than its users. As one of the “dragons” rightly pointed out, building the ultimate platform for anything risks creating a parallel bureaucracy.

The problem, of course, is that the alternative does not fit well with linear, institutional programming. The best uses of tech for the social good take network theory seriously, and focus on making space for people to engage with a social problem in creative ways, on their own terms. This requires letting go of control, giving in to the fact that we don’t know exactly how people will make use of information and communication tools – and this applies equally to open government activists, peace builders and UNDP staff. That doesn’t mean we have no influence: we can design tech-enabled initiatives that are conflict sensitive, recognize assumptions around access to technology and are built around a strong hypothesis of change. But it is, after all, a hypothesis: if we provide these tools, we think there is a potential that this positive change will happen. The presumption that we can control people’s actions is not empowerment. At best, it is thin engagement – a term borrowed from Ethan Zuckerman, I’ve written about it in relation to peace before.

This shift in perspective is applicable beyond tech-enabled initiatives. It’s a shift in the theories of how UNDP can effect change in societies. It’s a shift that I think would make UNDP more relevant and attune to current trends in society. Technology is not the solution, but perhaps technology is how we’ll make this shift.

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