A workshop on Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives and Governance: What did we learn and where to go from here?
On February 11 and 12, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (T/AI), with the support of the World Bank, convened a workshop on international multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) addressing public governance issues, particularly related to government transparency and accountability. This workshop sought to focus on understanding the ‘state of evidence’ on MSIs, and to share learning across a diverse group of individuals, ranging from MSI secretariats to researchers to civil society actors.
The workshop featured an overview of the evidence on MSIs (see presentation) and robust discussion on key themes, such as MSI theories of change, learning priorities, global-national linkages, and the involvement of citizens and civil society, against the backdrop of closing civic space. Participants shared rich perspectives and wrestled with thorny challenges.
See below for a summary of the event and links to key resources.
How we got here
The event built on previous T/AI events to start a dialogue about international transparency and accountability initiatives and to promote learning across a wide range of MSIs. Some of the key insights from those previous meetings were around the need for:
- Careful thinking about the theories of change (explicit or implicit) embedded in MSIs, and the assumptions underpinning these
- Shared learning (formal and informal) across initiatives and actors
- Better analysis the political dynamics inherent in such processes
- More thinking and strategies to connect MSIs to national systems and actors (especially citizens)
- Guidance to understand when MSIs might be an appropriate strategy for reform and when they might undermine other change processes and efforts.
Setting the stage
Tom Carothers opened with some framing comments about our understanding of governance challenges and improvements more broadly, and the role that MSIs are playing. He noted the key issues around integrating governance with other sectors, understanding and working with the political dimensions of governance, and the open questions around impact and measurement, and reminded workshop participants that MSIs are at the cutting edge of each of these issues.
Brandon Brockmyer and Jonathan Fox, researchers putting together a synthesis report on MSI impact for T/AI, then presented their work to date, giving a snapshot of the ‘state of the evidence’ (1 page snapshot here). Their contribution emphasized thinking strategically about how MSIs contribute to change. They cautioned that the outputs of MSIs—newly disclosed information and new opportunities for public participation—must be taken up by national actors and processes in order to generate tangible and meaningful impacts. As a result, we need to be careful about our expectations for MSI impacts, especially in the short term. A more realistic assessment of MSIs would focus on how they might tip the balance, in specific places, in favor of pro-accountability forces.
An opportunity for frank discussion and collective learning
Workshop participants represented a diverse group of MSI stakeholders, who don’t often get opportunities to interact with their counterparts in other initiatives. The workshop created spaces for specific stakeholder group discussions, involving the following groups:
- MSI secretariats
- Country level MSI actors
- MSI boards
In addition, workshop participants identified key themes related to MSIs, and discussed with others some of the specific challenges and opportunities related to these issues. Some groups generated interesting new insights or proposals for the MSI communities, others wrestled with thorny challenges that had no clear or immediate solutions. Topics included:
MSI – citizen linkages: What kind of citizen engagement and how to support it?
- MSIs can leverage the media to reach citizens, for example through radio debates or messages that interpret data in plain language. The focus should be on MSI outputs/outcomes that directly impact citizens. Dissemination can help greater numbers of citizen understand the information and may generate more citizen response
- Need to be keep in mind when engaging citizens that inclusion needs to account for diversity of citizens and scales (what to broadcast nationally, what to target at effected locality) and that there needs to be a conducive environment for citizen actors and engagement
- MSIs need to think about whether/how to link to broader grassroots organizations and citizen movements. There are different degrees of engagement, from informing them to building linkages to involving them directly.
- Citizens’ organizations and movements can be a source of pressure to support and empower MSI processes. However, citizen actors need to protagonists and active monitors of MSI processes and outcomes. Thus, MSI processes and culture needs to be non-hierarchical to be inclusive of citizen actors. It is citizens themselves who should judge the effectiveness of MSIs. This requires broad and diverse involvement and representation, but there is a need to think more critically about who can legitimately represent the diversity of citizen voices, perspectives and experiences?
Downside of MSIs: Are they distorting national processes and civil society priorities?
- There is a danger that MSIs can reinforce existing exclusions, for example gender, language and the ‘digital divide’
- MSIs more likely to be distortionary when they aren’t designed around peoples’ needs and don’t fit into existing processes of consultation and citizen engagement, that have legal foundations (e.g. constitutionally established consultation mechanisms)
- If the MSI approach serves to ‘showcase’ certain civil society organizations, this can create competition and undermine consensus-based decision making
- MSIs can become isolated enclaves:
- We shouldn’t expect citizens to ‘fix’ MSI enclaves
- MSIs should be based on and fit existing structures/processes
- Otherwise we encourage actors and processes to ‘fit’ the MSI
MSIs and the challenge of shrinking civic space: What can we do?
This small group discussion focused on issues in shrinking civic space and their implication for MSIs, which are focused on bringing policy change at the country level. How does shrinking spaces affect the prospects for sustainable impacts for such MSIs?
Civic space is integral to the success of MSIs. CSOs hold government and private sector actors accountable to their MSI commitments. CSOs balance the unequal power of the latter from dominating these processes. The example of EITI in Nigeria was described. At the same time governments and the private sector may be implementing measures and actions that significantly limit civic space. One example is legal and regulatory limitations on receipt of funds from foreign sources for domestic CSOs. A participant described the serve constraints on CSOs in Azerbaijan.
A challenge for MSIs is determining the threshold for concern/action. There can be a tendency to see CSO enabling environment as an issue external to the MSI. Restrictions on CSO enabling environment may not directly affect CSOs involved in the MSI, but may be critically important for building broader CSO and citizen support and engagement with the goals of the MSI. But all CSOs are facing significant challenges in getting governments to discuss enabling conditions for civil society organizations. It is important for MSIs to understand the political economy in which they are attempting change at the country level.
The small group discussion put forward a number of measures that could address shrinking civic space:
- MSIs should guarantee selection processes for CSOs that are insulated from government/private sector influence/control. In this regard connections with international NGOs may help preserve CSO independence. A transparent CSO process for selection, including regular rotation, is equally important.
- Where politically possible, MSIs can issue letters of concern where enabling conditions for CSOs are affecting the viability of the MSI at the country level. In a more pro-active measure, commitments to improve enabling conditions can be included in MSI National Action Plans.
- MSIs should maintain a watching-brief on enabling conditions, whereby they become aware of issues in their early stages through contacts with international processes involved in monitoring such as the Community of Democracy’ Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society or CIVICUS. MSIs may also link up with the relevant UN Special Rapporteur and take note of country reviews at the UN Human Rights Council.
- Do MSIs have the “appetite” to take on issues of civic space? While the mandate of many MSIs may not directly include reference to civil space, these are essential issues for many CSOs and relate to the importance of trust for the success of the MSI. MSIs should therefore configure themselves to develop formal or informal relationships with legitimate actors at country level to seek out or provide credible information on current and/or impending issues in challenges to civil space. MSIs need to develop explicit minimum standards relating to broader issues of civic space that will affect their impact as an MSI (e.g. funding restrictions on CSOs).
When do MSIs make sense? Entrance and exit strategies
We need to think more critically and clearly about when MSIs make sense and when they should close up shop.
MSIs might be considered when:
- When governance is suboptimal
- When reformers are unable to make progress
- When actors have a lack of technical capacity
- When there is a lack of trust among stakeholders
- When there are complementary roles, capacities and comparative advantages
- When duplication of efforts is avoided
- When there are local multi-stakeholder processes that can be build upon
MSIs should end when:
- It has been successful, in the sense of :
- The main issue has been tackled
- The right capacities have been built
- The issue has been built into nation frameworks
- Or it has failed, due to:
- It has run into a dead end
- It is being used for ‘open washing’
- There is a lack of political or civic space to continue
Several guiding principles underlie these suggestions, and include:
- Do no harm – make sure MSI is not causing negative consequences
- Make sure the MSI adds real value
- Avoid duplicating efforts/make sure you are advocating for and supporting existing efforts
Learning about MSIs: What research can improve our understanding about value MSIs add?
There is a difference between research and learning with respect to MSIs. Research can bring in theory and rigor, but needs to be linked to practical learning. Two streams of potential learning: General and Specific.
General: comparative research across MSIs and/or between MSIs and other governance efforts. Such comparative research should focus on what is innovative about MSIs, for example do global to national linkages work? How do they work? How do they work across different MSIs? What contribution do they make to positive impacts?
This focuses comparison on what is different about MSIs, rather than just do they work, which could end up revealing interesting but highly particular, idiosyncratic and actor-specific findings, much of which we already know (e.g. politics matters, enabling environments matter, etc.).
Specific: we do know that context matters, but we don’t always know how it matters. That does mean unpacking contextual dynamics in specific countries and looking beyond MSI processes. For example, under what conditions do you need parliamentary or media involvement, and how does this shape MSI outcomes? Is it less necessary under other contextual conditions?
We need to unpack contextual dynamics and influences in order to build better contextual diagnostic tools for practitioners, so they can understand key factors more easily. One example to draw from is Binding Constraints Analysis.
MSI global – local linkages: Typologies of MSIs
- Better understanding of how MSIs articulate global – national linkages
- Better understanding of the typologies that cut across MSIs
This would provide a framework for comparison between different initiatives, linking initiatives, and designing new initiatives. But what to compare?
- Nature of problem
- Rules and governance structure
- Principles or membership driven
- Who’s behavior is trying to be influenced and how
- Degree of formality of process
There have been some initial efforts (for example) to develop such typologies for MSIs, so these should be incorporated and built upon.
Going local: How can MSIs reach and be relevant to communities and local actors?
Three broad areas to focus on for getting real community and local involvement in MSIs:
- Make a case for citizen/local involvement
- Citizen/local engagement will improve the legitimacy of MSI processes and outcomes, and local government participation will avoid creating parallel processes
- Citizen/local engagement will improve the effectiveness of MSIs, especially by making them more politically relevant to a wider range of actors
- We need some good success stories about the benefits of local engagement in MSIs and how these came about
- Changing the culture of MSIs
- Citizen/local engagement needs to be built into the governance structure of MSIs, including local government actors
- There need to be specific strategies for inclusion of local actors
- This can be through CSOs and membership-based organizations (which need to be strengthened to achieve this), but must also be the responsibility of the MSI itself
- Base decisions on consensus from the start
- Identifying intended beneficiaries of MSIs
- There are different tiers and kinds of potential beneficiaries, they need to be engaged with a specific and relevant purpose
- Citizens and local actors may face risks by participating in MSI processes, MSIs need to take seriously potential measures to protect these participants from harm due to their involvement
- There is a need to develop some general principles about citizen and local involvement in MSIs that can inform specific MSI standards – what do we mean by inclusive citizen and local engagement and involvement? This must be related to the MSIs goals and be part of the MSI process, not a one-off occurrence
Additionally, the workshop featured a space to take the emerging learning and insights in a very practical direction, through a deeper engagement with the new Open Contracting Partnership.
Workshop participants discussed the OCP Theory of Change, assumptions and opportunities of OCP, and contributed new ideas and perspectives for the OCP team to incorporate into their evolving strategy. Some of the key ideas the OCP team took from this discussion included:
- Embed learning throughout OCP, including in the Theory of Change
- Be more explicit about tackling vested interests
- Focus on adding value where the ‘action is’ already, rather than creating new, separate processes
- One key success will be getting big service delivery NGOs to care more about contracting as part of their vision for better services
- Focus on quality and use of data first and foremost, then the production of this data
Many of the ideas shared for OCP were broadly applicable to the other MSIs at the event, but the opportunity of discussing a new initiative allowed participants to think more openly about how the integrate the issues discussed in the previous sessions of the workshop.
MSIs: Opportunities and Challenges
Throughout the workshop, participants highlighted specific challenges related to MSIs, many of which were previously identified and discussed in the previous meeting that T/AI has convened, but clearly require more thought and concerted action. Yet thinking also turned to opportunities that MSIs must capitalize on to advance their agenda.
Key MSI Opportunities
- Strong emphasis on promoting and leveraging learning (including building up the evidence base to inform decision making) and synergies across MSIs, particularly when operating in the same country
- Take advantage of current interest in (and funding for) transparency, openness and MSIs, but interest may wane so the time to make the case is now
- Further integration with global themes and processes (e.g. post-MDGs, broader human rights campaigns, etc.)
- Deepen integration with national level systems and actors (government, civil society), and thinking about how MSIs might contribute to ‘tipping the balance’ in favor of pro-accountability actors
Key MSI Challenges
- Relevance and connection of MSI goals, processes and outcomes to: A). citizens and B). country actors advocating reforms
- Limited and closing space for citizen/civil society engagement more broadly, and more specifically the actual representativeness of involved civil society actors and their ability to influence MSI processes and outcomes
- Potential of MSI influence to actually challenge vested interests and power structures that underpin lack of accountability
- Credibility issues related to ‘open washing’/lack political will, connection to real citizen priorities, and ability to demonstrate results
- Potential ‘crowding out’ and/or opportunity costs of MSIs can weaken other forms of engagement and reform, and thus thinking about when an MSI is appropriate strategy and being clear about trade-offs
Learning about MSIs: An ongoing process
One of the goals of the workshop was to bring together MSI practitioners with those engaged in research and learning related to specific initiatives or across the sector. The overview and synthesis work that Brandon and Jonathan are doing is an important piece of this, but there are a number of other compelling research efforts currently being undertaken or upcoming, that will provide new insights for understanding the role and contribution of MSIs across contexts. Several individuals shared important learning initiatives:
- Munyema Hasan, OGP – OGP research agenda
- Alan Fowler, Institute for Social Studies – upcoming MSI research across four countries seeking to understand the role of context and Interlocutors in MSI effectiveness.
- Amelia Evans, MSI Integrity – presented a study they carried out of the governance of EITI’s multi-stakeholder groups across several countries, as well as further learning projects they are undertaking around MSI mapping and MSI impacts, among others.
- Bernadine Fernz, CoST – external evaluation of Engineers Against Poverty’s performance supporting CoST
- Alan Hudson, Global Integrity – comparative research to understand OGP dynamics
- James Morrissey, Oxfam America – extractives and Follow the Money research
Where do we go from here? A learning agenda for MSIs
The two day meeting highlighted the breadth of issues and actors related to MSIs, and differing perspectives and priorities they have with respect to these initiatives. But across this diversity, participants clearly articulated a need to deepen our knowledge about how MSIs work, particularly in grounding global processes in national and local contexts, and what their contribution is to more transparent and accountable governance.
Conversations throughout the workshop often played out on two levels. At one level, there was significant discussion about ‘big picture’ issues and challenges. This included unpacking MSI theories of change (and discussing whether they could or should have one), thinking about how global initiatives intersect with national (and local) realities, and wrestling with the crisis that the closing of civil space represents for MSIs. On the other hand, participants identified and discussed many opportunities for more concrete sharing, learning and potential collaboration. Many of these conversations happened when stakeholder groups from across MSIs had an opportunity to engage each other, as well as when a more diverse set of participants wrestled with a challenge of mutual interest. However, some of the most important learning and connections may have happened over a cup of coffee, when casual conversation revealed unexpected opportunities for future engagement. These two levels of engagement and learning, big picture and more concrete, mirrors the dynamic of other learning spaces T/AI has convened, particularly the annual workshops of the TALEARN community of practice.
T/AI will continue to contribute to the evolving understanding of MSI dynamics. We will continue to organize and consolidate the learning that happened during the February workshop, sharing it back to participants and more broadly. In addition, the consolidation and synthesis of MSI evidence that Brandon and Jonathan are developing will be released in the coming months, accompanied by some more specifically targeted think pieces. Finally, T/AI will be collaborating with Global Integrity to carry out a deep exploration of OGP across several contexts, which should complement other country level studies of MSIs being undertaken this year. We commit to actively sharing the emerging lessons from our work and engaging with others who have a strong interest in strengthening learning about MSIs.