TALEARN: Taking on big challenges for the field and putting our learning into practice05/11/2015
Next week, approximately 70 practitioners, researchers and funders will gather in Rio de Janeiro for the next TALEARN annual workshop. TALEARN is a community of practice with a commitment to deepening our learning about effective approaches to more transparent, responsive and accountable governance in diverse contexts. The Rio workshop will be the third time this community has convened to think about learning in this sector, and how to leverage learning to improve practice (check out highlights from the first and second meetings).
TALEARN is a unique space where diverse individuals interested in transparency and accountability can have frank conversations about challenges and opportunities, and can think together about how to apply lessons learned. In the spirit of an honest appraisal of where we are at as a sector and were we could be going, T/AI has put together a set of challenges and propositions to frame the TALEARN discussion in Rio. Most of these ideas are not new, some have been circulating for several years (many are echoes of suggestions from a comprehensive look at the field – from five years ago). However, these issues continue to come up in conversations with diverse actors in the sector, so T/AI has tried to pull them together in a coherent way around a series of ideas or principles. We offer them here as a hopefully provocative conversation starter for the TALEARN workshop, in which we will unpack many of these ideas, explore how they can be – and are presently being – put into practice, and ask what obstacles remain to moving to more effective practices.
Sounds simple, right? Have a look and judge for yourself.
- Theories of Change and Political Analysis: Mapping Power
Challenge: Efforts to strengthen responsive and accountable governance often make simplistic assumptions about how transparency and citizen participation lead to accountability that do not reflect a deep and iterative understanding of the political realities and power structures that limit government accountability.
Proposition: Theories of Change and ongoing learning efforts should be oriented towards unpacking, mapping and analyzing the accountability ecosystem, thus informing efforts to navigate the complexities of ‘accountability politics’.
- Isolation versus integration: Scaling up as connecting the dots
Challenge: Isolated and fragmented transparency and accountability interventions often do not strategically engage with the ecosystem of accountability actors, mechanisms and processes to address the structural causes of corruption, impunity and poor service delivery, but rather more superficial symptoms.
Challenge: ‘Scaling up’ a transparency and accountability effort generally means replicating interventions or otherwise incorporating more [users, participants, localities, data, etc.] that are even less likely to strategically engage with the accountability ecosystem.
Proposition: Efforts to strengthen accountability (around a specific issue or the ecosystem in general) should aim to ‘connect the dots’ of the accountability ecosystem to address multiple entry points, arenas, and ‘links in the chain’.
- NGO-ization, Project-ization, tool-itis, and other illnesses
Challenge: Transparency and accountability efforts are often undertaken by a narrow set of actors, frequently carrying out pre-determined and short-term projects based around a single tool or tactic that fail to build up countervailing power throughout the accountability ecosystem.
Proposition: More successful efforts to strengthen transparency and accountability involve diverse organizations, approaches, and tactics into both individual campaigns and the broader accountability ecosystem.
- Mobilizing Citizen-led Accountability Efforts: Getting Real about Collective Action
Challenge: Accountability efforts generally rely on citizen participation, but often fail to strengthen meaningful engagement through citizen-centric organizations or movements, rather promoting narrow involvement by individuals, isolated groups, or professional NGOs.
Proposition: A strong and functioning accountability ecosystem requires citizens to act collectively through capable, autonomous and inclusive citizen organizations and movements, working strategically with NGO allies and external supporters to constitute an effective ‘countervailing power’ for both demanding accountability and working collaboratively to bring it about.
- Learning and Impact: Learning that Improves our Practice
Challenge: Funding practices often limit the enabling environment (resources, capacities and incentives) for organizations to strengthen learning processes that could inform adaptation and iteration in their strategies and actions.
Challenge: The impact of transparency and accountability interventions is often defined and imposed externally, according to simplistic, decontextualized, short-term and measurable indicators, forcing organizations to shape their activities and learning along these lines.
Proposition: An enabling environment for real organizational learning consists of:
- Strengthening learning capacities/processes that are embedded in and directly inform the way that organizations work rather than just ticking learning boxes;
- Longer-term, core funding that allows for flexible and adaptive approaches based on lessons learned;
- Implementing reporting approaches that support/reinforce learning and adaptation (or at least are flexible and unobtrusive).
Proposition: Impact needs to be reframed away from a focus on generalizable lessons about ‘what works’ or ‘what failed’ to actionable intelligence that informs strategic and practical decisions by organizations.
The big question we are asking, and potentially providing one set of answers towards, is how should we be working to address the causes of unresponsive and unaccountable governance, which are complex, systemic and political in nature? This involves moving beyond linear thinking and tool-based approaches to more integrated, system-wide approaches that focus on shifting the power relationships and political dynamics that underpin real accountability.
If these ideas resonate with your experience, or you think they are way off the mark, please join the conversation. Some of us will gather in Rio to discuss these ideas and others emerging in the transparency and accountability field. But those who are not, please reach out and let us know what you think. You can contact Brendan Halloran (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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