I just returned from the Making All Voices Count (MAVC) conference, marking the conclusion of a global innovation and research initiative focused on technology and accountable governance. As the program’s sub-title suggests, this initiative was conceived of as “a grand challenge for development.” What lessons does this complex, global grant-making initiative offer for TAI’s collaborative approach to improving accountable governance?
Collaboration takes time and effort. While the MAVC and TAI collaboration models differ in structure and purpose, various conference discussions reinforced the lesson that collaboration requires consistent and sustained engagement among the key stakeholders. Process challenges faced by many collaboratives (e.g. scheduling, competing priorities, and staff turnover) can easily spill over into (or amplify) challenges for the substantive outcomes being pursued. And complex models of collaboration may require longer start-up – and final reflection and evaluation – periods than anticipated. This is a further reminder to TAI that we dedicate the necessary time and effort to aligned efforts as well as regularly reflect on the linkages to the desired outcomes we are pursuing (not collaboration for its own sake).
Learning for improved grant making requires feedback loops at multiple levels. The MAVC conference reflected the diversity of program stakeholders, including funders, implementers, government and non-government accountability actors, and researchers from around the world. And conference content touched on project, sector, and process-level experience and insights. This range of stakeholders and perspectives generates a wealth of potential learning questions and feedback loops. Too many, in fact, to be addressed meaningfully. For TAI to sustain a learning approach that is right-sized to our strategy (and team), we will have to continuously prioritize learning questions and foster feedback loops at the appropriate level to assess our own progress, inform TAI staff and member practice, and support the effectiveness of TAI members’ grantees.
Context matters, and results may take time to roll up into field contributions. Context matters greatly at the project level for design and strategy to achieve social change. Those involved in the original design of MAVC recalled the global context at the time: the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring, the beginning of the Open Government Partnership, and limited funding sources for civic tech initiatives. MAVC is concluding in a context that has shifted significantly and that continues to change for accountability actors around the world. While MAVC continues to produce a rich portfolio of knowledge and evidence products, the challenge of translating context-specific programming and research into field-level insights remains all too real. And the time horizon for change in accountable governance outcomes is uncertain. TAI will have to track the context and our assumptions about that context during our strategy period.
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