Three years ago, Renee Ho and I reflected on this blog about the changing nature of intermediation. Intermediation, we argued, was becoming localized and decentralized. Citizens were better able to express their needs and priorities, aided by new online tools. Service providers and implementers could no longer “control the narrative” because their donors and other stakeholders could see what people thought of their work. We argued that International Civil Society Organizations (ISCOs) should reconfigure to enable and amplify the effects of stronger connections, transparency and accountability.
Three years on, the shift to a more connected world is accelerating. The opportunity – and need – for smart, evolving ISCO intermediation is stronger than ever. In this follow-up, my colleague Megan Campbell and I would like to discuss three lessons learned, which together should help shape the evolution of ICSOs over the coming years:
Listening isn’t action
Listening and engagement initiatives are proliferating. They are a great first step, but responding is the hard part – and increasingly the binding constraint. And listening without action is a waste of time at best – and breeds cynicism and mistrust at worst. I myself have been waiting over 2,000 days for a response of an issue I raised with a local government agency on the SeeClickFix platform. No one has bothered to even tell me whether they have heard it, and if so why they can’t (or won’t) take action. Large organizations and governments are struggling to put in place adaptive management processes that enable them to respond to the voice of the people they seek to serve.
Don’t limit yourself to Incremental responses
In an recent article, Lant Pritchett argued that the gains from targeted interventions, of the kind favored by many aid agencies and practitioners, are dwarfed by the gains that come from broader institutional development and policy changes. Similarly, listening initiatives often focus on feedback about specific interventions – what can we do right away? But sometimes we need to step back and ask what type of fundamental shifts in resources, decision-making power, and institutional processes do we need to bring about more profound and longer-lasting changes?
Conversation is key
In 2015 I celebrated shifting the power toward individual donors and users. Yet this does not mean decisions should be made by plebiscite. The true power of feedback comes from rich conversations that generate new ideas and understanding. Most people understand the need for institutions – political, economic, and social. They want to hear the insights of specialists, regulators, and leaders. They just don’t want those “experts” to make all the decisions unilaterally: they want their own voices and perspectives to be heard. They want to be part of a genuine conversation about what they need to make their lives better – and how to get it. The evidence shows that good conversations that include the people and the leaders as equal partners can lead to major gains in social, environmental, and economic outcomes.
Will ICSOs seize the opportunity, open their doors, and seek out rich conversations with the people they seek to serve? Will they create adaptive management processes that close the loop by changing what they do – sometimes incrementally, sometimes fundamentally? Or will they hunker down, reinforce their defenses, and continue to try to control the narrative? Each organization’s answer to those questions will determine whether the organization survives and leads – or dwindles into irrelevance.