Disrupt & Innovate

Reflections on Smart Democracy in the Age of Multi-Level Governance

25th September 2018 by Dennis Whittle and Megan Campbell

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.


Dennis Whittle

Chief Executive Officer

Feedback Labs

Dennis co-founded and leads Feedback Labs. He has worked for over 30 years in international aid and philanthropy. He is a co-founder of GlobalGiving, the first global crowdfunding website, where he was CEO from 2000 to 2010. GlobalGiving has mobilized over $320 million for 19,000 projects in 170 countries, fueled by hundreds of thousands of individual donors and 225 leading companies and foundations. From 1986-2000, Dennis was an economist at the World Bank, where he worked in Indonesia, Russia, Papua New Guinea, and Niger on agriculture, housing reform, energy efficiency, structural adjustment, and innovation. His New Products Team created the Innovation and Development Marketplaces in the late 1990s. Dennis is currently a Visiting Scholar at New York University and has in the past served as Executive Chairman of Ashoka Changemakers, Visiting Lecturer at Princeton University, Professor of the Practice and Entrepreneur in Residence at UNC-Chapel Hill, Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Development, and economist at USAID and the Asian Development Bank. He is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was a Morehead Scholar, and of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton.

Megan Campbell

Director of Research and Learning

Feedback Labs

Megan helps to set the learning objects and agenda for Feedback Labs by helping determine the right questions to ask, and how we should ask them. She manages the blog and other writing, and leads research and experimentation. A systems design engineer by training, Megan has over a decade of experience promoting adaptive implementation in international development. She lived for five years in Malawi, working with Engineers Without Borders Canada to help national and local government officers experiment and develop new ways to improve water and sanitation service delivery. As Co-Director of EWB’s program in Malawi, Megan focused on finding ways to strengthen formal and informal feedback loops in the Malawian water and sanitation sector. She firmly believes that helping information travel within a system is a key prerequisite for learning and iterative improvement. Upon her return to Canada Megan took on the management of Engineers Without Borders’ incubation portfolio. In that role, Megan mentored and supported early stage social enterprises working to transform service delivery in Sub-Saharan Africa. More recently, Megan worked with the Global Delivery Initiative secretariat at the World Bank to promote a common language with which to explore service delivery challenges and solutions. Megan is an Action Canada fellow and advisor to Fail Forward, and cheers with futility for the Toronto Blue Jays. She is a graduate of the University of Waterloo and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.