Following the Brown Bag Lunch, Civic Tech: The Tech Community as a Social Accountability Interlocutor for Better Results, the GPSA sat down with Fletcher Tembo, Director of Making All Voices Count (MAVC), to discuss how developments in technology and innovation have created a new generation of social accountability, MAVC’s experiences using civic tech, and how MAVC and GPSA could work together towards effective governance and accountability.  

During your presentation, you quoted Tom Carothers saying that transparency doesn't necessarily lead to accountability, and that technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Can you share lessons learned on the role and limitations of technology?

Often we have seen that technology is used for information-sharing – getting information to more people quicker. So we have the ability to put that information out there – and I’m not saying actively sharing it, but simply putting it out there for people to find. It could be through radio or through SMS. The challenge becomes, what do people do with that information? So our lessons are that most often, where there is some difference in terms of government responsiveness or using information, governments would only do something different when they’re already willing to go in that direction anyway. But where you want to do something that they don’t want to do, then it becomes difficult because then we start working with different incentives. However, most of our work needs to bring people together and to have more inclusiveness, including women and children, and they need to have a voice to engage and hold government to account. That’s a different proposition from sharing information. It helps but it’s not a complete picture.

You also discussed “disruptive innovation.” Disruptive ideas challenge the status quo, and often involve technology and entrepreneurship. Would you say that the future of Social Accountability lies here, or in more traditional NGO work?

I would say so, because accountability problems, other than transparency, tend to be systemic. And by systemic, we’re not talking about the formal way in which something has been described or the way policy has been written, like in Kenya. Mostly those things can look very progressive, but behind the formal systems are relationships that can be very subversive or corrupt.  So the disruption I’m talking about is firstly being able to expose what is actually happening there.  Technology can do this in a very neutral way, and then actions can be taken which may lead to being able to holding governments accountable.

What lessons were learned in more than four years of implementation?

There have been a number of lessons. Firstly, success comes from understanding government willingness, so you’ve got to do your homework and understand what government is trying to do and what their incentives are. The more you understand those, the more you can bring them into that space. Though to get that responsiveness, there needs to be more of these technologies and civil society coalitions that build on each other’s strengths. Using entrepreneurship and innovativeness that come from civic tech, innovations that come from civil society, and collaborating with the champions of change within the government and private sector – the more you bring all of these actors together, the more they will co-create ideas and address issues, and the more effective you become.

The other lesson is that context is important. An idea that works in one area may not work in another. This is not a new saying, but what people don’t say is that you should start at understanding the dynamic. Even in the same space, an idea that works today may not work tomorrow because the dynamic may change. An example is bottom-up budgeting in the Philippines that I referred to during my presentation – what worked for a period of time in that context is no longer working. So it’s not only the spatial or geographical context, it’s very much about the dynamic itself – politics playing a big role in that. You have to keep an eye on the politics or the dynamic, and then be able to design and maneuver programs or projects that could work. It’s like comparing surfing to ice-skating. With ice-skating, all you need to know is how to skate on that surface – it’s all the same surface with different players. All that is different between them is just their skill, their blades or the way they work with their partner.  With surfing, one can’t just rely on skill because the waves are always changing and are beyond one’s control. A good surfer has to work around that. So I think the Social Accountability projects that we need are more of the “surfing type.”  

GPSA and MAVC are partners and closely related initiatives, operating on different ends of the spectrum: MAVC in seeding innovation, and GPSA with mainstreaming and engaging governments with civil society and building accountability systems. What kind of potential do you see for MAVC projects/grantees to engage with the GPSA as a pathway to scale?

MAVC does a bit of scaling, but we can’t operate short-term. We have 134 active projects, most of those are innovations and some of them are where the GPSA is already working. There’s room for aligning there as we come into this last year. We can look at what seems to work and what could work better, to find out what really works and generate a lot of research around those areas. I think the next few months before the program ends would be a great opportunity for the GPSA to work with MAVC. Those are potential areas for understanding how some innovations work. Even more than that, the GPSA has more visibility at the government/political level, which MAVC doesn’t have. So showcasing what works to government in these countries is what GPSA may even do better than what MAVC can do.

What next after MAVC?

At the moment, we’re looking at making sure all the lessons that we are generating are visible and are shared in places where people can have access to these resources. We’d be happy to see the two tiers of consortia – implementers and donors – support this so the ideas continue to flourish. There are questions about what we do next. We’re still trying to answer that question, and in the next few months we might find some ways. The one thing that’s set on is that we need to continue to share these lessons.  

Did you miss the BBL? Watch the recording here: Civic Tech: The Tech Community as a Social Accountability Interlocutor for Better Results