Civic Tech and NGOs … wait, and donors – Can we be better collaborators in global Transparency and Accountability work?

This is a guest post by Kersti Ruth Wissenbach, our Open Knowledge Ambassador in the Netherlands.

At our Re:publica session in May we set out to bring together transparency and accountability practitioners from traditional NGOs as well as from the civic tech scene. We came to recognise that, to a large extent, we keep working in silos rather than merging together in new ways so as to collaborate and benefit from each others expertise and experiences. Thus, we wanted to identify the reasons and, together, explore how to enable closer collaboration.

Over the last few years, new global networks of civic activists have emerged and are rapidly spreading across the globe, building and sharing technologies, serving their advocacy for a more open and just society. We are witnessing a vast variety of collaboration, from individual hacker groups towards more structured networks working around different topics and eventually being connected to a more organisational body, such as Open Knowledge.
Also, traditional NGOs increasingly embraced the potential opportunities emerging from the fast pervasion of ICTs, mirrored in the ICT4D, mobile and recent big data ‘hype’. Both groups clearly work in overlapping spaces, however, they are to a big extent disconnected from each other. Partly this seems to be due to the perception of the spaces; Civic tech NGOs are often relatively new and young, and want to move and work fast on “innovations” but the perception is that more traditional NGOs are slower moving and hampered by bureaucracy. This siloing of work from NGOs and civic tech activists becomes most apparent in transparency and accountability work.
Therefore, Tech4TA, on a global scale, should very much be about active collaboration between traditional NGOs and civic tech groups, in order to –

  • Use existing and build upon tools (stop building from scratch but use what civic techies are building and sharing)
  •  Prevent exclusion and structural power imbalances in policies or deriving project activities (learn from NGOs experiences to actively work towards inclusive, context relevant project design and implementation, especially in areas where accessibility and availability of ICTs remains challenging and is oftentimes not a feasible mechanism at all)
  • Safeguard TA (Transparency and Accountability) practitioners (learning from digital activists in how to ensure security, privacy and enable responsible data handling)
  • Make the most use of the expertise in delivering locally appropriate projects in challenging situations
  • Understand the strengths and weaknesses of both types of organisation, so that they can work to complement each other

We gathered an unexpectedly big group of techies, NGOers and donors, which brought many different perspectives to the table. In two cross-disciplinary groups we gathered a profound first set of barriers for stronger collaboration and had some vital discussions on what to do about them.

 

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Collaborating at OKFest 14

 

What we need and how to get there

Active outreach

It does not seem to be common practise within all NGOs to identify and reach out to local digital activists or civic tech groups on the ground when beginning to prepare new projects in specific countries. Those actors are the experts in the local technology context! Therefore, they are the best people to collaborate with in order to explore chances and boundaries when it comes to using tech or data in the respective contexts. Also do they know what is in place already and potentially just need some support in order to take the current projects to the next phase or scale them up.
– The question is how can this become a fundamental practice for NGOs? What mechanisms need to be integrated into normal practice, that don’t require too much for both civic tech NGOs or traditional NGOs?

Speaking the same language

Data activists and traditional NGO practitioners oftentimes do not speak the same ‘language’, creating a huge barrier for communicating and smooth collaboration. It can be difficult for the non-technical among us to understand why something that sounds so simple, could be hard to accomplish or take a long time, when conversely sometimes things that sound extremely challenging can be solved in a few simple steps.
Finding (still rare) hybrids which are home on both sides or alternatively work with mediators who can bridge between both sites will be of great value to overcome this boundary. People that can bridge the technical and non-technical divide to explain how a project can work and where the pain points might be would smooth relations and enable a greater ease of understanding.
– The question is what this could realistically look like. Who are those hybrids or mediators and how can they be strategically integrated?

Consider if Civic Tech is user friendly enough

In line with a common lingua, it has been emphasized that often the willingness to use and reuse civic tech tools is there but that tools, code usage etc. are far too abstract for less techie people or the technologists in question normally use other languages as a matter of course.
– The question here is how can we make civic tech apps more applicable for less tech-affine TA practitioners and more user friendly on the ground or what else would be needed to overcome such obstacles?

Moving at the same pace

Civic tech groups and NGOs have a different pace of connecting and moving things.
Given the different pace of groups, where different teams of digital activists and NGOs collaborate, it will help to depart with a clear shared vision. Clarifying if all parties are sharing the same cause from the start will help to prevent frustration further down the road. Making sure there’s a product or project owner that understands both the technical and non-technical sides of the project, and that can coordinate the competing priorities of both sectors, is a must for a smooth project. Otherwise misunderstandings can occur (again based on misunderstanding of the difficulties of each aspect of the work.)

More agile project design opportunities

Achieving true transparency and accountability is a very long-term process, not a field for fast wins and not suitable to be pressed into 1 year NGO or donor project frameworks.
The result focus of NGOs, often rooted in donor frameworks, are seen as a big obstacles in those regards. Opportunities for more agile project design would be a crucial precondition. NGOs and donors need to move from result focus to a more agile process focus in project design. Moving to this sort of project design would also open up frameworks for a more user-driven project design process which would benefit the donors and the users by creating projects that answer a real need and have a true impact.
All participants agreed that educating the donors is needed in order to prevent the continuation of rigid and usually very tech/tool driven proposal frameworks.
– Educating the donors, how do we best do that?

Rethink innovation

Focus on problems, not solutions (often grant etc. framings already solution driven)
Plenty of grants and project designs are already entailing the solution. Driven by e.g. what online platform will do the change rather than focusing on the actual problem or challenge at stake in all its facets necessary to be considered.
Such prevailing tech and solution centrism is strongly interlinked with our oftentimes diverging and inflatious definitions of innovation. A common understanding is needed that innovation is not the latest tech but a combination of solutions that truly features into each very context and is self-sustainable (can be the radio or village gathering if that is the natural communication sphere is). Such understanding furthermore needs to derive in clear action.
Allowing NGOs some pre-project funding to do their own needs assessments in order to inform project design and create user focused projects involving technology as part of the solution seems like it would have a greater impact. The traditional NGOs understand a needs assessment process and the Civic Tech NGOs understand user design processes. These could be combined to create a strong pre-project design framework, provided that donors could accept and understand that there would need to be a small amount of up-front funding with no specific targets (beyond a full project proposal) granted to organisations they were working with.

In conclusion, an open dialogue and clear commitments are needed between digital activists, NGOs and donors, seriously identifying steps to tackle the above outlined issues.

Some thoughts on the global Open Knowledge Community

As ambassador of Open Knowledge, and as a doctoral researcher exploring Open Knowledge as a case study in my research on transnational activism and community building, a few thoughts came to mind reflecting on those above mentioned issues.
Our network has grown fast and widely over the last couple of years and it was great to see the community getting bigger. At the same time, working as a consultant in Tech4TA in various countries and often with less connected groups, I see how we still have the great opportunity to work on increasing the diversity of our community and to stronger invest in fostering inclusion and recognizing that it is not in everyone’s culture to naturally connect to dispersed, translocal or transnational networks. For a while it gave the impression that we easily label contributions from the ‘developing’ world under the development working group tag. Given contemporary dynamics of network expansion and opportunities, we may want to reconsider if we wish to maintain such thematic area at all. If we strive for open government, open science, open culture, you name it, requires context-sensitivity when it comes to potential tactics and tools to reach our goals in different countries and regions, no matter where those are located. So two things to consider within the OK community when it comes to global collaboration are
Taking a stand in how OK addresses inclusion in its work and in expanding its community
Gathering lessons learned and exploring an OK approach to context-relevant work and according tinkering of tools and tactics

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