Going local: Innovations to transform citizen-state relations


There is a huge global debate taking place about this thing we call ‘governance’. Dominated by buzz-phrases like “the data revolution” it broadly refers to the relationship citizens have with their national or local governments; including in terms of service delivery, anti-corruption or participatory policy making. There is no question that this relationship is critical to human progress, and that its absence from the dominant development paradigm to date has left the poorest and most vulnerable behind; with least advances being made in those states where that relationship is at its most broken. Conflict affected states, for example, have achieved hardly any MDGs, proving that you cannot measure success by aid flows, GDP or technocratic targets when the main factors keeping people poor relate to power, inequality and political exclusion.

But amidst the global hype about what good governance should look like and how it should be measured in a new global development framework there is a largely unspoken problem. How do you translate a global vision into meaningful and locally specific initiatives which fundamentally transform that citizen-state relationship? We know that each context is unique and that a one-size-fits-all approach is doomed to fail; what we do not yet know is how to stimulate and support that sort of innovation in every country. Most development practitioners will recognise the experience of coming across a unique pocket of innovation which exists on a small scale and usually due to one or more charismatic individuals who have gone outside the prevailing ways of doing things and achieved something amazing as a result. This was termed ‘positive deviance’ in the early 1990s and has since led to more thinking about how to encourage it. There is a continuing debate about whether that change happens more because of strong local leaders driving it forward, or a more problem-driven approach that responds to change and flexibly adapts, but both schools of thought agree that local leadership is critical. Without it, this change simply does not happen. Which means that achieving a global vision can only ever work if it is pursued from the bottom up rather than imposed from the top down.

Making All Voices Count

Making All Voices Count is a programme established to seek to encourage and support locally driven and context specific change. We seek to build on the opportunities offered by the technological revolution in how citizens talk to each other, and harness its potential in changing the terms of the conversation between Governments and those they are there to serve. Working across 12 countries we want to put change-makers in touch with each other and facilitate learning between them. How a problem was overcome in Indonesia may offer lessons – when translated into a locally applicable approach – in Uganda, for example.

So who are these change-makers and where to find them? The answer is as complex as the challenges they are trying to meet, but they are potentially everywhere. Civil society, the private sector, local and national government all have a role to play. This was exemplified by the winner of our Global Innovation Competition, the Bahwalpur Service Delivery Unit (BDSU). This small unit within the provincial government of Punjab, Pakistan, are pioneering the use of hand-held devices to monitor and publicly report not only on the attendance of teachers and children at schools but also to open up a local debate about what the children are achieving. This is data being captured, published and informing a wider policy debate which is of direct importance to every family in the province.

Global Innovation Competition winners
Global Innovation Competition winners

So we have innovation coming not, in this case, from traditional civil society holding power to account but from change-makers within government itself. This is positive deviance in action, and the programme will be supporting BDSU through a combination of funding, mentoring and eventually scaling up in size and impact.

A window of local opportunity

The brokering and mentoring Making All Voices Count brings to the table is about harnessing locally driven change in ways that strengthen that impact by addressing gaps in learning, capacity or approach. They will be different in every case.

We had not thought of BSDU from a gender or disability perspective. Regular feedback is invaluable. Monitoring & Evaluation being built into the development of a project is helpful”

…said BDSU’s Asim Fayaz of the support the project has already received recently.

And what of local power and politics? Despite a short-termism common to most political spaces which mitigates against this sort of long term change the Chief Minister of Punjab has stated that monitoring government workers will now be ‘scaled up’ and undertaken at every level. There is for the time being strong political willingness, and the feedback model which BSDU will incorporate has already received support from local authorities.

This is a window of local opportunity that could do more to achieve the vision of open governance articulated within the global debate than any kind of top down framework in the real lives of real people living in this part of Pakistan. But the implications of its success is that we could learn about making change happen elsewhere.

Asim sums it up succinctly:

With BSDU citizens will not only be able to voice their concerns, but give feedback to a system which has the capacity to absorb and respond. BSDU will enable citizens to contribute to effective decision-making. We aim to open the doors of government.”

Unusual partnerships. Local innovation. Conversations between change-makers, and grounded in an approach which is responsive to local political, social and economic dynamics. That is surely how we translate the global data revolution so often talked about into a real-life governance revolution on the ground.


About the author

chris-underwod-pChris Underwood is Director of Global Action for Making All Voices Count. Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, he holds responsibility for Policy, Learning and Communications of the global initiative that supports innovation, scaling, and research to deepen existing innovations and help harness new technologies to enable citizen engagement and government responsiveness. Prior to joining the programme he was Senior Policy Advisor for the international peacebuilding NGO International Alert, leading their work on shaping the post 2015 global development agenda to replace the Millennium Development Goals. He co-ordinated the global civil society coalition Beyond2015’s policy position on conflict, fragility and disaster resilience during the UN Task Team Consultations in 2012 and represented the coalition to the High Level Panel on Post-2015.

A central element of that work was the relationship between States and their Citizens, political institutions and questions of governance. In this vein he also led Alert’s work on the New Deal for Engagement with Fragile States agreed between donors and the G7+ group of countries, and recently completed academic research on the political dynamics of post-conflict states to be published in 2014. He holds an MSc in Global Governance and Public Policy from the University of London.

Twitter: @chris_underwood

Website: www.chrisunderwoodsblog.com

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