INTERNATIONAL T/A
    think piece

                  INITIATIVES AND CSO-
                  RESEARCHER DIALOGUE ...
                  Jonathan Fox
                  School of International Service, American University
                  Nov. 10, 2013

                  A recent TAI think piece by Florencia              middle’. Beth Simmons compares the uneven
                  Guerzovich and Ari Shaw not only took              national level impacts of international human
                  stock of the state of knowledge about              rights treaties, addressing country differences
                  international T/A efforts, it also served as a     and change over time. Judith Kelley digs
                  point of departure for a recent Round Table        deep into the uneven terrain of international
                  convened as part of the Transparency and           election monitoring: sometimes outside
                  Accountability Initiative’s (T/AI) learning        actors can promote democracy, but they
                  process. They pointedly asked: ‘international      often have no actual leverage and sometimes
                  initiatives use scarce resources, but for what?’   even do harm. Lesley Wexler’s legal analysis
                  In late September, a couple of dozen civil         assesses the drivers and impacts of a wide
                  society strategists, multilateral development      range of international humanitarian law
                  bank governance specialists, and international     initiatives. These scholars find that we should
                  relations/law scholars came together to            not expect international initiatives to make a
                  exchange ideas about whether and how               big difference in nation states that are already
                  international initiatives generate change,         solidly democratic, or where authoritarian
                  what kinds of support strategies can bolster       rule is entrenched. In countries in transition, in
                  on-the-ground impact, how do the impacts           contrast, international initiatives can bolster
                  vary – and how do we know? The gathering           national actors who have the motive and
                  was especially timely, in the run-up to the        means to mobilize – and they can get the
                  Open Government Partnership’s London               attention of those governments that might
                  Summit. Open government advocates were             actually care about naming and shaming.
                  well-represented, though the workshop also         The ‘train has to be moving’ for international
                  included perspectives immersed in extractive       actors to come in and play a reinforcing role.
                  industries campaigns, anti-corruption reforms,     This reality check is helpful for calibrating our
                  human rights treaties, World Bank reforms,         expectations, especially given the capacity
                  environmental policy, financial transparency,      of more savvy authoritarian regimes to game
                  and international election monitoring.             some of the international metrics and create
                  These notes will share a few follow-up             ‘islands of transparency’ within a sea of rot.
                  reflections, filtered through the lens of a        Indeed, one campaigner cautioned about
                  participant who comes at the issues from the       the rise of ‘zombie transparency,’ superficial
                  perspective of a scholar/semi-practitioner.        gestures by corrupt regimes.

                  How do we figure out when                          The longer our causal chains, the
                  international initiatives make a                   greater the likelihood of weak
                  difference?                                        links
                  Yes, context matters – but when and how?            This proposition may sound abstract, but it
1                 The now-vast scholarly literature on previous      actually refers to a very concrete question
                  waves of international governance reforms,         about how change happens. Put another
                  including some with much longer track              way: The more steps there are in between
                  records, is quite relevant for the discussion      immediate CSO campaign goals and their
                  of more recent T/A initiatives. Scholars           intended eventual impacts, the greater the
                  who look back at human rights campaigns            possibility that bottlenecks will get in the way.
                  and treaties, or at international election         For example, what specific chain of events
                  monitoring, find that ‘the action is in the        is supposed to unfold after an international
monitoring initiative releases its report?         This is an especially hot topic in those
Beyond the initial media splash, what country-     countries whose governments seem intent
level leadership, strategies, and capacities can   on restricting the civic space for independent
turn such moments into tangible, sustainable       public debate. The national evaluations
institutional change? The effort to figure         commissioned by the Independent Reporting
out how international initiatives can help to      Mechanism are taking a close look at whether
promote national-level reforms, in specific        governments moved forward on both fronts
country contexts, is yet another example of        – their own substantive open government
the challenge involved in fully spelling out       commitments in their Action Plans, and
our theories of change – to close the loop.        the degree to which they consulted with
That’s what ‘identifying the links in the causal   CSOs to set those goals. Most of the IRM
chain’ refers to – unpacking our theories          reports on the first Action Plans in the eight
of change into their distinct components.          OGP founding countries found civil society
This kind of strategic planning exercise can       consultation processes to be rather thin,
help to identify possible weak links. In other     though in some cases government-civil
words, how can we pinpoint the steps where         society engagement improved in the course
we make assumptions that may turn out to           of preparing their second Action Plans. These
require large leaps of faith. The more links in    process issues were the minds of many civil
a proposed causal chain, though, the harder        society participants at the London OGP
this thought exercise turns out to be.             Summit.

In the open government advocacy                    After international summits, how
community, many wonder about how to                do reforms get embedded more
tighten up the links between emerging              deeply into states?
international standards, national level reforms,
and actual changes in how governments              For workshop participants, the remarkably
interface with citizens. This is indeed a tall     rapid take-off of the OGP process
order. In response, the International Budget       underscores the importance of high level
Partnership recently published a manual            buy-in, building on pre-existing networks
that marks a big step forward in making this       that brought together leaders in society and
exercise more accessible. Their Super-Duper        the state at both national and international
Impact Planning Guide applies evidence-            levels. Yet getting governments to make
based approaches to the action strategies          commitments is one thing, while transforming
behind CSO reform initiatives.                     public institutions so that meaningful
                                                   reforms actually get carried out is another
Who decides what international                     -- and usually requires a different set of
norms are?                                         coalitions and incentives. OGP strategists
                                                   are well aware of this, envisioning change as
International T/A campaigners may differ in        driven by distinct top-down, mid-level, and
terms of their ideas about what norms are,         bottom-up processes that interact with each
not to mention who should set them. One            other. Indeed, diverse actors are pursuing
OGP strategist stressed that the process           several different change strategies under
is not about global norm setting – in the          the OGP umbrella simultaneously. Yet as a
sense of promoting a one-size-fits-all set of      delicately negotiated, strictly voluntary, multi-
substantive reform standards. Indeed, one of       stakeholder, now really global initiative, the
the strengths of the process is that it does       OGP process is not well positioned to ‘reach
not involve one set of governments telling         deeply into countries’. Instead, the best-case
another what do to. In contrast, the OGP           scenario is to ‘tip the balance in favour of
process is about each government setting its       those that want open government’. Though
own new open government goals, ostensibly          it’s almost a cliché to talk about ‘unpacking
in consultation with their respective civil        the state’, many agreed that that’s what civil
society stakeholders. These national debates       societies need to do – to find and bolster
may well be informed by – or may even              possible reform champions and get buy-in
explicitly reference other international           from those government officials with their
norms, such as the Extractive Industries           hands on the levers that really control the
Transparency Initiative (as in the US and UK).     various branches of the state apparatus,
Yet another participant, from the international    while identifying and politically isolating
anti-corruption movement, pointed out that         anti-accountability bottlenecks within the
the OGP is very much about promoting               government. Incoming civil society OGP              2
global procedural norms, insofar as it requires    co-chair Rakesh Rajani recently offered a
minimum standards of consultation with civil       balanced assessment of these challenges, in
society.                                           the Tanzanian context.
Is a crowded field of international                proponents of international reform initiatives,
    T/A initiatives a strength or a                    whether in government or civil society,
    limitation?                                        when does continued engagement end up
                                                       legitimating fundamentally unacceptable
    Now that the international governance reform       national processes? In one paradigm case,
    space is filling up with so many initiatives,      Global Witness pulled out of the Kimberly
    it is far from clear when they find positive       Process for dealing with conflict diamonds.
    synergy with each other, when some crowd           Does CSO engagement with international
    others out, and when some may even act at          initiatives sometimes risk becoming an end
    cross-purposes. Florencia Guerzovich and           in itself? At what cost, and who decides?
    Roberto DeMichele make this point in their         How do international reform initiatives take
    2010 study of international anti-corruption        the possible downsides for local and national
    initiatives in Latin America. In Africa, Latin     organizers into account? The diversity of
    America, and Europe, for example, the OGP          possible answers is likely to remind us that
    entered regional civic spaces that were            where one stands depends on where one sits.
    already occupied by closely related initiatives
    – with several regional CSO governance             What resources and incentives
    reform initiatives in Latin America involving      are available to national civil
    transparency (see here, here, and here, for        society actors, to move these T/A
    example), and a decade of intergovernmental        agendas forward?
    governance reform ‘peer review’ efforts by
    the Follow-Up Mechanisms to anti-corruption        Since international open government reforms
    conventions based at the Organization of           need national civil society partners to actually
    American States, the Council of Europe, and        use them as leverage to help to reform states,
    the African Peer Review Mechanism. Most            what do those pro-accountability CSO actors
    of the African governments involved with           need to help to broaden the constituencies
    OGP have also participated in the APRM,            for change? New apps? Better access to the
    underscoring the need to harmonize such            mass media? Electoral clout? Legislative
    efforts at the national level.                     lobbying capacity? Strategic litigation? More
                                                       naming and shaming? What about broad-
    Should international initiatives                   based grassroots organizing? Probably some
    set the bar for entry low, to                      mix of ‘all of the above’ - which suggests
    encourage governmental                             that international funders should consider
    engagement – at the risk of                        multi-pronged, versatile support strategies
    watering down reform goals?                        that are embedded in national contexts and
    One rationale for making it easy for
    ‘imperfect’ governments to sign up to              Where do civil society infomediaries fit in
    international reform initiatives is to bolster     to this broader reform landscape, and how
    incomplete regime transitions and insider          can they punch above their weight? This
    reform champions. This is a theory of change.      kind of public information production and
    But what if this doesn’t happen? What if less-     processing role could be filled by universities,
    than-democratic regimes deliberately try to        think tanks, or campaigning organizations.
    game the system by improving performance           The main challenge is how such actors can
    on narrow metrics to deflect international         become the information processing hubs
    attention from the rest of what they are           for broader civic movements for democracy
    doing? For example, what if governments            and accountability, grounded in actually-
    pass information access laws – on paper - and      existing national social and political forces.
    release just enough budget data to meet            As economists might put it – how can we
    the OGP eligibility criteria, but they still fix   better align the supply and demand for the
    elections and have political prisoners? Is there   kind of information that broad-based social
    a risk that “open-washing?” will taint the OGP     and civic actors will really use to motivate
    brand?                                             collective action, to gain legitimacy in the
                                                       mass media, and thereby to create, trigger, or
    This issue comes up in the case of                 embolden public accountability institutions?
    international election observers, where            After all, CSOs rarely have the power to hold
    savvy regimes that are not interested in           governments accountable on their own.
    free and fair elections can permit the arrival
3                                                      When pro-democracy infomediaries develop
    of many external monitoring teams, as
    long as some are likely to disagree with           their agendas for the production of civic
    others – thereby cancelling each other out.        information – how do their change strategies
    The broader issue keeps coming up: for             guide their choice of target audiences?
When planning their public awareness                 real-time case studies of open government
campaigns, policy monitoring exercises,              initiatives). At the same time, practitioners
performance indexes, and technical reports,          could do more to influence scholarly research
who exactly are the intended ‘consumers’, as         agendas, especially since academics are
it were? Workshop participants shared their          well-positioned to ask larger questions that
experiences of ‘reporting fatigue,’ suggesting       go beyond the next short-term evaluation,
that more long reports are not the answer,           including examining assumptions.
nor are scholarly tomes published half a
decade later. Some participants reported             ‘What works?’ may be the wrong
that they only read blogs, relying on them           question
to boil down the takeaways from others’
in-depth monitoring and research exercises.          Research can certainly help to address the
Yet the use of the term could be understood          ‘what works’ question, yet that framing of the
in several different ways. Does ‘reporting           question can distort the answer. As stated,
fatigue’ refer to the reader’s point of view, in     the question implies a yes-or-no answer,
terms of the accessibility, length, and growing      yet much of what we do know falls into the
number of the reports themselves? Or does it         not-very-satisfying category of ‘it depends…’.
refer to how a report’s message may or may           Given how hard the T/A reform agenda is,
not stand out in a possibly crowded field?           and the fact that there are few magic bullets,
Or does the fatigue refer to the experience          the best that we can hope for is usually
of those who produce the reports, who are            some partial degree of progress. That means
uncertain as to whether they are worth the           reframing the question: how often does
effort? Either way, this question brings us          something work, by what criteria, and to what
back to spelling out the links in the causal         degree? Plus, who decides ‘what counts’ as
chain – the need to specify how a given              working? If a T/A intervention only ‘works’ in
information or reporting exercise is going to        some sense, let’s say, a third of the time – is
put actionable tools in the hands of relevant        that a success or a failure? Why should we
social, civic, and political actors.                 expect reforms that have enemies to go viral
                                                     as quickly as Facebook? If we go further and
The keyword here is ‘user-centred’. The              ask ‘under what conditions’ does it work, and
capacity of civic information reach its              if the short answer is ‘context matters’, then
potential to both motivate and guide                 how, when, and where?
collective action for accountability depends
on the degree to which it is designed with           Getting around methodological
users in mind. This is where the idea of             walls
targeted transparency comes in, a concept
that hones in on the kinds of really accessible      Once we start reframing the ‘what difference
information that reach people where they are         are we making’ questions in this way, we start
at. In contrast to weighty technical reports         to hit a methodological wall erected by the
and online indices about seemingly far-away          dominant dichotomy between quantitative
policies, targeted transparency initiatives          and qualitative methods – the longstanding
provide evidence that allows specific                duel between large N statistical correlations
stakeholder constituencies to make informed          vs. case studies. Quantitative approaches
decisions about whether and how to act.              can document how often institutional change
                                                     happens (if it’s measurable) – but they have
In the T/A field, research needs                     a harder time with the question of ‘why
to catch up to practitioners – and                   and how’ it happens. Meanwhile, qualitative
who sets the agenda?                                 institutional analysis can answer ‘why and
                                                     how’ change happens, but is not so good
CSO, governmental, and multilateral T/A              at documenting how often it happens.
initiatives have been gaining momentum at            You can see where this is going… Each
local, national, and international levels, yet the   approach turns out to be incomplete, yet
state of research on the field is just beginning     with complementary strengths. Fortunately,
to ramp up. Most of those researchers                ‘mixed methods’ are becoming increasingly
who are engaged with this agenda tend                de rigueur in some scholarly circles. Yet there
to have a focus that is more applied than            is still a missing link. If we circle back to the
scholarly. Scholarly research also tends to          ‘how does context matter’ question, this is
be retrospective rather than engaged with            where the comparative method comes in.
practitioners in real time – as well as being                                                            4
divided by discipline and methodology.               Comparison is often used in everyday
(The International Budget Partnership                conversation merely to illustrate a point, or
recently completed a set of innovative,              because it seems interesting to juxtapose
cases. But there is an entire school of           Wrap-up
                                  comparative analysis that focuses on carefully    This workshop contributed to T/AI’s silo-
                                  defining and selecting cases, holding             busting mission by bringing together
                                  some variables constant in ways that allow        practitioners and researchers from across
                                  researchers to rule out some explanations         a wide range of issues and perspectives –
                                  and to bolster others. Scholars go back and       provoking new and better questions for the
                                  forth over how to define the ideal number of      future
                                  cases, ‘what counts’ as a comparable case or
                                  an outlier, and whether to look across many
                                  cases at once vs. focusing more deeply and
                                  historically on just a few cases.

(For classic academic works,      The main point here is that the comparative
see, among others, Arend
Lijphart, ‘II. The Comparable-    method is a broad logic of inquiry within
Cases Strategy in Comparative
Research’ Comparative Political   which quantitative and qualitative approaches
Studies, 8(2), July 1975,         are merely tools whose relevance depends
Giovanni Sartori, ‘Concept
Misformation in Comparative       on the question. Yet in the applied research
Politics,’ American Political
Science Review 64, 1970,          world, the comparative method remains
Charles Ragin and Howard          crowded out by the dominant qualitative-
Becker, eds., What is a Case?
Exploring the Foundations         quantitative divide.
of Social Inquiry (Cambridge
University Press, 1992).
                                  Taking comparative analysis seriously is
                                  relevant for international T/A initiatives
                                  because it allows us to ask three sets of
                                  questions that get excluded by the simple
                                  ‘does it work’ question. First, if a specific
                                  international reform effort begins to get
                                  taken up, it is likely to have varying impacts
                                  across countries – but what explains the
                                  variation? Second, within countries where
                                  such reform efforts begin to gain traction,
                                  how does impact vary across different issue
                                  areas, government agencies or regions?
                                  This subnational focus is key for the goal of
                                  closing the loop. (See Richard Snyder’s classic
                                  synthesis of the subnational comparative
                                  method.) Third, what about the different
                                  political dynamics across the wide range of                             VISIT:
                                  different international reform initiatives?                              http://jonathan-fox.org/
                                  They vary widely not only by issue and target,
                                  but also in terms of their tools and theories
                                  of change – starting with the huge difference                           *THANKS TO:
                                  between the hard law represented by treaties
                                                                                                           Thanks very much to the
                                  and conventions and the very soft power
                                                                                                           workshop participants for their
                                  represented by voluntary, multi-stakeholder                              participation in the discussion,
                                  agreements. Indeed, at the concluding                                    and to Florencia Guerzovich and
                                  plenary of the OGP London Summit, incoming                               Vanessa Herringshaw for editorial
                                  civil society co-chair Suneeta Kaimal stressed                           suggestions.

                                  that OGP needed “dentures” to give it “bite.”

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