KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Post 2015: the challenges of talking to everyone about everything

with 15 comments

It can only be good news that aid and development is becoming more and more open. Yesterday “Publish What You Fund” released their 2011 report on aid transparency, a couple of weeks ago the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki discussed Open Development. But for me one of the most exciting developments is the possibility of opening up the debate on the Post-2015 Development agenda, the replacement for the Millennium Development Goals.

One of my current “20%” projects is as a member of technical advisory group advising on the development of a UN and Civil Society web platform for a public conversation on the post-2015 development agenda – The World We Want 2015. (and kudos to the team who is working on this for the great job they are doing under tight constraints).

An early version of the site is up and running, but the aim is to develop the site to both be more functional, but more importantly to be a hub for either hosting or linking to the full range of discussions taking place about the post-2015 agenda, and to be a stimulus for new discussions reaching out to those whose voices are normally not heard.

But of course while a good platform is needed, it’s not really about the platform itself – that’s just a tool to help facilitate a conversation. In fact, beyond technology the challenges of having an open, inclusive and influential global conversation on the post-2015 agenda are quite daunting. Here is a step by step overview of what such a conversation needs to do and some of the challenges faced at each step:

1. Get as wide a range of inputs as possible from a broad a range of “stakeholders” as possible – this requires extensive outreach to different stakeholders including (but not limited to) civil society, youth, academia, media, activists, government and UN officials and last but not least the amorphous and elusive “general public”. Each group have their own networks, interests and preferred means of communication. A primary challenge here is getting their attention – letting them know there is an opportunity and a venue for a conversation on the post 2015 agenda and getting them to care and to contribute. It sometimes seems that everyone is talking about post-2015 – but in reality it’s a relatively small self-selected group and we need to get the word out beyond the usual suspects.

2. Reach the “unreached”. It’s all very well to reach out to educated tech savvy mainly western audiences with an online discussion – but how do you include the “poorest of the poor”, people with disabilities, people without access to the internet, the illiterate? The reach can be improved by including options to participate via mobile phone and SMS. But even with these technologies many will still be out of reach, so there also might be a need for “paper” contributions, or for other forms of seeking input such as participatory research (see this interesting related project here from Beyond 2015).

3. Pull together all the diverse conversations. It’s clear that the conversation takes place in multiple locations. It’s great if people use the specially created platform and have all their conversations there. But reality is much messier than that. There are already multiple initiatives underway seeking public dialogue on the post-2015 agenda each targeting different  audiences, and using different methodologies. There are also spontaneous conversations such as those on twitter, facebook and elsewhere. An important challenge to address here is to map and then pull together all these different conversations to ensure that the conversation can capture the diversity of conversation that is out there.

4. Extract something meaningful from the dialogue. The broader the range of stakeholders the wider the range of opinions and options the process will generate. An important role of the High Level Panel is actually to whittle down a very large set of possibilities into a small set of clearly defined goals with broad political support behind them. But how can a web conversation contribute to this and not just add more noise? At the beginning the task will be to open up the discussion to a wide range of possibilities – but later on there will need to be some way to extract the most promising ideas. This will probably involve careful facilitation and curation of the discussions, but also some big data analysis and the extraction of a few big ideas on which people can be polled. A challenge here will be getting a “representative” view of the inputs when participation is likely to be very uneven between different countries, age groups and various socio-economic factors. It’s also worth noting that online discussions can easily become dominated by an activist few with their own issues to push at the expense of a silent majority who has a different but largely unexpressed view.

5. Ensure the dialogue informs the actual political decision-making process. This is a tricky one. Broadly there are three things which could feed into the eventual decision i) research/evidence on what the world’s biggest problems are and how to address them ii) public opinion – which this initiative attempts to elucidate and summarize iii) ii) global politics –  this is ultimately a political decision taken by world leaders. The extent to which the inputs from this exercise can influence the outcome is unknown. The High Level Panel and the Secretary General are talking up the need for this to be an open process, so the opportunity is there. But this will also depend on how clear a picture emerges from the global conversation and how well this aligns with the evidence, and the political interests of world leaders. The clearer the picture from the public conversation, the broader range of inputs it draws upon, and the amount to which it is well communicated (so that leaders know that “the world is watching”) then the better the chance of success.

6. Make sure the consultation process, and the communication about the final outcome builds support and motivates action for the eventual agenda itself. The success of the eventual post-2015 agenda will depend a lot on both the level of political commitment from world leaders, and on the amount of broad public support it is able to mobilize. The latter required the agreement to be well publicized, but also for it to be seen to be credible in the light of the contributions which fed into the process through the global conversation. If this is the case the global conversation can then be transformed into a forward-looking discussion on what each individual actor can do to realize the agenda, and as a means for people to hold governments and each other to account for their role in doing so.

As you can see, each step is quite daunting in itself. Nothing quite like this has ever been attempted before. I expect that there will be serious challenges and sometimes disappointments in each of these areas. We need to have a realistic, but cautiously optimistic expectation of how this will all turn out. But at the same time if we are able to make it work, even with flaws, it will be a huge step forward in terms of public participation in global decision-making and will set precedents which cannot be reversed, but only improved upon.

In a future blog post, I’ll talk in more detail about some of the practical challenges faced in developing an online platform for the public consultation that seeks to be accessible while balancing openness, structure and safety.


Written by Ian Thorpe

October 2, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

15 Responses

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  1. Thank you to you and The World We Want team for your efforts with this process, and for your description. It is a daunting challenge but also an important opportunity. It occurs to me that there a couple of dichotomies within civil society that make this type of dialogue especially challenging: 1) There are those who are equipped to participate (as you note the ‘self-selected’ group) and those who have been traditionally more marginalized. How to garner more participation beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and What are ‘representative voices’? 2) The role of civil society to help bring voices to the table vis a vis the role of civil society to put pressure on governments. There are those who will want to engage in any process where they have input, while others will look for influence and pressure points. While it is always worthwhile to think and plan big (and the global conversation platform is great), it may also be worthwhile to highlight some of the more specific goals (and tools) such as ‘mapping the different forums and conversations’ which can create important linkages key stakeholders can then use in different ways based on their own approaches.

    Bonnie Koenig

    October 2, 2012 at 4:48 pm

  2. Very refreshing post, thank you. A sober, realistic look at the challenge ahead, but it seems that you’re starting the process with an excellent frame of mind. I think that harnessing the ideas, inspiration, and energy on a global platform is a worthy challenge to undertake; it will likely produce considerable “noise,” but that’s because it is a development issue that so many care about! We look forward to being a part of this conversation going forward, and I’ll be closely watching the progress of The World We Want 2015!

  3. Reblogged this on

    Karsten Weitzenegger

    October 3, 2012 at 2:49 pm

  4. Sometimes it is not so much about creating yet another platform. You write it already: everyone has their own groups and networks… Could it be interesting to reverse your thinking: engaging strategically with already existing, vibrant, platforms?

    Lucia Nass

    October 4, 2012 at 1:34 am

    • Lucia – Mapping and reaching out to existing discussions on post-2015 is part of the plan, since its clear that there will be many conversations taking place all over – we don’t expect everyone to come to us. There is also discussion of how to do a broader analysis of conversations on social media, and regular media too.

      But some of the reasons for having a dedicated platform are that there needs to be somewhere for those who don’t already have a place to discuss these issues, the platform will also explicitly be used to support the 11 UN sponsored thematic consultations and 50+ national consultations. It will also be a hub that links to all the other conversations and analysis pieces that are elsewhere to help ensure these are available for everyone including the the high level panel and to the official process for deciding on the post-2015 agenda.

      Ian Thorpe

      October 4, 2012 at 6:47 am

  5. Wow, thank you for this. It brings hope, even though, as you say, it is incredibly daunting. However, I honestly feel that with you saying nothing has been done like this before means there must be something going right.

    There will need to be some skilful curations as you say. Are there broad outlines yet as to what value system will be used to do this to extract the main ideas from the dialogue?

    Shaz J

    October 4, 2012 at 11:45 am

    • Lots of thinking/discussion going on – but no decisions as yet. I expect that it will be a combination of human facilitation/summarization of the e-discussions together with polling on the most frequently mentioned ideas, and crowdsourcing/big data analysis of what’s “out there” on social media, opinion polls etc. The relative importance each will be given will probably also depend on how successful we are in the outreach both in terms of numbers of participants – but also in terms of how diverse a group we were able to engage.

      Will try to post more on this project as it develops.

      Ian Thorpe

      October 8, 2012 at 10:07 am

      • Thank you – please do! I’m looking forward to hearing more.


        October 9, 2012 at 6:21 am

  6. Reblogged this on BrianKanaaheM.Bilal's PublicHealthFreak's Blog and commented: Very insightful article 🙂

    Brian Kanaahe M.Bilal

    October 9, 2012 at 1:43 am

  7. I get the sense that the ongoing consultation processes are confusing even for those people typically ‘in the know’. There is no systematic information sharing from the various UN agencies leading on the different thematics (who is leading on what? when and where are the consultations? how do you get involved?). As well, I’ve seen questions around whether it’s worth actually signing up for and investing time into this website – actvists are worried that it will be like yelling in the woods: will anyone really hear?

    The problem is that member states and the UN won’t mobilize civil society, instead civil society will have to mobilize itself, but this will be very difficult to do properly when very little it known about the steps to take.

    Amy Coulterman (@AmyCSays)

    October 15, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    • @Amy you are right, it is hard to keep track of the various #post2015 initiatives which are inside and outside the official process and it’s also all moving very fast. It would be good if someone could come up witht a simple diagram to explain it all!

      Information on the different thematic consultations is still evolving, but details on all of them will be shared shortly on the World We Want platform and it is already there for three of the consultations which includes information on how to get involved.

      In terms of getting involved in the website – I’d encourage all to do so. The High Level Panel have already committed to use the platform as a means to get grassroots inputs and also for two way communication with civil society and beyond.

      While we don’t know exactly how Influential the website inputs will be in affecting the outcome of the post-2015 discussions since this is an inter-governmental process we’re committed to finding as many ways as possible to do so, and this platform has the advantage that is is being supported by both civil society and the UN as part of the consultation process, so it’s probably the most promising opportunity for grassroots voices to be heard in the negotiations.

      If you want to get in touch with civil society partners involved in this project I’d suggest contacting Zach at GCAP who can tell you more.

      Ian Thorpe

      October 16, 2012 at 4:13 am

  8. […] my previous blog about the post 2015 consultation process “talking to everyone about everything” I mentioned some of the challenges of organizing a truly global open consultation yet […]

  9. […] a recent blog post I explained a little about some of the challenges in the post-2015 global consultation. A while ago […]

  10. […] far in the various global conversations taking place around the post-2015 development agenda (see here for my previous description of the aim and the challenges in this global consultation project). It […]

  11. […] far in the various global conversations taking place around the post-2015 development agenda (see here for my previous description of the aim and the challenges in this global consultation project). It […]

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