Post 2015: the challenges of talking to everyone about everything
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.