Questions, Reflections and a Step Forward in Supporting Greater Accountability
This blog on Digital Accountability first appeared on Disrupt&Innovate – weekly blogs for civil society professionals, leaders & activists. The guest authors – digital experts from within the civil society sector – recently took part in a four-day CSO Accountability in the Digital Age workshop, facilitated by the INGO Accountability Charter. Here they share the issues explored and outcomes established during this hands-on event. Lauren’s blog is the first in a series of five.
In the not-too-distant past, concerned people who wanted to enact change had to work a lot harder to get involved: They had to find a civil society organisation (CSO) and go to meetings – in person! – and volunteer for committees or working groups. They might mail in a cheque and hope it was used to fund their initiative of choice. To reach others, they might canvas a neighborhood, petition in hand, knocking on doors and collecting signatures.
These types of actions are still valuable, to be sure. But thanks to the internet, the barrier of entry for activism is much, much lower. Online tools have created opportunities for an ever-increasing number of people to get involved in issues that matter to them. This can mean signing an online petition and sharing it on Facebook, starting a grassroots campaign on 350.org, or taking a local action to support the work of a global organisation. CSOs see the value in leveraging digital tools to connect people with information and action – not only can they mobilise and engage constituents more easily, they can benefit from the expertise and knowledge of millions of individuals.
The technologies that enable these interactions are rich, robust tools that enable collaboration, provide rich data, identify trends, and engage individuals in personal, customisable ways are varied and constantly evolving. Growing digital literacy empowers committed individuals to find resources, start or join projects, and take action on their own. From self-service to deeply customised experiences, digital technologies create new opportunities for CSOs to expand and energise their constituency base.
These shifts, powered by technology, are fundamentally changing the way that CSO engage and benefit from their constituencies. Most of these changes are undoubtedly positive. But in a world where digital users expect to have a voice in what an organisation does, these approaches also create challenges for CSOs that adopt them. While the potential benefits are clear, CSOs are struggling with myriad, often difficult questions: If my organisation adopts a people-centered approach, how do I balance the interests of donors, Boards, staff and constituents? What are the trade-offs? To whom are these organisations that adopt these strategies accountable – the users who advocate for the causes, the communities that benefit from successful campaigns, or those that fund the work?
These questions mirror the shift that technology has enabled in every other sector – where individuals make choices (purchasing or otherwise) based on the information provided by a company to reviews provided by other consumers. People no longer want to be just well-informed about issues, but demand the tools and resources to be empowered advocates. It’s not enough for organisations to be well-governed; supporters expect transparency and on-demand access to data.
To help begin to answer these questions, the INGO Accountability Charter in March convened a group of leading CSOs at the Bellagio Center in Bellagio, Italy as part of the CSO Accountability in the Digital Age project. Together, we dove into what it really means to be a people-driven organisation. We explored the trade-offs, debated the relative merits and risks of different approaches, and raised new questions. It was a rich discussion, and highlighted the difficulties this new landscape presents for CSOs. Of course, given the complexity of the issues – and the rapidly changing technologies that empower many of these efforts – it’s impossible to answer these questions in the short time we had together. This will be a changing discussion over time, but one that is critical to nurture, document, and evolve as we all learn together.
Despite the challenges, we did take an important next step in helping CSOs navigate the ambiguity. We assembled some easy-to-use tools for organisations that have, or are planning to adopt such strategies. These tools are essentially a set of questions that an organisation can use to guide the implementation of people-centered strategies. As with any new approach, many organisations aren’t even sure of the right questions that might be asked, so these tools help organisations reflect. Have we set approriate boundaries of involvement? Have we chosen objectives and indicators that reflect our people-centric focus? Are we really including people outside of your organisation in your decision-making process, or just informing them? How might we better empower those that share our objectives?
There are no right answers that satisfy every CSO. Every organisation develops its strategies on a continuum – some are driven by specific expertise, some are more focused on empowering individuals to come together and advocate for a specific cause. But these questions help each CSO decide what’s best for them, explore different aspects of what it means to be “people-driven,” and identify areas that might be appropriate for further experimentation and adoption.
Technology has drastically changed the way every CSO thinks about, engages with and seeks counsel from and reports back to their broader group of stakeholders. And every organisation, especially those that are seeking to build grassroots movements or empower to people to seek action on their own, will question where on that continuum they should be. The discussion and the tools that the INGO Accountability Charter has begun is an important first step in helping each organisation find the answer that is right for them.
The question that we must now all wrestle with is where to start? Every journey starts with a single step. What is the first step that we must all take?