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Reflections on Good Governance through Transparency and Accountability: promises, pitfalls and tech

Author: Brenna Powell

Last Tuesday night, BAIL organized a salon-style panel discussion on promoting good governance through transparency and accountability. Our friends at Dalberg helped to sponsor the event and we were hosted by the awesome folks at Code for America.

We thought it was important to organize a discussion around governance, transparency and accountability because even if it’s not directly the program area we all work on, it affects our chances for success. Whether it’s environmental protection, economic development, women’s health, or conflict resolution, the work we all do is shaped directly by the quality of governance in the countries where we are working (including here in the US). Whether or not the government in the place we work is corrupt, weak, incompetent — or strong and effective — directly impacts how effective we can be.

While I was excited to convene the conversation on Tuesday evening, I didn’t think I would walk away feeling terribly optimistic. But I did.

One of the most important ways that NGOs and the international community have been trying to improve governance around the world is through transparency and accountability initiatives. Both donors and implementers in the Bay Area — many of the people who were in the room on Tuesday evening — have been at the forefront of these efforts. In particular, the Bay Area has been part of leading efforts to integrate technology into transparency and accountability work.

A lot of these efforts are pretty new, and we’re still learning what works and what doesn’t work. One thing we’ve learned, for example, is that transparency does not, on its own, produce accountability. Just because governments make information available doesn’t mean people regard that information as trustworthy or have a clear way to use it, or that governments are responsive when they do.

We had an incredible panel to help us think things through: Sarah Oh, Silicon Valley Partnerships Representative for the National Democratic Institute; Linda Frey, Executive Director, Support Unit, at the Open Government Partnership; Jeri Jensen, founder and principal at Business Driven Development; and Ernesto Dal Bó, Associate Professor of Business at the Haas School of Business and in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and Director of the Berkeley Center for Political Economy.

It was hard not to feel inspired hearing these four incredibly thoughtful and committed people talk about their work.

I also felt optimistic because our panelists, and the folks in the audience, placed the dimension I feel is most often missing from conversations about good governance squarely at the center of our conversation. Namely, the need to create real strategic incentives for governments to behave in more transparent and accountable ways.

Each brought something important to the table. Some tidbits from a very rich discussion:

The discussion was also levelheaded about the ability of technology to solve what are essentially political problems. Tech platforms can be a great amplifier, and speed up processes of data collection and dissemination. But, as with any product, they must be designed with their users in mind (or hey, even with their users actively involved in the design process). That’s where many tech-based transparency and accountability initiatives miss the mark.

At the core, transparency and accountability is about power. Increasing the accountability of governments to the public requires people in government with entrenched interests to change their behavior. And something needs to compel or inspire or otherwise motivate them to do this.

In addition, citizens need some point of access. Even if people have timely and reliable information about what the government is doing, if they have no real opportunity to challenge the government, or access the policy-making process, citizens’ desire to hold the government to account may not get them very far.

Furthermore, taking action to hold your government to account can be risky or costly. To take action, citizens at a minimum need to be clear about what they can do that might actually make a difference, and they need to believe that the risks and costs involved in taking action offer some chance of success.

We had more good questions from the audience than there was time to answer. We know the BAIL community is already finding ways to continue the conversation! Thanks to everyone who attended and participated.

If you have ideas for events or forums you’d like to work with us to convene, please let us know.

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Brenna Powell is a co-founder of BAIL.  She is the Associate Director of the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation and Principal at the IPRE Group, a research group of social scientists who do policy analysis and impact evaluation. She is interested in issues related to in intergroup conflict, conflict resolution, peacebuilding and governance. Brenna likes to bring academics and practitioners together and see what they can learn from each other.  

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