Empowering Agents of Change: Five key lessons from the OAS OpenGov Fellowship
An abridged Spanish-language version of this post appeared on the Inter-American Development Bank’s Blog “Abierto al público”.
The OAS Fellowship on Open Government in the Americas is the only regional initiative that systematically works with the next generation of Open Government leaders from public administration, civil society, and the private sector. The Fellowship aims to develop effective Open Government champions throughout the Americas by providing the fellows with capacity-development, regional knowledge exchange, leadership skill building, and networking opportunities. Almost 50 young leaders from 18 Latin American countries have participated in the nine-month program so far and contribute on a daily basis to raising the bar for more transparent, participatory, and collaborative governance in their communities.
As we head into the third year of programming, we are thinking through what we’ve learned so far and would like to share what has worked and what hasn’t, in our experience.
1. Time is of the essence
In many institutional contexts, we tend to expect tangible and presentable results very quickly, for reasons of program accountability or renewal, or because future financing may depend on it. While this is very understandable in many cases, sustainable capacity-development requires time. As the African proverb goes, “Grass does not grow faster if you pull it”. Sometimes there’s no way around it: it takes time to incubate new ideas and let them grow into something useful.
The Fellows are not only the program’s protagonists; they are also its biggest resource. Even if they’re carefully selected and come very well-prepared with great ideas, a program such as the Fellowship needs to invest in its participants before it can reap the fruit of their ideas, efforts, and projects. Everyone involved in such a program should be prepared for that.
2. Aim high, but maintain realistic expectations
While very little in the Fellowship is improvisation, a lot of it is an experiment. This, by definition, entails the possibility of failure in different stages of the process. At first, experimenting sounds great – who wouldn’t want to try out things, innovate, and consider ourselves “learning institutions”? However, oftentimes an institution’s or donor’s –very justified– expectations can get in the way of our courage and ability to go off the beaten track.
The selection of the “right” participants, for instance, is one of the key success factors for a program such as the OAS Fellowship. In this crucial stage, there can be a trade-off between the aim to select the best-qualified candidates and an intention to include a rich diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. One might be tempted to give preference to applicants that we are familiar with and that make us expect that they will produce “state of the art” results we can then present to our donors. In Latin America –and particularly in the Open Government community–, the “most promising” candidates oftentimes come from some countries over others, from the metropolis rather than the interior, and from the socio-economic elites rather than from the minorities, etc.
However, in our experience, the diversity of backgrounds and points of view allows for a much richer exchange among the network we’re establishing, which not only influences the program’s results but bears great potential to add something new to the discussion – and, sometimes, change our participants’ perspective forever. Opting for the “riskier choice” (and there are many in every program), however, takes both responsible implementing organizations and patient donors.
3. The most important things happen when nobody’s watching
While the Fellowship’s seminars and projects generally draw the better part of the attention, some of the most interesting results are produced outside of the program’s modules and work dynamics, in what the Fellows call “colaboraciones silenciosas”. This is where the members of the network support each other exchanging experiences, ideas, tools and contacts, which oftentimes generate unplanned synergies.
Three such examples are the creation of the Laboratorio de Innovación de Xalapa (LABIX), the opening of the property register of the municipality of São Paulo, and the organization of the First Brazilian Open Government Meeting. These were all co-operations between fellows who before their participation in the program either didn’t know each other or were hesitant to push larger initiatives together, in many cases because of the distance that still remains between public administration and civil society groups in many countries in the region.
4. Collaboration or reinventing the wheel?
Collaboration between different stakeholders is one of the main pillars of Open Government. Therefore, from the very beginnings of the Fellowship we have been working fruitfully with a variety of actors in the field to set up this new initiative together and, thus, increase the program’s impact, reach, and sustainability. A broad alliance of multilateral organizations, OAS Member States, Permanent Observers, and private foundations have contributed their experience, knowledge, and networks as well as important technical, logistical, and financial support.
However, we also had to learn that sometimes strong institutional interests prevail and, as a result, limit the possibilities of cooperation and incentivize institutions to develop their own parallel activities rather than join a common effort. While the reasons for this preference can be entirely valid in every single case, the result is oftentimes that we pass up a chance of creating synergies, don’t make the best possible use of limited (mostly public) resources, or even duplicate efforts.
As a first step to reduce obstacles to collaboration and offer better visibility and ownership to our partners old and new, we suggest to turning the “OAS Fellowship” into a “Multilateral Fellowship” for future editions, an “OpenGov Fellowship of the Americas”, or simply “OpenGov Fellowship”, to make it as attractive as possible for everyone interested to join existing efforts rather than reinvent the wheel.
5. Make sure you don’t run out of breath before the finish line
The combination of different modules and, above all, the six-month project phase are the Fellowship’s most interesting and challenging aspects, conceptually speaking. These modules set the OAS Fellowship apart from comparable programs and, potentially, help make it more sustainable through the many tangible initiatives it produces. The Fellows’ projects during the first two years dealt with topics of the highest relevance for the region, including citizen security, Open Justice, Open Journalism, youth engagement in Open Government, the effective participation of minorities, and transparency in the region’s penitentiary systems to reduce its rampant human rights violations.
The Fellowship’s main flaw remains that the organizers initiate a promising process but lack the financial stamina to follow through to the end. While we support our participants in their development of practical Open Government projects over the course of six months – with capacity-development, coaching, and opportunities to present their ideas to large audiences – we still lack the ability to provide them with seed-funding for their projects, which in many cases would be crucial to the implementation, or at least piloting, of their initiatives.
This is where we fall short of our promise to the participants, our own expectations, and the incredible potential of the Fellows’ ideas. While some project teams won’t need seed-funding or successfully apply for it elsewhere, in many cases we lose the momentum and run the risk of, in the end, leaving a cemetery of good ideas never implemented. The program’s impact and contribution to effectively promoting Open Government practices in the region will depend to a great extent on how fast we find a solution to this shortcoming.
There’s several tasks ahead: Currently, we’re preparing a detailed “Impact and Learning Report” to share and discuss our experience with the community and avoid that others make the same mistakes. We are also thinking about systematically analyzing the roughly 1,500 applications from across the region that we have received in the past three years. The applications give interesting insights into the challenges, concerns, and innovative ideas for opening up government, from the perspective of young professionals from over 30 countries across the Americas who want to make a contribution to improving citizens’ living conditions through better public services.
To embrace this diversity and richness of ideas from the region, the OAS Fellowship is more than a curriculum carved in stone, it is what its participants make of it: it aims to be a participatory platform for targeting regional knowledge-exchange, developing innovative ideas, and providing a common learning experience in the process.
Do you have ideas on how we can further improve our OpenGov Fellowship? Feel free to share and contribute in the comments section below. If you’re interested in participating in the 2017 edition, you can still apply until March 19 (Spanish-speaking candidates only).