When we set up a way of collecting citizens’ feedback, too often there’s a big assumption we are making. We assume that the citizen – indeed, a diverse range of citizens – those who have power and those who do not – would actually want to give that feedback.
But as a citizen, why would you bother? You’re probably busy and have more pressing concerns. You might have doubts that anyone would listen to what you have to say. Or you might have so little faith in the body you’re commenting on, that there seems little hope that your feedback will ever produce a result.
A number of us feedback practitioners were (rightly) asked to think this through at a session at the OGP 2018 Asia-Pacific Regional Meeting in Seoul. We were presenting case studies from Armenia, the Philippines and Mongolia, all of which sought to get feedback on public services or projects.
I was lucky enough to be at the meeting and presenting the case study from Armenia with Ani Harutyunyan from Armavir Development Centre (ADC). With the support of the Asian Development Bank, ADC has worked with Integrity Action to set up a system that allows citizens to monitor the construction of secondary schools. The citizens are from the communities where the schools are being built, and after accessing information such as contracts, they use a mobile app to post problems with the construction before trying to find solutions with other key stakeholders.
Sounds like a lot of work, right? So why do they participate? Before the project, we found there was potent frustration with the state of existing schools – including an air conditioning system that was full of mould and made some students sick when it was turned on. Addressing this frustration was one big motivating factor to participate.
During the project we also found that participants were excited about using a technology tool – that in itself was rewarding. Furthermore, some community monitors who did not usually feel listened to on such matters were happy to have a voice, particularly women, who rarely have a say in public construction projects.
There were still questions, though, about whether that motivation could be sustained. One conclusion from the session was that if the monitors’ concerns were not acted on rapidly, it would be easy for the community members to get frustrated all over again.
Aida Maria Talavera from the Commission on Audit in the Philippines presented a related challenge. The Commission on Audit involves citizens in the audit process and has various ways of receiving feedback from citizens, both online and offline. The Commission had seen a great response from this, but now they are concerned that, while citizens may expect 100% of comments to be acted on, they may not have the capacity to deal with half of these.
Here, “closing the feedback loop” was felt to be important. Even if you can’t act on a piece of feedback, you can still close the loop by going back to the citizen or community that submitted it, explaining to them why you can’t act on it now and what you are doing in the meantime. (You might even try to involve citizens in the process of working out what to respond to first.) Meanwhile, the high levels of feedback can also help make the case for boosting the capacity of whatever organisation or institution is responding.
The session also featured another representative of a supreme audit institution: Enkhbat Amarjargal of the National Audit Office of Mongolia. Taking after the Philippines, his office is planning to involve citizens in the audit process through a “citizens’ group”, and he presented some of the challenges they are facing as they prepare to do this. One challenge that chimed with the rest of the meeting was that of making this citizens’ group representative – a “mini-public”, as he put – that mirrors the broader society. This focus on inclusion and diversity was echoed throughout the regional meeting.
From an event that proved both stimulating and informative, one key thing I will take away is this reflection on people’s motivations. If we want to be good at catalysing people’s feedback, we need to be at least as good at listening to people’s views on the very mechanisms we create and why they would or would not take part in them.