How has the Pandemic Affected the Ecosystem on Open Government?

December 3, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

A thought-provoking new paper from Abigael Bellows and Nada Zohdy on how the pandemic is influencing the ecosystem of advocacy, campaigns and experimentation to promote open government (aka transparency and accountability).

Based on interviews with 125 civil society leaders in 20 countries, in a paper published by the Carnegie Endowment, the authors find that the ‘pandemic has generated a surge in public demand for government transparency and accountability.’ i.e. People want to know where all the money is going, and why it isn’t turning up as PPE or other critical parts of the  Covid response.

But that demand has generated a rather lop-sided response ‘the urgency of tackling open government issues during the pandemic has deepened partnerships among existing networks. But in other places, those partnerships have yet to take shape, and new alliances are less likely to form without the benefit of face-to-face interactions.’

So where campaigners had already established relationships with governments and others before Covid hit, they have been able to use the pandemic to deepen those links. But it’s been really hard to forge new relationships, given the restrictions on moving and meeting. What’s more, that absence of interaction has encouraged megaphone comms, rather than real two-way conversation that builds trust.

The paper explores the links between ‘elite actors (e.g national NGOs with paid staff, based in capitals) and ‘grassroots actors’ (grassroots/community-based organizations):

‘In January 2020, Abigail Bellows identified a divide between elite and grassroots actors in the anticorruption field and outlined strategies for overcoming that divide. That study found that the growing legal and technical sophistication of professionalized anticorruption nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has made these organizations better watchdogs yet has simultaneously increased their distance from citizens affected by corruption. Without strong ties to grassroots communities, elite actors struggle to gain traction for their recommendations, while grassroot campaigners face difficulty translating protest energy into policy impact. Bellows argued that fostering vertical connectivity to bridge the elite-grassroots divide—whether through formal partnerships or behind-the-scenes coordination—can help both types of actors to more fully reap the strategic benefits of their distinct capabilities.

As the pandemic has unfolded, many practitioners began asking whether the pandemic is reshaping elite-grassroots dynamics on the ground. We decided to investigate this question.

This research suggests that although the pandemic has deepened some existing partnerships in the open government sector, it has not fundamentally dislodged the traditional dynamics of engagement between elite NGOs and grassroots groups—at least not yet. Nonetheless, the pandemic is starting to impact the civil society landscape, particularly in the four areas highlighted below, which could be early indicators of wider shifts to come.

1. Increased Reliance on Grassroots Participation

The pandemic has caused national NGOs to increasingly rely on local actors to implement program activities and community engagement work, due to travel and curfew constraints. While not originally intended, this shift may nonetheless create new openings for grassroots organizations to assume greater influence and leadership in such vertical engagements in the future.

2. Greater Resonance of Elite Work with the General Public

Across the board, the research points to greater public interest in transparency, accountability, and civic participation work during the pandemic, as the stakes of corruption are visible and high. This benefits both elite and grassroots open government advocates, who are seeing a renewed sense of urgency in their work. The uptick in public interest is likely to disproportionately benefit elite NGOs, who had more distance to overcome in connecting with everyday people, given the technical, jargon-heavy nature of their work.

3. Emergence of More Aspiring Hybrid Organizations

One of the strategies considered in Bellows’ previous research for overcoming the disconnect between elite and grassroots civic actors was the cultivation of hybrid organizations, which have in-house capacity for both technical policy work and local community work. The pandemic may produce a swell of aspiring hybrids—both among elite actors who are now harnessing a wider base of public interest, as well as among grassroots actors who were able to build new bridges to policymakers due to remote-work and wish to sustain those relationships. Yet as the number of hybrid organizations grows, it will be important for field actors to reflect on how to preserve a healthy division of labor in the field and maintain specialized roles. Otherwise, overlapping mandates and capabilities among aspiring hybrids could lead to a less efficient and more competitive ecosystem.

4. Accelerated Adaptation and Learning in Operational Approaches

The pandemic has impacted the everyday activities of elite NGOs and grassroots actors alike. In general, researchers see the most changes in program implementation (rather than in strategy). For instance, many elite NGOs have shifted the way they conduct field work (local research, trainings, and community-level consultations). In this and other domains, 2020 has been a year of developing new ways of working, some of which may have a lasting legacy.’

As part of our work on ‘emergent agency in a time of Covid’, I’d be interested to hear whether researchers and activists see the same pattern in other sub-systems of civil society and advocacy – namely, that the pandemic has frozen existing sets of relationships in place, with people able to build on the existing ones, but struggling to build new ones, especially with people from other kinds of institution – the state, private sector etc. Is Covid in danger of exacerbating our echo chamber problem, whereby activists in different bubbles within the ecosystem spend the whole time talking to people in the same bubble?

December 3, 2020
Duncan Green