Looking back on my year working with the United Nations World We Want team, engaging people in discussion about what matters for their future, I feel compelled to come clean on the experience thus far.
I already tried to debunk some myths and now I would like to focus on some of the dangers I see related to participatory and consultative processes.
Danger #1: Don’t ask, don’t use
The greatest danger in holding participatory consultations on public policy issues is failing to be accountable for the time and effort that people have invested in them.
The issue is not ‘consultation fatigue,’ it’s that there is a serious expectation that the consultations will bring change.
While the consultations were designed as part of the global process to define successors to the Millennium Development Goals, many local issues and solutions have arisen in the process.
This is why UNDP launched a “We listened…now what” micro-fund to encourage direct follow up on issues raised during the post-2015 consultations.
Countries are using the results of these consultations to deepen dialogue on issues like ratification of treaties like the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (in Belarus). Others are using the national dialogues to trigger local action on issues such as the job-education disconnect (Moldova and Montenegro) and helping young people at risk in Kyrgyzstan to connect with others who have engaged during this future oriented consultation process and take action.
So, even as the global discussion on a new set of goals continues, people on the ground are making use of the results of the post-2015 national consultations.
The consultations were broad in nature, but United Nations teams are now looking for ways to deepen dialogue on specific national issues and connect interested activists to each other. This is in a way modelling what responsive governance looks like.
Danger #2: Leaving all the tough decisions to the data people
In my last post, I talked about the surprising result that opening up a consultation as general as “what kind of future do you want” yields a counter-intuitive degree of convergence.
On the other hand, while people from a range of countries and backgrounds tend to agree on the headline priorities, there is also a tendency to avoid detailed decisions until we assess what can actually be measured. This is, in many respects, a good sign – since it builds on the results focus of the Millennium Development Goals.
Some approaches, including that of the High Level Panel on post-2015, have called for broadly defined global goals to be supplemented by national targets. This means that national level authorities will need to define their own targets within a global set of goals.
This approach makes some human rights advocates nervous because each country would define how progress is measured rather than using universal human rights principles. (One can imagine a process whereby world leaders come to New York to report their own indications of progress on human rights, good governance and other subjective areas of sustainable development.)
This kind of post-2015 approach acknowledges that global goals need to recognize sub-national inequities, but puts the burden on the measuring process.
For example, take a broad goal like quality education for all. To satisfy concerns that national averages hide the continued denial of rights for certain groups, this approach suggests that all data be disaggregated.
Theoretically, data which is broken down by gender, age, location, ethnicity and religion will help dig beneath national averages and detect which groups might be excluded. But is this always possible in practice?
During The Power of Measurement panel at the #Istanbulpost2015 consultation, Blagica Novkovska, Director General of the State Statistical Office in The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, made a valid point about the limitations of statistics as a way to measure inequalities through disaggregation.
Ms. Novkovska and other statisticians feel that disaggregation alone is not enough to compensate for broadly defined goals.
Recognized minorities are determined nationally, and asking statisticians to produce globally comparable data puts even more pressure on them than the Millennium Development Goals did. (The MDGs are said to have used indicators which required expensive additional surveys from already strapped national statistical offices.)
This is why there is an increasing call to involve statisticians in the definition of the agenda from the beginning, rather than leaving them to clean up an ambiguous agenda later on.
Another part of the #datarevolution is the idea that new forms of data can be used as real-time proxies for issues related to disaster risk reduction, economic and vulnerability. Open data experts like Prasanna Lal Das say that more data has been produced in the last two years than in all of humanity.
Is this the kind of commitment that governments can and will commit to with any regularity? And, given the tendency for any data to be politicized, will big, open, and citizen generated data stand up under fire?
Danger #3: Opening up is addictive
As a final confession, I will admit that once you start asking people what they think, what they know and what they can do, it is hard to stop.
We are already engaged in an innovation revolution teaching us that the best expert on poverty is not who you expect it would be.
Take this to the next level. How could we use the kind of consultative survey, town hall approach used to inform the new global agenda to determine what kind of programmes we fund? Could we judge the efficacy of our awareness raising efforts by changes in public opinion?
Can we work with governments to directly respond to issues raised during the post-2015 consultations and to inform their national positions in international negotiations for sustainable development goals? I don’t know, but like any confessing junkie, I am very willing to try.