World Bank presidents are a lucky lot. I am always impressed how their diligent staff pick-up their half-formed ideas and work them up into something really robust. I hope they know that heads of other international bureaucracies are not so fortunate. In any event, the Bank is in the grip of just such a convulsion of creative energy after the new president Jim Kim announced that citizen engagement was the name of his game.
In a series of speeches since he took office in July 2012 – most recently in his Annual Meeting speech in October — Kim has set out a vision that makes intuitive sense: if you are trying to figure out what people want or need, it is a good idea to ask them. Not only does their feedback provide intelligence that can be built into projects and policies, it also helps stimulate ‘demand side’ accountability and, with it, the incentives institutions and governments seem to need to act on what citizens say.
The agenda is not new. The Bank has already done a lot to promote and operationalize a range of social accountability mechanisms and participatory approaches that empower citizens to hold governments to account for a raft of services from the provision of energy to teachers’ attendance at school.
There is probably no institution on earth that has done as much to think through and document the challenges and relative merits of different social development and accountability instruments ranging from citizen and community score cards to citizens’ charters and grievance redress mechanisms.
In the operational context, a lot of effort has gone into ‘upstream’ procedures to gauge the needs and protect the interests of citizens who may be affected by projects and programs. Downstream evaluators have long sort the views of ordinary folk as they try to establish what worked and what did not.
There has been less focus on the citizen’s perspective in ‘midstream’, that long stretch when implementation is underway and the monitoring of quantitative indicators is the order of the day. This phase is critical to development outcomes yet the ability to track citizens’ perceptions during this time-frame has historically been limited. This in turn has made it easier to ignore the need for the mid-course corrections that this kind of feedback may reveal as necessary.
Staff at the World Bank get this and an internal survey earlier this year pointed to significant pent-up demand for in-time citizen feedback. So why the uneven progress in filling the gap in any systematic way?
That’s a big question to which we are trying to respond in our work with a wide range of partners. Part of the reason is that we did not have the kind of light touch, low-cost tools you need to elicit, analyze, and act on citizens’ feedback under the real-time pressures of project design and implementation.
The good news is that the political impetus Jim Kim has provided is matched by smart people across his institution and elsewhere who are now testing and evaluating tools, like Keystone’s Constituent Voice method, that are specifically conceived to make program design and implementation a process of continuous listening and continuous improvement.
By providing management with the means to land citizens’ evolving perceptions all along the development continuum we are moving slowly but surely towards better development by practitioners and improved lives for people.
Nick van Praag directs Keystone’s Ground Truth programme.