By Stanley Achonu
It is common for civil society organisations (CSOs) and groups campaigning for reforms to identify challenges with government systems and governance processes then suggest possible solutions. This can only bear fruit with governments willing to listen, and collaborate. Increasingly, such campaigns rarely achieve set goals as at when needed, consuming more time and resources in instances where any result is achieved.
So does collaboration work? Can organisations and people advocating for change work collaboratively with government to achieve desired changes or reforms in line with the wishes of the larger population? It’s difficult, but not impossible.
The difficulty is in part driven by the fear that the organisations’ credibility will be questioned by the very public they serve. There is also a problem of whether the capacity required to collaboratively work with government exists, as well as the moot point that governments change and officials in selective posts are also changed at the whims of their Principal.
However, the challenges faced by the citizens leave no room for self-doubt or undue hesitation over these difficulties; we are required not only to speedily identify challenges and articulately suggest solutions, but to roll up our sleeves to put in the manual work towards reforming governments at all levels.
Collaboration, in my experience, works best when government institutions are led by reform-conscious officials who will be more receptive when solutions are not merely mooted, but implementation frameworks and partnerships are simultaneously offered. It is that tangible leap from saying “this is the problem” to adding: “these are the exact steps we could take together to eradicate it” that puts the action in collaboration.
For example, in 2015, BudgIT intentionally chose to broaden its adoption of this approach, working with the Kaduna State Government on Nigeria’s first Open Budget platform, with the Nigerian Police Force Intelligence Bureau on intelligence data gathering and analysis, as well as with several government agencies in the security sector (in partnership with Public and Private Development Centre as lead) on guidelines for classifying security information with respect to FOI and the Nigerian Police Headquarters on a mapping of Police Stations in Lagos.
I am aware of the work that Public and Private Development Centre did with Open Contracting Data Standards using their recently built procurement tool www.budeshi.org which led to the recent announcement of government adoption of Open Contracting Data Standards; and the collaboration between Right to Know Nigeria (R2K) and Bureau for Public Sector Reform to build an online FOI platform for the bureau.
For organisations looking to use these methods, it is critical to: identify a champion, ambassador or “face” within the government institution clearly looking to implement reforms; communicate your clear and unbiased understanding of the solutions being proffered; evaluate your capacity to carry out the work and find the resources required to implement the ideas. Where capacity is lacking, it is important to find similarly-driven partners who can help. Collaboration is an opportunity to invest your resources, and it is advised that the only gain should be seeing tangible change take root.
Reforming government through collaboration comes with organisational risks and is not — and should never be — an opportunity for financial gain from government. Regarding these risks, care must be taken to ensure that the values of the organisation are not compromised at any stage and the CSO must ensure it remains open about the collaboration at all stages of the project. Carrying the public along will ensure that their questions are answered, doubts cleared and the focus is persistently sharp, giving advocacy and reforms more bite.
It is pertinent to seek donors; avoid the exchange of money, especially between governments and your organisation. This will ensure operational independence to implement relevant reforms to the best of your ability. Just as important is this: do not overstate what will be achieved. Rather, start with the simplest things to show what is possible, build trust and continue to improve on previous achievements, as project lifespans can be extended.
Funding collaborations with government institutions can be challenging, so early planning during programme design with donors and funding partners is essential. Donors understandably always have ideas about what they want to fund and have restrictions on what their funds can be used for. Therefore, it must be reiterated that CSOs must carefully design programmes in such a way that it will meet Donor conditions and simultaneously assist recipient organisations implement reform.
This approach, of collaboration and working for the people with the right government champion can lead to positive and lasting reforms that outlive government officials. There is an assurance that is established once initial success is achieved. It wins over any individuals initially opposed to the reforms, opens the gate for more to be done, bags you a seat at the table and earns you a reputation as an organisation that gets things done.
If there is one thing I must say from my experience of working on institutional engagement programmes it would be this: with collaboration, it is never about the CSO, but about the people they seek to represent.
Therefore, in the name of democracy there can be no enemies when the goal is reform. If we must name one, then our collective enemy in the struggle for a better life for our fellow citizens should be: institutional opacity.
Stanley Achonu is the Operations Lead at BudgIT and coordinates Open Alliance Nigeria – a group of CSOs working on Open Government Partnership. He writes from Lagos.