5 Things You Should Know Before Starting a Citizen Feedback Initiative

There are more options to choose from than ever before that can amplify citizen voices in development.

April 2, 2014

Samantha Custer

Someone recently asked me how I would advise NGOs interested in collecting feedback from local communities on development projects. I found this intriguing. Even though citizen engagement is an old concept, does feedback in today’s hyper-connected, technology-enabled world imply the need for new ways of thinking? Moreover, to what extent are there lessons learned from early successes and failures that may be broadly applicable?

The idea that the intended beneficiaries of development projects have insights to share about what is important to them and how foreign aid is or is not working has been around for decades. What’s changed? Development jargon has certainly evolved – from beneficiaries to citizens and now constituents. The more substantive change, however, has to do with the disruptive forces of technology and connectivity.

Traditional barriers of cost, time and distance that once limited dialogue between those who supply and demand public goods are less convincing in a connected world. As Jake Kendall and Rodger Voorhies state in their recent Foreign Affairs article, “mobile signals now cover some 90 percent of the world’s poor, and there are, on average, more than 89 cell-phone accounts for every 100 people living in a developing country.”

There are more options to choose from than ever before that can amplify citizen voices in development. If the proliferation of the words feedback and loop in development discourse is any indication, the mobile revolution has caused donors, governments and civil society organizations to experiment with new ways to gain real-time, hyper-local feedback.

In 2012, several colleagues and I took stock of how the World Bank was incorporating mechanisms to engage local community members in giving feedback on development projects and results. The results of this study have just been released as a working paper entitled, "Closing the Feedback Loop: Can Technology Amplify Citizen Voices". Here are five lessons learned that are broadly applicable across donors, governments and NGOs.

1. Feedback is not just about a platform; it’s about envisioning an entire system.A well thought out feedback initiative takes into account several key components: purpose, people, process, tools and environment. For more information about architecting feedback systems, read this World Bank How-To Note.

2. Address the cost-benefit calculus of those you hope will provide feedback.When people provide feedback, they bear tangible, short-term costs in terms of time, effort and risk of retribution in exchange for abstract, long-term benefits such as improved service delivery or more effective aid. Incentivizing feedback requires finding creative ways to reduce the costs and increase the immediate benefits to participate.

3. Embrace new technologies to solicit feedback, but don’t forget about the old.digital divide persists for the estimated 10% of the world’s poor not yet covered by mobile signals and the many more that lack the capabilities to confidently engage with online platforms or don’t have the devices to do so. Hybrid approaches that blend the reach of online tools with the inclusivity of offline options, such as community meetings or radio, are underutilized. This could be an opportunity for partnerships between international organizations with strong online infrastructure and local infomediaries with deep community connections. A promising example of a hybrid approach is a World Bank ICT4Gov project in South Kivu, DRC that applied this in the context of participatory budgeting.

4. Align your organization’s incentives to act upon feedback and sustain engagement.Don’t assume that those collecting feedback will want to respond and act upon it. Feedback initiatives create additional burden for organizations that now need to validate, curate and report on contributions from participants. Planning ahead for how feedback will be processed and integrated within day-to-day operations is what separates a one-off data collection exercise from a sustained effort to engage citizens. If you’re unconvinced, read Christine Martin’s cautionary tale about Femina HIP.

5. Be prepared to fail, learn and try again.Setting up a feedback platform is relatively easy; sustaining meaningful engagement is exceptionally difficult. NGOs, donors and governments should be willing to capture and share what works and what doesn’t. AidData is no exception and, as we prepare to launch a new functionality that will enable anyone to share insights and information on specific development projects via aiddata.org, we expect to learn by trial and error.