Lessons from ADB: Mobilizing Multi-Stakeholder Action for Reform

Date Originally Published: October 14, 2014
Date Republished: October 13, 2017


Change and development lie at the core of Open Data. In promoting transparency, Open Data pushes not just for a shift in government processes but also in public attitudes and expectations. For this, it is necessary to establish a culture of openness, so that citizens can better engage with their government and demand information that will help ensure public accountability. In the end, it is the citizens who are the end users of data, and without their participation, government data can only remain useful on a limited scale—within the government infrastructure—rather than across the wider, public hemisphere.

As such, the Open Data Task Force is continually seeking to deepen our engagement with a variety of sectors. In May, for example, we organized a data skills training for members of government, civil society organizations (CSOs), and media; and in June, our Data and Outreach Leads conducted a workshop in Butuan City, Agusan del Norte, to promote Open Data at the local government level. In order to successfully instigate widespread change, it is important to engage with as many stakeholders as possible. This is why the Task Force has sought to build working relationships not just with leaders of government agencies and their staff—who perform the bulk of data release work—but also with CSOs, media, and ordinary citizens—the main beneficiaries of Open Data.

But different groups of stakeholders, while sharing the same concerns, do not always end up working well together. They may share the same principles but use different methods, or aim toward the same goal but have different visions. This can result in conflicts and delays, which inevitably hamper the development of harmonious solutions.

We in the Task Force have experienced and continue to experience situations such as this. In the process of spreading the Open Data gospel, we regularly encounter difficulties at the agency staff level. For example, many have admitted that they feel reluctant to release data because they fear a public backlash in case their reports contain erroneous data. Such a culture of fear and mistrust is exactly what we seek to overturn with Open Data. But convincing all stakeholders to come onboard the project has proven to be a real challenge.

This difficulty is not unique to us. We are aware of this, and also that establishing change—of any kind, in any setting—takes time. Under any approach, navigating this aspect of reform involves fostering a deeper awareness of stakeholders’ underlying issues. In a more general sense, it is therefore necessary to ask: “How can multi-stakeholder groups become allies and advocates for reform rather than uninvolved fence-sitters or disgruntled opponents?”

This was one of the main questions posed during “Mobilizing Multi-Stakeholder Action for Reform,” a four-day learning program organized by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Members of the Open Data Task Force were invited to participate in the program, which was held from September 30-October 3, 2014, and which centered on pursuing reform through the effective management of stakeholder interests.

A Space Where We Can Move Forward

Given the game-changing nature of reform, it is clear that such initiatives need as much support as possible, from as wide a variety of groups as possible. However, bringing together different groups too often leads to conflict rather than cooperation. As Ms. Caby Verzosa—one of the program facilitators—emphasized, meaningful communication is key to mobilizing multi-stakeholder support. Without a clear understanding of the situation and the suggested reform, stakeholders are likely to question proposals or resist change altogether. Misunderstandings are dangerous because they can lead to disagreement, opposition, and the eventual delay or shutdown of reform.

One of the main study materials in the learning program featured the fictional case of Sarangaya, a bustling city with a thriving economy but poor service delivery and worsening poverty. Through an external loan, the government was able to make headway on a water reform project that would ensure reliable water supply to Sarangaya’s residents, replacing a system characterized by inefficiency and wastage. Unfortunately, within the reform program, consultations and stakeholder engagement took a back seat to technical concerns. This led various groups such as labor unions to harbor grudges and suspicions, and band together with CSOs to oppose the project. With the media’s support, these groups succeeded in ramping up pressure on Sarangaya’s politicians, who eventually ordered the suspension of the water reform.

Just as in the Sarangaya case, real-life reform often involves conflicting currents in the wider stream of progress. But as Ms. Verzosa said, the kind of damage control needed in Sarangaya could have been avoided if the water reformists had set effective transparency and engagement practices from the beginning. Citing the importance of cooperation, she cautioned against addressing issues mid-stream, and advised the attendees to engage with stakeholders as early as possible. At the same time, she acknowledged that although damage control is avoidable to a certain extent, nothing ever goes perfectly in real life, and one should therefore be prepared to face unexpected circumstances.

As an example, Ms. Verzosa described a situation where reformists—despite having rolled out an effective communication strategy—would still need to address stakeholder dissatisfaction in the middle of project implementation. This would call for re-engagement. As she said, in such a situation it is important to have an open mind and to hear out the stakeholders’ concerns, instead of acquiring a defensive stance—as most people are inclined to do. She stressed that the only way to avoid further conflict is to bring all stakeholder groups “from a point of difference to a point of understanding,” and from there find a way forward.

The Long Route of Accountability: Managing the Three Wills

In navigating the process of reform, it is necessary to first identify the different factors involved as well as potential barriers to progress. Ms. Verzosa categorized these challenges into Three Wills: political will, organizational will, and public will. In her presentation, she described political will as “broad leadership support for change.” Essentially, mobilizing political will involves rallying support from political leaders to pursue change. In contrast, organizational will has less to do with politics and more to do with institutions. According to Ms. Verzosa, middle managers in organizations are “often averse to change”—partly due to the rigid structures they operate in—“or, at best, move at a slow pace.” Finally, public will translates to public support. But while the entire population constitutes the beneficiaries of reform, all too often public opinion is shaped by powerful minority groups, whose voices drown out the silent majority.

These Three Wills are connected through the “long route of accountability.” This route links the state, which controls policy (political will); providers, which operate frontline services (organizational will); and citizens, who—as the end users of these services—exert considerable influence on the state (public will). Under this framework, both the state and its providers are ultimately accountable to the citizens, the main clients of reform.

In defining these Three Wills, Ms. Verzosa highlighted the importance of aligning them to mobilize action; otherwise, each would end up pulling in a different direction. But how does one align the varying interests of such broad coalitions? What kind of communication strategy is needed?

Because change is by nature disruptive, if people don’t understand it, they are more likely to resist change than accept it. Even when there is a discomfort with the status quo, different groups hold different interests and opinions—which is why reformists should know their stakeholders well. As Ms. Verzosa explained, groups often enter into negotiations with only their concerns in mind: “What’s in it for me?” In order to change stakeholders’ behavior, one must first effectively communicate to them the wider benefits of reform. Specific strategies differ, but in essence the goal is to change the conversation’s tune from “What’s in it for me?” to “What’s in it for us?”—recognizing that placing the collective over the self is the only way to bring about lasting good.

In line with this, Ms. Verzosa emphasized that strategic communication is not just about spreading awareness, but also about pushing people to take action. For this, one effective approach is to first identify stakeholders along a continuum—from “immovable opponents” to “immovable allies,” with “uncommitted” and “uninvolved” categories in between. One must then ask: Which groups could be mobilized to act? Which engagements could be fruitful? In the pursuit of real dialogue, it is important to recognize which groups might be open to engagement, and which ones will most likely never alter their stance.

This particular lesson resonated with the Open Data Task Force. In the early stages of any movement, the focus is usually on promoting awareness, but as the message spreads, an urgent need arises to provide action options to those who are already onboard the project, or have at least shown interest. As we learned, stakeholders do not fall into only two categories—unengaged and engaged—but on different places along a continuum. For any movement, therefore, it would be advantageous to come up with a more defined communication strategy.

One example Ms. Verzosa gave that showed the effectiveness of engagement is a case scenario on infrastructure reform in Wenling City, China. Rather than choosing the projects themselves, local officials in the township allowed citizens to select 10 out of a possible list of 30. Dissatisfied by earlier “heart to heart” meetings which were dominated by local notables and self-interested groups, the officials used a deliberative poll method for the survey, drawing on a random sample of the population. Apart from providing a more accurate reflection of the people’s pulse, the chosen method also “added to perceptions of transparency and legitimacy.”

This case demonstrates an effective way to mobilize public will, with the government essentially asking its people: What do you want for your city? Tom Fiutak, Ms. Verzosa’s co-facilitator, described engagement as comprising two factors, intention and commitment. According to him, only by following through a genuine intent to listen to all sides will multi-stakeholder engagement be possible. But although the Wenling City method was clearly successful, it is dangerous to assume that what has worked for one culture will be as effective in another setting. Universal application is not feasible since adjustments are necessary depending on existing structures and cultures. As Ms. Verzosa said, there is a need to first understand the “rules of the game.” Rather than make assumptions, reformists should learn to identify particular problems and constraints, so that solutions can emerge naturally, instead of being imposed.

Durable Agreements, Durable Relationships

Despite the best preparations, however, conflicts inevitably arise during any large undertaking. But Mr. Fiutak clarified that conflict in itself is not a negative concept. It is, rather, “a natural consequence of progress, development, and change.” According to him, an organization without conflict is a comatose organization. Before going into any negotiation, he said, it is important to perceive conflict as neutral, so that one can consider each party’s interests and concerns without bias. This is the ideal conflict management scenario. By genuinely listening to each other, stakeholders can come to the realization that the collective good trumps all individual interests.

But in handling negotiations, one should value not only the outcome, but also the relationship. According to Mr. Fiutak, before setting up an action plan, one should first address stakeholders’ underlying concerns and motivations; otherwise, the action plan won’t hold up in the long term. To cultivate relationships based on cooperation, it is necessary to conduct deep, meaningful engagements, not just superficial consultations meant to win the other side over.

This idea of “winning” complicates multi-stakeholder engagement. For genuine dialogue to take place, parties must cease to view each other as enemies but as possible allies in reform, albeit with different ideas. Under the learning program, this concept was communicated to the attendees through lectures, case studies, exercises, and even role-playing activities. With roles handed out at random, participants were forced to think of problems—such as the Sarangaya case—from different angles, as different people.

For our final activity, we were divided into two sides within the fictional world of Sarangaya: pro- and anti-reform. Each side was tasked to come up with an effective communication strategy, with the aim of garnering as much support as possible. Although the pro-reform groups came up with more logical arguments, it was the anti-reform side that was able to secure popular sentiment—largely through emotional appeal. This laid bare a striking lesson: Emotion is easier to portray than reason, and for a logical solution to succeed it must be conveyed at least as—if not more—effectively. Underscoring the need for balance, Ms. Verzosa declared that in communication there are “no facts without a story, no story without facts.”

Truly, this ADB learning program has been an instructive and enlightening experience for the Open Data Task Force. It has provided us with many insights and lessons to ponder as we seek to deepen our engagement with stakeholders and push for our agenda of transparency.