A new government proposal to allow the public to determine how development aid is spent has come under heavy criticism, but if implemented correctly MyAid could harness the knowledge of citizens and help build support for rising aid budgets.
The coalition government appears to be viscerally attracted to engaging the public in new ways. I’ve already written and commented about its three recent attempts to crowdsource public opinion. As these engagement exercises come to an end another is beginning to gather steam.
The head of steam is developing around the government’s proposals for MyAid in which it aims to engage the public in choosing development projects. If implemented the MyAid proposal will see citizens voting for aid projects in a competition for a pot of £40m. The project with the highest votes will receive the most money.
David Cameron announced MyAid in the context of his commitment to match the Labour policy of increasing aid to the UN target of 0.7% of gross national income by 2013. At the announcement of MyAid in July last year Cameron said;
“...we need to change the way we give, so that the British public is right behind us. It's more important than ever that we build support for our aid programmes.”
The proposal came under attack as soon as it was announced with much of the criticism coming from development NGOs. Many of the criticisms raised were based around the worry that sexy projects will win public hearts rather than dowdy and unfashionable projects that are equally or more effective;
“Development can't be run like the X-factor. How we allocate development resources should be informed by quality analysis of the needs on the ground. Whilst it's important that the public remains engaged, there is a danger that unfashionable sectors - like sanitation - will get ignored and short-term preferences will undermine longer-term development needs.” Save the Children
Others have raised the concern that better known development brands will beat smaller NGOs.
“it risk[s] putting projects backed by small NGOs at a disadvantage, because larger groups would be able to mobilise their supporters to back their own initiatives.” Christian Aid
Although others run the risk of appearing to call the public too stupid to understand, valid concerns remain about the extent to which a significant degree of technical knowledge and expertise is required to make choices about how best to ensure the most impact with a particular sum of money.
"It is important to recognise that these are serious and complex issues and what may seem like a good thing to the public may be completely hopeless in reality." John Hilary, War on Want
In my opinion, while all of these concerns are valid, they will only come true if the government uses the same template process it used for its three previous attempts at crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing is, by its very nature, best at getting information which is distributed across a particular population, information which no individual person or government department has easy access to. The population must be expert in the field in which they are being asked to contribute their ideas, otherwise the ideas submitted are based more on anecdote and hypothesis than fact. This is why the Spending Challenge was far more successful in getting ideas from public sector workers than the public. Public sector workers, through doing their job, develop an expertise in a specific area of government policy and service delivery. The vast majority of the public on the other hand only has glancing contact with public services and so has far less knowledge. Only those members of the public with intimate contact with the state, children in social care, offenders in contact with probation, or people with long term critical illnesses for example, will have specialist knowledge not available to the general public or indeed public sector workers.
With the best will in the world, the majority of the British public cannot be characterised as having intimate contact with development projects. They are not experts and cannot be expected to be able to contribute specialist knowledge.
However, British citizens have a strong sense of their own values and priorities. Changing the nature of the way the government harnesses their interest through public engagement would radically change the nature of the process and go a long way to answering most of the critics. In particular it would provide a way to deepen the knowledge of citizens about development. In addition, if designed correctly could provide a potent way to hold the government to account for aid spending, not just for the MyAid projects but more generally.
While the public can’t be expected to identify and vote on aid projects in an open access way they can, and I would argue should, make an invaluable contribution to aid policy particularly if support for the aid budget is to be maintained at a time of strain in the public sector. This cannot be done solely online though. A small group of citizens would need to be brought together to meet face-to-face and with development experts and sceptics.
Bringing a group of the public together in this way would allow them to deliberate and develop their own thinking. We see time and again that given space and a well designed process citizens are able to engage constructively. This group of citizens would be tasked with interrogating government policy as it stands and developing the principles and criteria by which projects should be submitted and chosen for the MyAid voting process.
The principles developed by this group of informed citizens would then be used to design the form by which development projects are submitted to the MyAid website. Citizens and development NGOs would be able to submit projects, but would have to explain how the project fitted the criteria developed in the first part of the process. A pre-screening by experts using these criteria before the voting opened would help to remove any projects which are anti-developmental or have been used to try to subvert the process.
Once nominations have closed, citizens would then be invited to vote on the projects submitted. An open ranking of all projects may well lead to a beauty parade, but there are other ways of designing online voting to ensure that the organisation with the most motivated membership base doesn’t swing the vote.
For example, the Dextrous Web produced Scenic or Not, a website inviting the public to rate the aesthetic qualities of all corners of Britain. On visiting the homepage the visitor is presented with a photo drawn randomly from the database and invited to rate it. Visitors can stay as long as they like, but they are only ever presented with random photos to rate. It is impossible therefore for the lobby group of a particular tourist hotspot to email a link to a photo and, through sheer weight of supporters, beat far more deserving scenes.
A similar process could be used for MyAid thus removing the problems that arise for smaller projects with limited numbers of supporters. Citizens can play an invaluable role by the sheer numbers taking part by ranking projects against the criteria.
A panel of development experts would then be invited to look at the ranking, and using the public’s criteria, make the final choices. In the process as I have outlined it here the public helps to identify the most promising projects, but only those with specific expertise make the final choice. As long as this is clear at the start and carried out transparently the process will maintain its legitimacy. Indeed, I have highlighted in a recent paper that in a number of areas where the public have been invited to engage they have welcomed the opportunity, but made it clear that experts should make the final decision.
The public therefore plays two roles. A small group is invited to become better informed and help to develop the process, and critically the criteria by which projects are chosen. En mass the public is then invited to rank the projects thus saving time and money for the government – an excellent use of crowdsourcing.
If the government had the courage it could also task the initial group of citizens with designing an accountability mechanism by which tax-payers could hold the government to account for the MyAid spending. One way this could happen is that the initial group comes back at the end of the process and interrogates the experts who made the final choice to ensure that the criteria established were really the ones used.
This is only a blog and not an in-depth attempt to solve all the problems that arise. However, a process designed along these lines, particularly if combined with an effective communications strategy, could help to change the terms of the debate about development aid. The criteria developed by the public could take on wider resonance within DFID’s overall aid programme and the accountability mechanism a powerful way of holding the government to account. I believe this would help to build support for a rising aid budget in the context of cuts.
All the noises I am hearing are that MyAid will happen despite the criticism. The danger is that the government won’t learn any lessons from the Spending Challenge. Instead it will develop a process similar to those it has used before. This will be a process that reinforces prejudices about aid and development and does long term damage to public support for aid spending overall. MyAid could rapidly turn into WhyAid.