Time to Get Political: Why the Open Governance Community Needs to Start Engaging with Grassroots Movements

By Brendan Halloran, International Budget Partnership— Oct 25, 2016

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There’s been a slow-dawning realization among open governance advocates that pushing for more inclusive and accountable governance requires a much deeper engagement with politics. As a community, promoters of open governance have often sought short cuts around the messiness of political dynamics. Or they have understood the need to address politics but struggled to adapt their tools and approaches. Yet there is mounting evidence that initiatives that fail to grapple with the political dimensions of this work have not been as effective as they could have been.

Take the Open Government Partnership (OGP), the flagship initiative of the open governance community. Although OGP has expanded rapidly and participating governments have committed to, and undertaken, hundreds of actions, questions are being raised about the real impacts on the ground.  A significant challenge for the initiative is the gap between OGP inputs and processes, and the actual political dynamics of reform in member countries. In particular there seems to be a significant disconnect between the discussions and progress happening in OGP and similar international initiatives, and the increasingly vocal demands for change made by citizens in many of these same countries. The OGP is by no means alone. Even open governance projects that are explicitly set up to engage with citizens have often been narrow, circumscribed, and apolitical. They have generally had little impact.

Given these shortcomings, the need to engage much more intentionally with politics is obvious. But what does it mean to “bring politics in” to open governance discourse and practice?

It’s All About Power

We need to get better at recognizing that entrenched poverty and inequality are deeply rooted in unequal power relations and sustained by status quo governance systems. Meaningful steps toward more inclusive and effective governance means navigating and reshaping politics. In the words of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, authors of the book Why Nations Fail:

“Making institutions more inclusive is about changing the politics of a society to empower the poor — the empowerment of those disenfranchised, excluded and often repressed by those monopolising power.”

And that is just what many NGOs try to do: challenge inequitable systems and pursue social justice. But is our work really reshaping power relationships? Does it build the collective agency of poor and marginalized people to challenge the politics of exclusion?  Or are we trying to get the policies and outcomes right without reshaping the politics that determines them?

Bringing in Politics Through the Grassroots

Making politics — and thus governance, and thus development — more inclusive means building up the countervailing power of those who are excluded. A team led by John Gaventa from the Institute of Development Studies examined 100 case studies on citizen engagement initiatives to better understand how they can contribute to more inclusive politics, better governance, and improved development outcomes. Their findings are revealing: advances toward more inclusive politics are most often accomplished by citizen-centered organizations and movements, not by the advocacy campaigns undertaken by professional NGOs.  In other words, organizations and movements built and led by citizens strengthen and leverage capacities for collective empowerment and action that can shape politics, not just policy.

Good Governance Movement Needs Grassroots Movements
Women at a community meeting discuss the reconstruction of their village. Credit: Flickr / World Bank

Such membership-based associations include rural cooperatives, women’s savings federations, religious societies, and labor unions, among others. Mass protests are the most visible manifestations of citizen collective action, but this is just one tactic, and one that doesn’t always leading to long-term impact: mobilizing is not the same as organizing, and we need more durable movements of citizen-led organizations to build inclusive governance from the ground up.

This insight is a direct challenge to professional NGOs pursuing more direct change strategies on their own.  Open Society Foundations fellow Lucia Nader has pointed to the need for “solid” organizations to adapt to more ”fluid” mobilizations and change dynamics. International NGOs in particular have been questioned with regards to their model for pursuing change. New thinking is already beginning to emerge, but this process needs to be accelerated to ensure that NGOs are using their resources most strategically.

But what does this mean in practice?  How can we bridge this gap and bring together organizations, both NGOs and grassroots groups, working toward common goals?

Forging Coalitions to Drive Change

This is not to say that NGOs can’t and don’t play an important role in driving social change. In many ways NGOs can help grassroots movements to campaign for sustained change. Around the globe, there are numerous cases of NGOs working with grassroots organizations and movements.

These examples are all different, but leveraging complementary capacities and approaches was a common thread. There are, of course, many challenges and questions with respect to these kinds of engagements. Building and sustaining trust is not easy, nor is finding a mutually agreeable approach to engaging with governments. Yet there is increasing evidence that, if our work is to contribute to more inclusive governance and development, we need to better harness the collective action and mobilization of citizens. Membership-based organizations and social movements may be just the right ally to help to do so.


  1. Dear Brendan,

    It is an interesting piece in current changing political environment where the space for democratic values and inclusiveness is shrinking across the globe. It is important to build movements and campaigns of the citizens to demand greater voice and choice in policy making domain. The work NGOs have been doing to empower the communities to demand their rights of education, health, water and sanitation was as much political as demanding greater resource allocation for basic services. Currently, interpretation of ‘political’ has become quite narrow. It is interpreted as partisan, therefore Governments are unwilling to provide invited spaces to the NGOs for dialogue. Building peoples’ movements is an effective way. Will donors be willing to support NGOs building movements where the results appear in the long run, high resource investment required and projects can not be neatly written in log-frames/Result Based Management?

    1. Yogesh,

      Thanks for your comment, you raise really important points. In conversations with civil society actors, they have often emphasized the need to think and work politically, without being labeled as ‘political’, which is associated with partisan activity and is a term often used by political actors to discredit the work that civil society is doing in the public interest. Each organization has to navigate this challenge in their particular context. But it’s important that external funding and support strengthen capacities for political analysis and strategy, rather than focusing only on specific tools, projects, or outcomes.

      Your other point about supporting this work is equally relevant. I think that in the case of funders whose frameworks and definitions of impact are narrower, it is a challenge to undertake this longer-term, more unpredictable and complex work of grassroots social change processes. On the other hand, there are funders who are asking themselves how they can channel resources to support citizen-centric organizing and social movement engagement as well. This was a major theme in a recent development conference in London earlier this year, which I wrote about here: https://politicsgovernancedevelopment.wordpress.com/2016/03/03/adventures-in-aidland-insights-from-the-2016-bond-conference/

      In the context of IBP, we will continue to look to the leadership and thinking of SAMARTHAN and other partners to help us take steps to support this kind of work going forward.


  2. I echo and agree with the focus on grass roots movements, which could be seen as antithetical to good governance, as they are rooted in specific concerns or contexts and therefore need to be kept at arms length or even opposed by government… potentially the current ‘Standing rock’ oil campaign on an Indian reservation in North Dakota being an example. And also an interesting example of the role of social media to spread an ‘open’ campaign. http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/standing-rock-check-in-1.3830156

    But examples where this alliance is working well include the Participatory Budgeting in New York, where ‘community voices heard’ is essential in mobilising participation among the poorer and more marginalised sections of society. http://www.cvhaction.org/pb

    It might be useful to compare the way participatory budgeting, and other mechanisms for a more open government link into ideas such as Elinor Ostrom’s rebuttal of the tragedy of the commons, and her principles for local governance of collective property… which really is just ‘politics’ at work. As discussed in this recent article… http://evonomics.com/tragedy-of-the-commons-elinor-ostrom/.

    As it says… what is needed for a grassroots led sustainable ‘governance’ system is:

    Clearly defined boundaries (DP1) … members knew they were part of a group and what the group was about.

    Proportional equivalence of costs and benefits (DP2) …. that members had to earn their benefits and couldn’t just appropriate them.

    Collective choice arrangements (DP3) … group members had to agree upon decisions so nobody could be bossed around.

    Monitoring (DP4) and graduated sanctions (DP5) … that disruptive self-serving behaviors could be detected and punished.

    Fast and fair conflict resolution (DP6) … the group would not be torn apart by internal conflicts of interest.

    Local autonomy (DP7) meant that the group had the elbow room to manage its own affairs.

    Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule making authority (DP8) …that everything regulating the conduct of individuals within a given group also was needed to regulate conduct among groups in a multi group population.

    This seems to me to be a manifesto for how to do ‘open government’

    1. Jez,

      Many thanks for your comments. I think you are right that ‘open government’ systems need to take more careful consideration of the political dimensions of inclusion. Governance frameworks, no matter how formally inclusive, often still entrench power differences. Thus, marginalized groups must have strong facilitation to adequately engage (sounds like PB in NYC example), or might create their own spaces of governance on their own terms (Native American protest in North Dakota). Ostrom’s work is useful in outlining what some characteristics might look like for governance arrangements that could be formally equitable. However, these formal principles/mechanisms are always interpreted through the lens of power, thus often end up working to protect/advance the interests of the privileged.

      I shared a few more thoughts on the politics of inclusion for open governance here: https://politicsgovernancedevelopment.wordpress.com/2016/07/19/the-politics-of-accountability-and-inclusive-development-implications-for-open-governance/

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