Last month, Feedback Labs hosted its first annual Feedback Summit. The two-day event brought together movers and shakers at the forefront of doing aid and philanthropy differently.
I took away a lot more than ten ideas. But in the spirit of listicles, here are ten thought-provoking things.
1. Build it and they may not come.
Just because you set-up the perfect mechanism to collect feedback doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.
And even if you do get feedback, it might not be very good if the constituent is not positioned to speak freely without recrimination. Others also might not understand (either experientially or conceptually) that they have a right to give feedback, and that feedback counts.
Susan Stout, at Development Gateway, explained that in the health sector, both domestically and abroad, there’s a “normal person/expert” divide. It’s difficult to get patients to give feedback to doctors because the latter (or other medical staff) are seen has having “expert powers” that they simply cannot contest.
We need to make the world safe for feedback, which means a lot more than building silver bullet-type mechanisms for feedback collection. We need to ensure an environment for honest feedback that doesn’t endanger people and their existing relationships.
2. We still don’t have a clear definition of feedback.
People gave wide-ranging definitions of feedback that spoke to their natural path dependencies. Some were coming from the world of governance, others from accountability, and still others from performance management.
There was also overlapping vocabulary: “voice”, “engagement”, “feedback”. While implicitly related, we didn’t get to the next level of discussing their differences and why these might matter.
What struck me most was how information and data were, and continue to be, problematically used synonymously with “feedback”.
Feedback is a type—a subset— of information. But information is not necessarily feedback. In other words, when we say, “We should collect constituent feedback”, it is distinct from saying, “We should collect constituent information.”
3. Would you send a text message to someone in crisis?
Amy Costello, journalist and founder of TinySpark, asked: “How many of you have had a friend in crisis?”
Hands were raised.
“How many of you would say that the people you’re working with are in some kind of crisis?”
The entire room now filled with raised hands.
Costello looked around and then continued with, “Now how many of you would send a text message to someone in crisis?”
Hands silently fell into laps.
The digital revolution has allowed us to technologically get feedback from thousands of people around the world. But is that really what we want? Will we become some kind of next generation telemarketer for the developing world? You know, the kind you silence your phone for?
This isn’t a new tension. The World Bank’s World Development Report 2016 will join a long body of literature to investigate the challenges and opportunities of ICT for development.
We’ll have to strike a tenuous balance—between reaching more people, and reaching people meaningfully.
4. We need institutional change.
Someone has to care and someone has to have the ability to respond. Otherwise, feedback just becomes a surveillance tool.
Summit participants spoke of the “tyranny of the project cycle” and how its inflexibility prevents practitioners from experimentation, collecting feedback, iterating, improving—and thus, succeeding.
In order for people to care and respond, their institutions have to provide an authorizing environment.
Dan Honig, Assistant Professor at SAIS who moderated a session, writes about the importance of organizational autonomy to project success. An excessive focus on “results frameworks” and the increasing measurement of outputs and indicators has actually hampered our ability to get stuff done.
Others mentioned that we shouldn’t just add “feedback” as another “thing to do”. The “reporting tax” is already so high —25% for some organizations. We must remove some of the other requirements we impose on project implementers in order to make room for feedback.
We need a fundamental shift in how we do business—increasing autonomy and discretion, flexible project cycles, a move away from unhelpful reporting frameworks or performance tracking.
5. Democratic principles vs. democracy.
There is a subtle difference between promoting democratic principles and being an actual democracy.
Mari Kuraishi, co-founder and president of GlobalGiving, suggested that maybe we’re simply democratizing at the margins by increasing voice, engagement, participation, accountability, open government, feedback—all the of the buzzwords that allude to democracy without fully being it.
This may well be the case. Her point begs the question: how far are we willing to go towards actual democracy? Are there good reasons why we shouldn’t completely devolve power to a popular vote? If mob rule is not the ultimate or desired outcome of a feedback-driven system, how do we draw the line?
Right now, the distinction between democratization and democracy may not be an immediate problem. We have a long way to go and these are important and slowly transformative steps. We have to start somewhere.
6. Is instrumentalization disempowering?
We asked, and continue to ask, the question: “Is feedback the smart thing to do?” By that we mean: is feedback measurably correlated to increased social outcomes and impact?
In a world driven by measurement of social impact, this is a critical question to ask.
But I wonder if by instrumentalizing feedback, we are doing something fundamentally disempowering. If feedback does not increase impact, should we not do it?
7. What about feedback loops beyond the project level?
Most people at the Summit, including myself, were thinking of how to incorporate constituent feedback into specific projects or programs.
Nancy MacPherson, Managing Director of Evaluation at the Rockefeller Foundation, suggested we also look at additional feedback loops beyond that—at higher public policy levels.
She asked, “How do we start thinking about using constituent feedback loops for Chinese investment in Africa?” Or we might ask: how do the world’s poor provide feedback to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an international trade agreement that will dramatically affect their access to medicines?
Policy-level feedback raises interesting questions—particularly around the enabling environment that facilitates actual closing of these feedback loops. Like at the project-level, even if there were a mechanism to collect feedback, course-correction would require actors to have the political will to change behavior. What forces could honestly change the political will of China? Or Big Pharma?
US President Barack Obama recently rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed 1,179-mile pipeline that would have carried petroleum from Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast. Was it because organizations like 350.org and change.org mobilized petitions with thousands of citizen signatures? It’s not 100% clear that this citizen feedback was the causal mechanism, and it’s tough to imagine how to measure the direct impact of such diffuse activism. Certainly, there were other geopolitical and economic forces also at play.
Moreover, if there were a causal link between the petitions and the outcome, it suggests, again, that you need the enabling environment of a semi-liberal democracy. It also suggests that there must be a clear actor to lobby; in this case, President Obama had a right to veto.
There are ways to theoretically imagine how global policy feedback loops would happen but the complexity of political realities makes me wonder how they’ll really be closed.
8. We need to refocus away from evaluation and toward better monitoring.
There’s general consensus that we need to move M&E more toward M—monitoring. Evaluation is too little, too late.
A project implementer should be like a family doctor who listens to and regularly monitors her patient. A lot of stuff happens in a patient’s life that can require constant adjustments to become, or remain, healthy. Furthermore, every patient is unique, and requires tailored care—not just cookie-cutter solutions.
The reality is that many project implementers aren’t like this today. Instead of monitoring the project and its symptoms, they focus on evaluation– usually long after the patient has died.
An evaluator is like a coroner or medical examiner. She visits the project and, might, in a very self-satisfied way, exclaim, “Yup! It’s dead!” While this is moderately useful information, better information would come earlier in a way that can actually help the patient.
9. Giving feedback has a cost.
If we try adding feedback loops on top of all the things a project implementer has to do, something’s gotta give.
The pot—in terms of both time and money—is not going to really grow. If that’s the case, what should we get rid of in order to incorporate feedback into our programming? (see #4 above on institutional change)
Can we name the value of giving feedback? In other words, if we know that feedback is the smart thing to do (i.e. it’s positively correlated to the outcomes of interest), then maybe we can begin to determine how much we’re willing to pay for it. Then, maybe we can assess its cost (though, there’s #6 above—in which I argue that instrumentalization can be inherently disempowering).
10. Carrots over sticks.
We should use positive incentives (i.e. “carrots”) to encourage projects to use constituent (“beneficiary”) feedback.
Why? If we use negative incentives (i.e. “sticks”) to hold project managers accountable, we’re just creating another box for them to check.
The World Bank has already created a citizen engagement requirement for its projects. The strategy aims to incorporate beneficiary feedback in all projects by fiscal year 2018.
While some are optimistic about this new requirement, it’s not hard to imagine projects (and even “citizen engagement trainings”) in which project managers are finding the least meaningful ways to collect feedback in order to quickly check a box and move on.
Using a “feedback stick” creates a system of fear, policing, and accountability.
Using a “feedback carrot”, instead, would create a system of trust, learning, and adaptation.
If others have thoughts—whether Summit attendees or not—we’d love to hear them. Please feel free to comment below.