Megan Campbell January 18, 2017

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Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen. ~ Barack Obama

Sometimes gathering feedback from those we seek to serve can feel like a selfish thing. It can seem like an investment in our projects, our goals, ourselves. I need to listen to feedback so I know how to convince villagers in Malawi to sit on my village committee. I need to listen to feedback so that I solve disbursement problems and my next round goes more smoothly. I need to listen to feedback so I can grow professionally and advance my career. Feedback is a gift and when we ask for it it can feel like we, the receiver, are the most important person in the equation. That our goals provide motivation and meaning to the feedback process.

In his farewell address, former US President Barack Obama articulated something we all believe at Feedback Labs – that citizens and their goals are at the center of democracy. It’s the same with feedback loops. Many of us work in powerful institutions, and it can feel like the world, and our feedback loops, revolve around our institutional goals. At Feedback Labs, we believe the world we are building should revolve around the goals of citizens. And that means that citizens need to be at the center of feedback loops. They, and their goals, are what should motivate and give meaning to the feedback process.

Obama also spoke in his farewell address about how we need a “willingness to admit new information.” The two process are related – in order to put citizens and their goals at the center of our feedback loops, we need to be willing to hear and internalize new information. We need to be open to hearing that the goals we thought we should work toward are not actually the ones that citizens want or need. How do we, as Obama urged us, “pay attention and listen?”

What if, instead of putting discrete projects and programs at the center of feedback loops, we put the holistic development of cities, states, societies? What if we as experts weren’t asking citizens ‘what’s needed for you to help this project to go well,’ but rather, ‘what are your goals that aren’t being met? Are we helping you meet them?’ Sometimes listening can be the easy part. The hard part is whether we are listening to the evidence that serves our goals, or the evidence that challenges us to consider the goals that citizens hold dear. Are we listening so we can figure out how to drive participation in our village committee? Or are we listening with enough openness to hear that a village committee isn’t what’s needed or wanted? What’s informing the feedback process: our goals, or citizen’s goals? Who’s at the center of the feedback loop?

What are your practices for putting the goals of citizens at the center of feedback loops? Email me at [email protected].

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