On financial transparency and technology: notes from the Follow The Money workshop

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 3.15.47 PMFrom BudgIT’s Abacha’s Loot – Where are the returned funds?

Financial transparency can make governments, companies, politics and citizens accountable for their actions and help us fighting corruption in our societies. But how can we design frameworks to create and strengthen a transparent ecosystem? How can a multitude of actors with a diversity of professional backgrounds join their forces to learn from each other and build such frameworks?

These were just some of the burning questions fueling the conversations of the over 100 people getting ready to join the Follow The Money workshop taking place in Berlin on January 20-21. Organised by Transparency and Accountability Initiative, the workshop aimed at gathering policy campaigners, NGO leaders, programmers, researchers, funders and activists from all around the world to encourage connections and collaborations between them, as part of a collective action within the Follow The Money network.

I had the opportunity and honour to be invited by the workshop facilitators from Aspiration and Fabriders to join them in wrangling the gathering. In order to encourage openness and the sharing of information, the event observed the Chatham House Rule: for this reason, this write-up will collect learnings which aim to be helpful as notes about what was discussed and inspiration for more reflections to come, but will not refer to identity or affiliation of the participants.

Day 1: exploring our diversity, learning from each other and matchmaking

Financial transparency is a wide field of activities, which can be the focus of organisations working in the field in very different ways. These can go from resource availability (tax, aid, extractives, illicit financial flows), to resource allocation (budgets, contracts) to results of the flow of public money.

Having gathered a group of practitioners working on very different aspects within the domain, the workshop created the opportunity for a huge spectrum of opinions to meet each other in a space designed to welcome constructive and productive discussions (as well as legitimate disagreement, of course).

For this reason, Day 1 kicked off with a spectrogram exercise, to help participants learn about each other’s differences, appreciate them, and encourage the group to start working on the ultimate goal of the 2-day gathering: exploring opportunities to align different points of view and experiences to join efforts and fuel positive change together. As also reported by Fabriders’ Dirk Slater in his post about the workshop, extreme and polarizing spectrogram statements such as “Are our funders willing to be put under the same scrutiny as we are asking governments and corporations?” or “Is this just a movement for middle-class intellectuals?” definitely set an excited and lively tone.

After that and ready for more, participants split in groups focusing on knowledge sharing about the current state of work in various regions. Participants from Cameroon, Slovakia, Indonesia, USA, Ghana, Nepal, Israel, South Africa, Kenya, Europe, Latin America hosted stations framing the conversation around three core elements: what is working, challenges and needs, opportunities for collaboration.

Transparency International‘s Measuring corruption.

Agenda co-creation and distributed leadership are among the core elements of Aspiration’s and Fabriders’ facilitation method. Having gathered inputs from the participants about topics they would have liked to facilitate or learn about, the schedule for the afternoon presented itself as an extremely generous offer of food for thoughts. The focus of Day 1 was on taking stock and set the foundation for action plans to come on Day 2, and the two time slots at our disposal took the shape of more than 20 (!) sessions, from Changing government process to achieve change to Beyond exposing: paths to impact, Beneficial ownership and Freedom of Information Act, Open vs Privacy: Potential unintended consequences of open data.

The day had been intense, but being all together in the same place was too much of a precious opportunity not to try to optimize even the very end of the working day (and the evening time off!). Very last exercise: after having spent an entire day learning and sharing, which were the outcome-driven discussions we wanted to have on Day 2? Post-its populated with answers covered any portion of wall which were still bare. And a homework for the evening: “think about a skill you’d like to share with your fellow workshop participants tomorrow (feeling welcome to brainstorm over dinner and drinks)”.

Day 2: talk is cheap – let’s make stuff happen

Day 2 started with an opening circle aiming to make something invisible to the group, but surely warmly present in our minds, perceivable and honoured. Taking turns, we all shared with the group the name of the person, or group, who inspired us to work on financial transparency and anti-corruption. The answers filled the room with the presence of people who made so much (in any sense) and was great to mention: organisations such as Global Witness, Free Software Foundation, Fair Play Alliance, BudgIT, whistleblowers, friends, relatives – and even Berlusconi and Shell (they surely gave their best).

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 3.16.48 PMFrom Global WitnessThe Great Rip Off.

The following skill share session was extremely popular: topics of all sorts, from data analysis to security tools, grant writing, podcasting techniques were up for grabs. My two picks:

  • How to design and implement a transparent participatory tool: establish what you really need (not to build more than you actually need and waste time and resources); share a beta version and ask for feedback from key testers; aim to create a space for a community and their needs; the more what you do is replicable and the data can be shareable, the better it is.
  • How to create an effective advocacy message: be concise and digestible, but still accurate; have a strong 1-liner to communicate clearly with citizens and media and impress policy makers; give a sense of the size of numbers making them relatable (“this amount of money equals 1000 Starbucks lattes”); always have an ask (what’s the problem and what people can do)

By the end of the first coffee break, and after such an intense time spent sharing, learning and brainstorming, the group was ready for the core focus of Day 2: no more talking, time to make things happen. All sessions for the day, inspired by the proposals made by the group at the end of Day 1, were strongly outcome-driven, aiming to create guidelines, tools, toolkits and actionable project plans. Framework for using Follow The Money approaches within government, Opening/mapping beneficial ownership registries, Targeting institutions with closed data for a campaign, Following political money are just some of the over 30 sessions facilitated and driven to final outputs by the workshop participants. I also had the opportunity to co-facilitate a session which led to the creation of a tool involving offline strategies, stakeholders mapping and role-playing (!) – more about it in an upcoming blog post!

We wrapped up the day and event filling out well-thought commitment-post-its (in three colors: “I will” for individual actions to take, “We should” for collective plans we wanted to keep being part of, “Don’t forget” anyone or anything we shouldn’t miss to invite or do in the future) and saying out loud how we’d ideally imagine the world in one year’s time (financial transparency-wise). Oligarchs sent to jail thanks to evidence found in data, accountants and bankers joining the fight against corruption, new frameworks for government taxation are among the wishes that would be make our 2016 memorable, and you can read more of them posted by Jed Miller on the Transparency and Accountability Initiative blog.

What’s next?

Post-event plans and collaborations are just getting started as we speak, but are there emerging reflections and needs that we could already highlight as a result of the work done at the workshop?

I’ll mention some from my notes:

  • context analysis, not trends nor the shine of a new software, should guide our choice to adopt (or not) a certain technology to achieve our goal;
  • before building any new tool, we should build a normative framework to help us establish what we really need (and help avoiding us to build something unnecessary for our project and the community we work for);
  • decisions about the adoption or development of a tool should be taken in collaboration with the individuals/community who’ll be expected to benefit from its use – focus groups, user stories analysis, beta testing, feedback loops can help for this purpose;
  • transparency achievements should turn into tangible improvements in accountability and service delivery to citizens;
  • we need to adopt responsible data practices to make sure that we’re not making the people we’re working with vulnerable;
  • different systems and platforms should be able to exchange and interpret shared data, through interoperability and standards;
  • successful case studies should be globally documented and shared to support our advocacy efforts and ability to communicate with citizens, media and policy makers.

What do you think? Which are key challenges you see in the future path of the financial transparency movement? Feel welcome to leave your thoughts and feedback in the comments below! And if you’re interested in learning more about case studies bridging transparency and technology, get in touch with Transparency and Accountability Initiative!

Grateful thanks to Anders Pedersen for the thoughtful feedback provided on this post.


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