Open and Adaptive: October reads

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At times, September saw me overwhelmed by the issues I was exploring, the things I’ve been reading, and my engagement in a range of inspiring and overlapping conversations, including those relating to the forthcoming Summit on Democracy and USAID’s Anti-Corruption Taskforce. But, by the end of the month – with the support of some automatic note-taking software and the reassurance of a personal knowledge management system (more on that next time) – I was managing to make some sense of things. The articles below seem like important pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, the shape of which – while still rather blurry – is steadily coming into focus.

October Top Reads

  • Sarah Lister (September 2021) Wrestling with difficult questions on the future of democracy, UNDP Blog – I appreciated this piece from Sarah Lister, UNDP’s Governance lead, on International Democracy Day. In particular I appreciated the acknowledgement that effective support for democratic governance requires both the defense of core normative principles, and tailoring the practical application of those principles. And, I would add, learning loops that then inform the evolution of those principles, and their future application. I’ve been concerned for several years that an overly normative governance agenda – at worst, a “Good Governance mantra” – has at times distracted attention from questions of effectiveness, and limited investment in meaningful learning agendas. So this, from an important champion of democratic governance, was very welcome. Maybe there’s a window of opportunity for the Open Society Foundations – also a strongly normative organization – to move in similarly learning-centered and adaptive directions? 
  • Open Contracting Partnership (September 2021) OCP 2021 Strategy Refresh – Another strategy refresh from our reflective and adaptive friends at the Open Contracting Partnership. I’ve long thought that OCP – an organization that values openness for what it can deliver – might find value in Mushtaq Khan’s perspective on governance (see the “corruption spotlight note” for the 2017 World Development Report). So I was glad to see OCP emphasize that “real changes in anti-corruption stick when the power dynamics and incentives change so that the winners from the new system can overpower existing vested interests and defend the gains” (p.9).
  • Nicola Nixon, Stefaan Verhulst, Imran Matin & Philips J. Vermonte (September 2021), Exploring a new governance agenda: What are the questions that matter?, FP2P – GovLab’s 100 questions initiative aims to crowdsource the most important questions across a number of different domains, including governance, which for GovLab amounts to decision-making processes (see the super-sharp analysis from Ian David Moss who is going to help us with a Decision Inventory!). GovLab is particularly interested in questions that might be answered through data, with the suggestion that data might transform governance. For me, that risks marginalizing the central feature of governance; it’s about power. Nonetheless this is an interesting attempt to focus attention on particular questions, with some similarities to the idea of problem-focused analysis, and perhaps, problem-driven iterative adaptation. It’s been especially interesting for me to participate in the GovLab 100 questions initiative and the interesting discussions it has generated, while at the same time exploring with Marcus Jenal, Nora Bateson, Arnaldo Pellini, the Chôra Foundation and others, warm data and sensemaking approaches to understanding complex systems that are – by design – less focused, more exploratory and perhaps even meandering. I aspire to oscillate productively between purposeful intentional action and expansive exploratory meanderings!

Keen readers might supplement these suggested readings by two pieces that we published. First, our feedback on the Hewlett Foundation’s evolving TPA strategy. And second, our Annual Report to the Hewlett Foundation. We hope that our feedback will inform the evolution of the TPA and wider governance agenda, and that our Annual Report – by providing an honest assessment of the challenges we face – might prove useful to other organizations who are trying to implement and test their strategies through cycles of action and learning.

See this document for a rolling list of my favorite reads in chronological order. If you’d like access to my full Evernote Notebook, drop me a line! I’ve grouped all articles within broader themes and categories such as:

  • Systems
  • Philanthropy
  • Open Data
  • Learning
  • Fiscal Governance
  • AdaptDev
  • Corruption
Alan Hudson
Executive Director

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