The simplest answer to the question "When does feedback equal power?" is that feedback is empowering when it leads to change. But there is a little more to it than that. When is genuine, positive change most likely to happen as a result of feedback?
First, it's important to recognise that most feedback systems are not designed to be empowering. Most often, the intent is narrower: namely to identify both negative and positive practices to improve service quality and efficiency. There is one kind of feedback that is truly empowering: Open Consumer or Beneficiary Feedback.
To understand what is meant by Open Consumer Feedback there are a couple of concepts I need to introduce.
The first is the Feedback Triangle, which I first introduced in a blog three years ago; it has also been featured in Integrity Action's blogs.
A feedback system can be initiated and controlled by one of three actors:
(A) the Principal, who has normative, legal or fiduciary authority over a service, project or programme, for example the donor, the governor, prime minister's office, mayor's office; or
(B) the Manager with direct line management responsibility for a service, project or programme, for example the team responsible for solid waste management in a city, the ministry of health, a project by a humanitarian organisation; or
(C) the Customer, Citizen or Community that benefits from these programmes and services.
In this earlier blog I gave a number of examples of Type A, B and C feedback systems.
The Feedback Triangle
How can you tell whether it's a Type A, B or C feedback system?
The people who are consulted through a feedback system are generally the customers or citizens who benefit from a project or service. Sometimes the employees of an organisation are also asked to feed back. It's almost always consumers, citizens or communities who are asked to give feedback (the exception are internal organisational surveys). And the type of technology used is also secondary.
If you want to understand the true nature of a feedback system you need to know who controls it. Don't just ask who initiated it, i.e. switches "ON" the system. That is less important than knowing who has the power to switch it "OFF."
Who controls the Off-switch: Is it the Principal, Manager, or Citizen/Consumer? That will tell you the kind of system it is.
The Open Consumer Feedback Revolution
The Open Consumer Feedback revolution, which has touched key service industries like online sales (Ebay, Amazon consumer reviews, Etsy, Alibaba), hotels (Booking.com and Hotels.com), home stays (Airbnb), and cabs (Uber, Lyft) has introduced feedback system that are located in the sweet spot described above.
These are feedback systems that are neither controlled by the Principal nor by the Managers. An Uber driver or a hotel manager may have the option of opting out altogether, but they do not control the feedback system.
The tough spot is occupied by feedback systems like TripAdvisor, Yelp and Integrity Action's DevelopmentCheck. These are the systems that enjoy the highest degree of autonomy. But because of this autonomy and lack of integration with service providers it can be difficult to develop a long-term viable business model in this space.
Why is Open Consumer Feedback the most empowering type of feedback?
Open Consumer Feedback is the only type of feedback that genuinely empowers the consumer, citizen or community, in other words Type C feedback. Type A and B feedback systems can be switched off at any time by the Principal or Manager. They are not ultimately accountable to the citizen/consumer. But that doesn't mean that Type A and B feedback systems are not important or useful. They have critical roles to play and can do things that Type C system cannot (which I will write about in another blog). The best scenario is to have a diverse ecosystem of feedback systems, covering all three types.
After all, consumers instinctively navigate the three systems. For example, when making a hotel booking, I am likely to do a mental arithmetic valuing the rating on TripAdvisor or Booking (Type C) in relation to the stars the hotel has, which are often given by tourist boards or automobile associations (Type A), and then ultimately weighing this information against the brand of the hotel (Type B) - and of course the price.
Similarly, when looking for a restaurant in New York City, consumers these days are likely to consult a Type C feedback system (Yelp, TripAdvisor) but they will also take comfort in standardised rating grades provided by the city (Type A), which assess "food handling, food temperature, personal hygiene and vermin control". Without some testing equipment and access to the kitchen this isn't something consumers could easily assess on their own.
In an upcoming blog I will write about the other characteristics of Open Consumer Feedback that make it so empowering.