Is Open Beneficiary Feedback worth it?
Deploying or working with an Open Beneficiary Feedback platform is a high risk but high reward undertaking.
Let me first address the risks openly:
Because Open Beneficiary Feedback platforms are transparent, it will be possible for critics, journalists, people opposed to a government or programme to run negative stories about it far more easily than they would with a closed feedback system. The Daily Mail, a British newspaper, has, for example, been running a long-standing campaign against foreign aid. They may use the findings from an Open Beneficiary Feedback platform to print more negative stories about failed or wasteful aid projects.
Because they are autonomous, they cannot necessarily be switched off at the end of a project - or if the findings are difficult to deal with bureaucratically or politically. Moreover, beneficiaries may use the feedback system in unexpected ways to monitor and report on other problems and issues that concern them.
The third risk is that such a system may make benchmarking of results and effectiveness easier in a sector where there is very little transparency on these issues. Who can say whether PLAN or Save the Children is more effective when working with girls? What about the Danish Refugee Council compared with the International Rescue Committee: which do refugees rate more highly?
The same risks applied to Open Consumer Feedback. Andy Phillipps, one of the founders of Booking.com, told me that it took them about five years until they were able to convince the largest global hotel chains to make themselves available through his platform. Until that point, the hotel chains had fought them. Booking.com provided a level of pricing transparency that had never been so easily accessible. Of course they didn't like it: it gave visibility to boutique hotels with no brand-name recognition who could easily compete with the big brands. Why should they agree to be part of such a system? After about five years the first major chain - Accor - broke ranks. Then a second joined. After they had two, the other major chains were eventually compelled to be part of the platform because it had become too large to ignore.
The answer to the question is Open Beneficiary Feedback worth it, should be a resounding Yes.
But I appreciate that in the real world it will take both guts and strong values to take that step.
The three main reasons why it is such a powerful and important idea are:
Open Beneficiary Feedback is the only type of feedback mechanism that generates trust between key stakeholders responsible for delivering and those using public goods and services. In many countries and sectors, that trust is at an all-time low.
A decade ago, NGOs were generally viewed more favourably than business and government. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, who have been running trust surveys for many years, NGOs are now less trusted than government or business in a growing number of countries. For example, confidence in NGOs has dipped below trust in business in the UK. This decline in trust levels is occurring almost everywhere.
Any country and sector can benefit from increasing the trust between key stakeholders. That holds true for the UK just as much as it would in Palestine or Afghanistan. Open Beneficiary Feedback systems can deliver that.
An early adopter of Open Beneficiary Feedback will see gains in stakeholder trust. Identifying problems in real-time and when they occur makes it much easier and cheaper to course correct and implement necessary changes. The risk of negative stories coming out will be outweighed by the positive message and trust gained.
Project-based feedback mechanisms come to an end when the project ends. Most of the "citizen engagement" mechanisms created by the World Bank, which now cover more than 85% of relevant projects, do not outlive the projects. What about other types of feedback that are not project-based? Will the Punjab Citizen Feedback Monitoring Program, for example, remain in place if a new Chief Minister takes over? Time will tell on a case by case basis, but my anecdotal evidence from Principal initiated feedback systems (what I call Type A) is that they seldom outlast a change in government.
Open Beneficiary Feedback platforms that have a revenue model, such as SeeClickFix, DevelopmentCheck and FixMyStreet, stand a much better chance of being sustained over time.
Ultimately, I think the most important argument for Open Beneficiary Feedback is that it empowers beneficiaries. It is the only type of feedback that truly empowers. A homeless person receiving assistance from a charity working with the homeless has power. The homeless charity raises funds in his name. Without him, the charity does not exist. Similarly, without refugees, the IRC or the Danish Refugee Council and all its employees would cease to exist.
Open Beneficiary Feedback makes it possible for that homeless person or refugee to have leverage and power with the charity meant to service him. This isn't a power some people think he deserves or ought to have. The time has come for that attitude to change. This is a power every beneficiary should have access to.