Engagement at Intervention Points
Gaining access to public institutions goes a long way to ease monitoring efforts. But political process monitoring is a way to a means. Over the course of your monitoring activity, you will run into government actions, or lack thereof, that require interventions on your part to advance your goals. This involves engaging public officials politically to change actions, behaviors and practices.
Monitoring activities can expose fallacies in an institutional process that may be quite sensitive to public officials. Poor performance, lack of progress, mismanagement of public resources and corruption activity need intervention to correct. Naturally, this intervention has to come after monitoring activities mount sufficient evidence. But these are sensitive matters, and civic intervention in such issues requires careful engagement with public officials. Simply pointing out such practices identified during monitoring often does not yield meaningful results. Thus, you will have to engage in a more public debate with public officials and even follow their monitoring with advocacy campaigns.
Issue-based groups monitoring a government process may have goals that call for influencing a policy. Thus, after some monitoring, you will come to a point in the process when you will have to engage institutions in influencing policy.
Monitoring activities can be beneficial to groups seeking interventions in governance and policy, as it presents an opportunity to build relationships and trust with public officials. Nevertheless, protecting the objectivity of monitoring and the political independence of the civic group in monitoring is crucial to earn the respect of the target institution and public credibility.
Building Relations and Safeguarding Impartiality
Power-mapping exercises are also important for you to identify entry points for your monitoring. When it is difficult to access information, documents and institutions, you must find entry points among “supporters” or champions of open government within institutions to begin your monitoring. Using those entry points, you can begin to use your monitoring techniques to promote open governance.
Monitoring in order to open government involves relationship-building with target institutions and officials leading those institutions. Once some trust is built among the civic groups and the public institutions, those institutions eventually will move toward openness. Very rarely do institutions move toward closing down space, and only when public officials become hostile to civic involvement or media coverage. You must be careful to avoid such situations but also be prepared to use public pressure if it occurs. The best way to prevent closed governance and move toward greater openness is by gaining the trust of the institutions in the notion that monitoring efforts contribute to better governance and the institution’s improved performance.
One of the most common ways that civic groups build relationships with public institutions is by agreeing on a memorandum of understanding (MoU) when a monitoring initiative is undertaken. This is very common for a parliamentary monitoring initiative or monitoring a government program that is about to go into implementation. Even monitoring through “social audits” should seek formal support of public institutions, as they can help improve public contract management. Such MoUs between an institution and a civic group usually involve the institution guaranteeing that the civic group gets access to documents, meetings and other public gatherings, whereas the civic group guarantees political impartiality, agreeing not to damage the institution or the process with baseless criticism, and committing to offer constructive recommendations. Finding entry points and supporters within the system can be crucial to push through such MoUs.
While building relations with public institutions is important in civic monitoring, it is challenging to protect impartiality and objectivity in the process. Public officials are very concerned with their reputation and their perceived performance, and monitoring and detailed coverage of their work could be seen as threatening. That is why so often civic groups that do monitoring are labeled as working for some other force (opposition parties, someone’s agendas or even foreign agencies). Thus, public officials may want to influence or condition a civic group to allow space for monitoring only if they are portrayed favorably in performance.
It is important to note that the single most important trait a civic monitoring group can have is credibility. If a monitoring group loses credibility with the public, media or public officials because they may seem subjective to political influence, it is difficult for them to be taken seriously or have any positive effect in the long term. Maintaining impartiality and credibility to the monitoring goals can be difficult, especially where laws do not guarantee access to public information and groups rely on the discretion of public officials. In such cases, power mapping, strategic engagement of public officials, and time and patience become even more important.
Evaluating Risks in Authoritative and Semi-Authoritative Societies
Political process monitoring initiatives provide citizens with a mechanism to promote accountability and increase transparency of government actions. Ideally, monitoring government action should be a regular part of civil society’s role in the political process. However, in countries where political space is limited or closing, civil society oversight activities may appear threatening to those in power. Consequently, access to information may be limited and society’s ability to monitor government action is hampered, which may result in physical threats or detentions. In these contexts, risks need to be closely considered and managed. You need to become adept at protecting and maximizing the small amounts of political space available. In some instances, monitoring can be a way to expand political space and raise the voice of civil society in a meaningful way. When space is limited to monitor and hold government accountable, working in a network or coalition may be beneficial, as there is safety in numbers, and leveraging existing relationships is key to overcoming challenges of access to information and to disseminating findings.