From demanding accountability to creating trust: reimagining public finance management in the Pacific
April 14, 2023
“We live in a world of worry” is how the Human Development Report 2022 referred to our current era. For the first time since we started measuring, the Human Development Index has decreased for two consecutive years, and for more than 90 percent of countries. In such tumultuous times, government and civil society are continuing to metamorphize as they respond to new crises, changing technology and shifting geo-political environments. In most cases, they are building off each other like foundational blocks to ensure all of us have access to basic services. However, with increasing polarization, climate disruptions and societal transformation, the government – civil society relationship stays mired in distrust.
“We live in a world of hope” is another message of the Human Development Report 2022. Hope fuels our imagination and compels us to act before it’s too late. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) Pacific Office in Fiji through the Vaka Pasifika project is designing containers of hope which bring government and civil society partners closer for jointly shaping possible futures. It is inviting constituents to realign values and purpose to work collaboratively towards an aspirational future. It is cultivating spaces for leadership building and collective action. Over the last six months of working together using a systems lens, foresight methods and mission-led approaches, we have arrived at the following reflections:
Betting big and small on anticipatory systemic action
Acknowledging uncertainty has allowed us to plan for multiple possible outcomes. Our operating assumption is circumstances change and we learn as we respond to these shifting realties. This adaptive learning is possible things will change, and that we will learn as we follow the different leads we are following. In addition to embedding anticipatory planning, we chose to design multiple initiatives which reinforce each other. After several working sessions, we arrived at a set of big bets and experiments. Our big bets have emerged out of knowing what works. It includes interventions that we know will definitely enhance accountability. Initiatives that we have seen working in the Pacific include the publication of simplified guides to the budget by trusted civil society actors (akin to citizen budgets), open mic sessions with integrity institutions, use and access to information among others. Other big bets relate to relationships: building narratives and illustrations of shared goals, regional sharing of experiences, trusting the Pacific Islands Association of Non- Governmental Organizations (PIANGO) and some key sets of partners to define priorities and change course.
Our experiments have emerged out of the gaps and barriers in the system. These are the ones that are keeping us stuck in the status quo. For greater and a better chance, we need to find ways to engage in these, so that our impact with the big bets gets amplified. Our experiments include working with gatekeepers through demonstrations of CSO impacts, running learning journeys to engage with champions, exploring how performance audits might translate into social audits, engaging media by giving them alternative avenues to explore economic narratives, participatory budgeting at the constituency level.
Through the collective impact of all these interventions, we are building a more enabling space for new narratives of accountability to emerge and ground themselves.
Dreaming requires face to face interaction, coaching and investments at the local level
In our early work in applying foresight in governance with UN agencies, and we witnessed that with long term time horizons, utopia was easy to imagine. Dystopia was even easier. But with shorter time horizons – from five to 10 years, our vision of the future looked muddled. By carrying our current mindsets, we could not visualize a better ambitious future.
Our imaginations about the future hold in them key data points which when evident could be critical to shaping the future. Our partner PIANGO has a network of national umbrella civil society organizations in 24 countries and territories of the Pacific. They labelled the above challenge a “dream deficit” noting that having a vision of the future was akin to a luxury.
We are currently bringing key partners across audit institutions, media, and civil society to offer a space to imagine radical futures. We’re trying to model this space on what has worked before in the Pacific, bringing some mentors from successful initiatives such as the Pacific Leadership Programme, the Pacific Community (SPC) Fisheries Leadership training, mixing seasoned and new voices. We’ve asked youth, women and community leaders to describe the last time they felt heard and influential to help us shape the discussion. We’re heard that repeated face to face interaction is key but that coaching and mentorship in between interactions is essential. We’ve heard that some of the most powerful barriers for participation existed at the local level, which prevented some alternative voices to emerge. We’ve also heard that faith networks were a formidable enabler for these non-chiefly or traditional voices.
The hope is that they will guide us on where UNDP might be useful – and where we might not be.
Taking the leap and talking about money can reframe accountability
Talking about money is an entry point to reframe accountability. When we discuss public finances, we discuss why governments are managing money on behalf of citizens. We discuss the established and accepted goals of fiscal policy, and the models that are challenging them. In recent years, lack of accountability has compelled us to revisit the social contract. In this environment, public finance management offers governance partners an invitation to rethink accountability.
In the new phase of Vaka Pasifika, we learn from partners who are constantly linking their own accountability to how they hold their peers and others accountable. The Pacific Association of Supreme Audit Institutions has helped its members conduct peer assessments of their performance. PIANGO is spending time with its members reshaping their definition of trust, obligations, actions – in hundreds of different languages. It has led us to think about how we practice accountability internally and to constantly re-check the distribution of power in our own activities. It also forces us to question why governance and political structures have not been able to capitalize on the tight social networks of small islands to hold systems accountable.
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