Rethinking communications: How ‘ideas of scale’ could be the next leap for research groups

17 December 2019

[This article was originally published by Accountability Initiative.]

Key takeaways

  • ‘Ideas of scale’ are evidence-backed conceptual insights into governance. An ‘idea of scale’ can spark small but consequential actions by providing the right knowledge to people who can be changemakers. These people may be part of the public administration or be those who interact with the service delivery system regularly such as citizens and NGO staff.
  • A quick fix solution to longstanding, complicated problems such as the dysfunction in the public administrative system does not exist. Solutions are an iterative process with multiple stakeholders. It is only when they have the right kind of information, can they collaborate on solution-building.
  • The role of the strategic communications function in development organisations is critical to unleashing the potential of an ‘idea of scale’. However, strategic communications has in the past been seen as a provider of services to the research and programmes units. This restricts the pursuit of strategic organisational objectives by the communications unit.
  • Accountability Initiative’s idea of scale (Responsive Governance) aims to build a public system that listens to, works for and is accountable to the people.

In 2017, Accountability Initiative took the conscious decision of retraining focus and investing resources on communications more than ever before. We wanted to reinvent the way the world heard us, and upskill our people as communicators in their own right. Thus followed thought exercises to discover previously hidden synergies on what I call ‘ideas of scale’ or conceptual insights which when shared publicly, can trigger or multiply desirable action. We shaped the idea of Responsive Governance into existence, with a vision to create pathways that can assist people in resolving challenges at the lowest level of public service delivery.

Our efforts led us back to the aspiration of building a public system which is intuitive to the needs of the people it serves, and enabling the citizenry to not only recognise lapses but also go a step further in holding the system accountable when it fails them. While the theory of what I am saying is not new (countless development practitioners have aspired to build a near perfect public system), the practice of it might well be novel. In the era of information excess and minimal attention spans, the route to social or systemic transformation has become even more difficult. Conventional wisdom in marketing, and broader communications-related functions, are appearing feeble when applied to the development sector. For instance, marketing newbies are taught the importance of targeted and relevant content in increasing sales or an audience base, enshrined in the adage ‘Content is king’. Yet we consume information from social media and other channels every day that jostle for our limited time and attention, much less helping focus on social causes. A relatable idea backed by innovative content delivery can be the new approach to facilitate interest.

This situation of limited audience mind space is compounded for research groups such as Accountability Initiative which deal with complex knowledge – from research findings, analyses and social science theoretical constructs, simplified to suit the needs of the audience.

Take for instance, the decentralisation of decision making in the bureaucracy. Among other things, we study what the existing federal system in India looks like using research tools; and why bureaucratic motivations at the lowest level impact service delivery, make officials feel as mere “cogs” in the machine (see here). Who would be most interested in this knowledge? At first glance, one would assume the uptake to be highest among practitioners, scholars and top-level decision makers in the government. They are active participants of the system or work on resolving operational issues.

However, all of us interact with the public system in one way or the other, almost every day. Controversial as it may seem, apathy towards it and exasperation to its dysfunction is a consequence of this interaction. We react to shortcomings – real or perceived. But what if we could change this knee jerk reaction to constructive action? Can an individual or a group of individuals feed back to the system in a structured and meaningful wayFrom my work, ‘ideas of scale’ can provide the rough mental model or framework to follow so as to do so. When ideas become relatable conceptual tools, peer-driven responses become possible. In other words, people find relevant solutions because they have access to a different way of looking at things. For us, our ‘idea of scale’ – Responsive Governance – is the guiding force for most strategy and operational decisions.

The first critical step to realising ‘ideas of scale’ is knowing the realities and internal logic of governance. Through our courses, research and engagement activities, we are attempting to uncover key pieces of information hidden or not well-articulated by people who count, and are sharing these. For instance, members and staff of the civil society participate in a course – Hum Aur Humaari Sarkaar – developed by our Learning and Development unit. As participants, they sometimes discuss how they had little insight into the system and have thus benefitted from insights learnt from the course. These are people who regularly interact with implementers embedded within public systems.

It is also important to consider how action can translate to impact. There isn’t a singular quick fix solution to longstanding, complicated problems such as the dysfunction in the public administrative system. The sharing of ideas, however, can provide the right nudge. Sustained and targeted actions will facilitate incremental yield.

This is where development organisations (and particularly research groups) struggle to see the link. A substantial opportunity is lost when communications is considered to be largely a provider of services, smoothening operational cliffs for programmes and research. Public relations, marketing, brand building and other allied functions are bundled together in this approach, and their responsibilities vested in only some team members (part of which can be attributed to inadequate core funding). This is in spite of the fact that knowledge sharing is critical to the whole enterprise. The desire for measuring impact of communication strategies, even in the eyes of donors, is often by gauging an increase in the number of ‘followers’ on major dissemination platforms. This gears the communications team to optimise metrics rather than concentrate on reaching strategic objectives.

As organisations who have well-developed engagement teams will tell you:

Smart, strategic communications defines, cultivates, and understands important audiences. It listens. It crafts and shares clear, compelling stories. It builds relationships and deploys influence. It convenes. It designs. It analyzes data and gathers intelligence. It creates conversations. It understands and directs the best of old and new power. (Gibbons, 2016) +

For research groups in the development space, strategic communications is thus an investment for the future. This would mean going beyond the traditional dissemination model as part of which research findings are communicated to not for audiences, and buy in within the team for the need for reformation. Finding ‘tie ins’ relevant to the experiences of people, articulating evidence-backed insights, and tactically using new-age storytelling tools are only some measures which will further momentum to shift to a ‘for audience’ approach. With the ‘idea of scale’ or the change that the organisation envisions to bring at its heart, these will go a mile in awakening the power of engagement.

At Accountability Initiative, we focus on building a community, which also reflects in aspects such as the number of followers on our digital platforms. However, we aspire to provide them with authentic experiences and a reimagined public services. It these efforts which we hope will elicit a wave of small but consequential actions, and lead to incremental but lasting change.