It is remarkable to think how much more we know about international development agencies today than we did just two decades ago. In part, this is an acknowledgement of the active effort of the agencies themselves to make information available to the public. Information disclosure policies, public information centers, websites and online directories, email communications and newsletters, and social media tools now provide us with so much content it is often difficult to digest. And, with this profusion of information, government officials are better able to administer projects affecting their citizenry and academics, activists and communities are better positioned to understand the impact of those projects.
External stakeholders have fought for this and have been rewarded with access to millions of documents. They know more now than ever before. Nevertheless, the question remains: Do they know the right and the best information in which to make informed decisions about development issues in their country? More specifically, stakeholders know more about what development agencies produce and what they decide. What is less clear is whether stakeholders know enough about how development agencies approach their work, why they act the way they do and how they make their decisions. To a significant extent, the “what” is there, but the “how” and the “why” are missing. This is because much of the focus by the development community has been on the products of development rather than the process of development. The process – the discussions, debates, arguments, meetings, research, back-and-forth – that formulates policies, positions institutions and moves projects largely remains out of view and behind closed doors. We get the final products. We know less about how they came to be.
What if a system existed that would allow the public to view the policy dialogues taking place within our public institutions so we could better understand what they were doing and why the decisions they made were taking place? In fact, there are two extraordinary initiatives that have changed how we view public institutions. The first, C-SPAN, began in 1979. C-SPAN (Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network) is a cable television network that provides coverage of the U.S. federal government. C-SPAN’s “gavel-to-gavel” format of the U.S. Congress means that viewers watch live and unedited coverage of its floor discussions and debates and many committee hearings. This transparent coverage has expanded over the years to hearing and briefings of other federal agencies, most notably the regular White House press briefings. Initially, C-SPAN covered only the U.S. House of Representatives, because the U.S. Senate refused to allow access. However, after years of watching favorable opinion polls for the House climb at their expense, the Senate finally followed suit in 1986.
By establishing a completely neutral environment where cameras film events without comment, biases are eliminated from coverage. This is critical for viewer opinions are shaped only by what the participants say or do. As a result, C-SPAN has separated itself from the partisan political talk shows that populate airwaves and is seen by the public as a truly objective lens on American democracy. A 2010 poll estimated that 79 million Americans watched C-SPAN during the previous year. More Congressional decisions are made under public scrutiny and a strong argument can be made that it is to the benefit both of Congress and the public. Substantial polling reveals the electorate is better informed about issues than in previous generations and political leaders are better at internalizing public sentiment into their voting records. Public interest and policy groups are also able to gather information that allows them to more effectively rally their constituencies and lobby politicians for their cause. The political establishment benefits as well. Political players can now comprehensively spread messages to their constituencies, mobilize key advocates and allies and monitor positions taken by counterparts.
Two decades after C-SPAN, a second experiment began unfolding within the confines of the World Bank. B-SPAN, launched by Bank economist David Wheeler and by this writer in 2000, had three objectives: To give Bank staff a mechanism for communicating with their stakeholders and expanding their influence; to give government officials, economists, academics, development practitioners, the public and Bank staff access to information being created and shared within the Bank so they might use it to further their own economic development and poverty reduction activities; and, to bridge the divide between the Bank and its external critics who viewed the institution with skepticism and concern. The system began during a period when civil society organizations and activists were holding massive demonstrations because they considered Bank and IMF policies detrimental to the world’s poor.
The webcasting station’s principle of complete transparency – meaning no editing of webcasting streams – allowed the system to operate as conduit of information to the public free of spin. During its initial five years of operation it produced more than 700 webcasts and by 2004 had a quarter million viewers and captured nearly 2% of the Bank’s Internet traffic. However, in 2005, the institution, still evolving over issues of internal transparency, reduced B-SPAN’s funding and the system went into a sharp and immediate decline.
Though both were successful in terms of public interest, a key difference between C-SPAN and B-SPAN led one to survive and the other to disappear. American politicians saw the advantage of using C-SPAN as a tool for getting messages to constituents to solidify their popularity. Though supported by the wide majority of Bank staffers, key bureaucratic insiders who controlled B-SPAN’s funding were less comfortable with its transparency. The constituency of these unelected officials was not millions of people living in poverty, but rather direct superiors and the notion of harboring a medium that provided no filters on the gavel-to-gavel coverage of Bank dialogues was highly unsettling. Since 2005, B-SPAN has remained largely muted.
In 2011, however, its saga took a new twist. The New York Times published a lengthy expose on the Bank’s progress on transparency, but noted that B-SPAN remained closed. The Center for Global Development, a Washington-based think tank, subsequently called upon the Bank to reinvest funds into B-SPAN to close this gap in its evolving transparency agenda. Then, during the fall annual meetings, a coalition of more than 100 civil society organizations and activists wrote President Zoellick urging him once again to fund B-SPAN. In response, Bank officials have suggested that a new platform that aggregates technologies, including webcasting, to foster greater two-way dialogue between the Bank and its stakeholders might be created. While promising if completed, it seeks a far different objective than what B-SPAN sought to achieve.
During the past year, a dialogue has emerged between the Bank and external actors, including this writer, on the merits of B-SPAN. Some in the Bank have suggested the webcasting system was a dinosaur of another epoch, an invention whose time had come and gone. The evidence, B-SPAN’s previous popularity, C-SPAN’s current popularity and the explosive growth of online video content, however, does not support this position. Some officials have suggested viewers are not interested in watching two-hour Bank seminars. This notion unfortunately places the Bank in a logic trap. Managing Director Caroline Anstey recently noted “Increasingly, it’s our knowledge … that countries and policymakers want to tap.” The Bank repeatedly states it has state-of-the-art knowledge and its future security resides in expanding beyond its traditional role as a financial instrument toward one as a knowledge resource. If the Bank thinks B-SPAN doesn’t have a market, wouldn’t that also suggest the Bank has doubts about the quality of its knowledge? Moreover, if the Bank believes there would be no demand for webcasts of its knowledge, then why hold seminars and conferences at all? Finally, some officials have suggested audiences would not be interested in watching long seminars. That is erroneous. Again, B-SPAN attracted a quarter million viewers in 2004 using old technology. A Bank webcasting system would not and should not be designed to appeal to the same audience as a CNN, which caters to news junkies flipping through three-minute streams of breaking news events. B-SPAN was focused on government officials, economists, academics, and development practitioners who wanted or needed to become immersed in the nitty-gritty of a particular subject. And, careful analysis of webcast traffic can allow the Bank to focus resources primarily on events of most interest to its stakeholders.
Some have wondered about costs. Even in a time of shrinking budgets, the cost of running the system is minimal – about $250,000 when I managed B-SPAN. In fact, a pricing mechanism could be implemented that would make a webcasting system generate revenue. More importantly, with advances in streaming technologies and new social media tools and mobile phone applications, B-SPAN streams could now reach the Bank’s 185-country membership instantaneously and at little cost. Envision then the following scenario: The Bank hosts a hypothetical event where a Bank health expert along with counterparts from PAHO and WHO convene a session at headquarters to discuss “Preventing the Next Cholera Outbreak in Haiti: New Ideas and New Information Technologies.” The event concludes at 2pm and is webcast live or instantly archived on Bank servers. Shortly afterwards, the Bank and event participants are Tweeting their followers about the event and its availability. Corresponding photo content and links go online via Flickr, YouTube and LinkedIn. Later that afternoon, NGOs, health and aid workers in Port-au-Prince receive Tweets and immediately begin watching the event on their mobile phones and iPads – and they, in turn, contact their networks through Retweets, texts or emails. Multiply this example exponentially if all the regional development banks did this as well. If the Bank wants to retain or increase its clout as the focal point on development knowledge, this would be one fruitful and cost-effective way to do it. Bank clients would increasingly focus on the institution as a one-stop shop for administering their development needs. Just one project generated from a webcast could finance the system for years.
Changing bureaucratic cultures – not just the Bank’s – tend to occur at glacial speed. Communication technologies such as the Internet, email and social media are, like global warming, changing institutional cultures more quickly today and the Bank’s evolution on transparency is an example. But the development community needs more than the products international development agencies produce. The community needs to be more involved in the process through which development agencies make their strategic business decisions. This means access to their dialogues and debates. Webcasting will allow this to happen, but it is up to the development community, as it did with information and document access, to compel the Bank and other international development agencies to act.