November 27, 2017

Designing Open Contracting 2017: Three steps to a convening that creates long-lasting impact

This post is co-authored by Lauren Gardner of Reboot and Kathrin Frauscher of the Open Contracting Partnership.

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We’ve all been there: We leave a major convening with the lasting impression that the breaks were the best part. Building relationships with peers and colleagues is a huge motivator for many of us deciding to attend an event, and community-building is a goal for many organizers. But when time is limited—as it always is—the opportunities for people to talk to each other are the first to get squeezed.

In the world of civic innovation and good governance, enormous resources funnel into events. There is value in bringing people together to spark collaboration, build consensus, and develop long-term communities. But we’ve all been to events that fell short of these goals: Long, dense PowerPoint presentations. Lots of talking, with a limited sense of progress or accomplishment. Especially where organizers are the stewards of public funds intended to improve lives, these missed opportunities are a frustrating waste of precious time and money.

So when we get the chance to design a convening, how do we take the best part—talking to each other and working through shared challenges—and move it out of the sideline and into the limelight?

Open Contracting 2017: An Important Opportunity to Engage

We’ve been wrestling with this challenge in recent months, as an inspired group of open contracting pioneers—the Open Contracting Partnership, Hivos, CoST, B Team, Article 19—have prepared for this week’s Open Contracting 2017, engaging Reboot as the design and facilitation partner.

Open contracting is the idea that governments can improve the way they contract with private partners. Governments spend huge sums of money through contracts, for everything from buying pencils to building airports. Modernizing these contract processes—by publishing and using open, timely data on spending—can reduce corruption, foster entrepreneurship, and improve people’s lives.

Open Contracting 2017 brings together more than 200 government accountability influencers and innovators from dozens of countries, seeking to take this idea and collectively articulate the solutions and approaches that will guide its development in the future. It’s an opportunity to build momentum and a shared vision for this idea to continue to grow and have impact.

Participants are already creating impact with their work. CAHURAST-Nepal is training and developing tools for citizen monitors to hold their government accountable on procurement data in Nepal. The Africa Freedom of Information Centre is working with the Ugandan government to evaluate and improve their online procurement portal so that it can be better monitored by civil society. And Development Gateway has been assessing the impact of the widely-used Open Contracting Data Standard to inform its next evolution toward even greater contracting transparency.

The Secret to Successful Convenings

As we’ve designed this event, we have been focused on the idea that the “breaks are the best part.” We  have been working through the questions that face any convener and designer: How do you balance the power dynamics between everyone in the room, so that people feel like part of a cohesive group? How do you ensure that the event offers participants something relevant and actionable to their individual daily work, while also working toward higher collective ambitions?

This is especially important because open contracting is still a new idea. Excitement is high, but there are people who may not yet see their place in this work or oppose it, while others have been living and championing open contracting for years. Our challenge is to bring all of these diverse colleagues into the same safe and creative space to build a vision together.

As we head to Amsterdam this week, we are sharing three key steps that we have taken to advance that goal.

Step one: Convene the Conveners.

Five different organizations are convening Open Contracting 2017. These allies come from different parts of the open contracting ecosystem, and represent different organizational sizes, ways of working, and priorities. The process of planning began by coming together to clearly establish what is most important.

The overall goal of the event is to articulate a five-year vision for open contracting. For all of the conveners, it is critical that this vision come not from them, but from the participants—the people that have been doing the good, hard work all around the world. From the beginning, the conveners expressed an admirable commitment to designing a participatory and responsive event, one that would give participants the space to actively design together and establish this vision.

But even with this broad alignment, it was still necessary to reach consensus about the specifics of these goals. One of the big tools for doing this is establishing shared success criteria. There are always going to be trade-offs later in the design process; together, we started out by agreeing on the criteria we would use to evaluate those trade-offs.

Step Two: Listen to Participants

A workshop is like any design exercise: It has to be based on the needs and desires of the people who will use it. Early in the process, we sent out a survey to conference participants to better understand their work with open contracting, what problems they’re facing now, and what they’d like to get out of the conference; we also followed up with selected participants to probe more deeply into their needs and interests. Based on this research, we developed a synthesized report on participant feedback, which guided the design of the event.

Among other things, we found that most participants are hungry for practical, actionable steps they can implement now for small wins. They also want to make the case for open contracting—ways they can convince political actors and spread the word with the general public. And many want to know how their governments are doing in this sphere relative to others.

In many cases, participants’ stated goals aligned with those of the conveners. The main difference was in degree; participants expressed more interest in short-term guidance, while conveners were focused on long-term vision. But with both of these clearly expressed, we were better prepared to create an event that balances both.

Step Three: Iterate, Iterate, Iterate.

In designing the event itself, we went back to our core goal: Taking the energy, collaboration, and sense of action that make the breaks the best parts of other events, and infusing it into as many aspects of this one as possible.

The resulting workshop design does offer unstructured time for chatting, but it also balances small group break-out sessions throughout the day, where participants will be doing design exercises. We’ll all be getting our hands dirty, working through tangible problems that relate to our work, and we’ll come back together as a group periodically to discuss and synthesize together. Our hope is to build momentum, and leave feeling inspired.

Of course, we need to be ready to change as we go. A conference is carefully designed, but as facilitators, we also have to be responsive and adaptive to the group in real time. Fortunately, we are walking into a room filled with smart, passionate people and we are beyond excited to see what this group comes up with.

The First Step, But A Long Journey

As much as we are looking forward to Amsterdam, we know this convening is just a means, not an end. The conveners are committed to following up with participants and continuing the momentum beyond the event itself. The vision we establish together will guide years of work and collaboration. We hope this gathering is one that participants will look back on fondly, but we also hope that the “best part” is yet to come, in the impact that open contracting has in improving governance for all.

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Editor’s note: another version of this post was published on the Open Contracting Partnership blog.

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