How [not] to run a consultation: lessons from the Data Revolution


This is a joint blog by Neva Frecheville, Lead Analyst on Post-2015 Development at CAFOD and Savio Carvalho, Senior Advisor, Campaigning on International Development & Human Rights at Amnesty International

The groundswell of interest and support for a new post-2015 agenda has been dependent on the global conversation that informs and influences governments and the United Nations (UN) in its endeavour to come up with goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Time after time, civil society voices have added new ideas, reminded government of their existing obligations, such as human rights, and pushed the boundaries of ambition. Most governments around the world now accept that the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should be universal, address inequality both within and between countries, and adopt an integrated approach to environment, society and economy, leaving no one behind.

From the High Level Panel’s whirlwind global tour, to the UN’s thematic and national consultations, from the MyWorld survey to the World We Want platform, to civil society briefings with the OWG co-chairs, outreach webinars and roundtables you would have thought that enough cumulative experience has been built by the UN to know what makes for an effective, inclusive and participatory process of consultation.

Apparently not.

Same story, different process.

Same story, different process.

Last week the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ “consultation” on the draft Data Revolution report happened.

This is not the first time that civil society have reflected on the role of consultations in the post-2015 process, with many submissions to the Data Revolution Advisory Group from civil society emphasizing the need for the right to information as a key factor in the enjoyment of human rights. Safeguarding the right to information is crucial to empowering people to claim, reinforce and defend their rights.

As far back as January 2013 civil society were asking about the quality of these consultations. When the Data Revolution Advisory Group was appointed, a recommendation was made clearly asking them to give enough time for civil society consultations to allow community-based organisations and marginalised people to participate, and not just large, well-resourced NGOs.

Let’s see whether any of this has been taken on board in light of the recent consultation.

  • First, the timeframe. The draft report was published at approximately 17:00 GMT on a Friday afternoon. The deadline to comment was 10:00am GMT the following Monday. Since the early days of the post-2015 process, Beyond 2015 and many other civil society groups have aimed to ensure that this process of developing the post-2015 framework is participatory, inclusive and responsive to the voices of those directly affected by poverty and injustice. With a timeframe like that, it was unlikely that anyone east of Greenwich Mean Time knew that this consultation took place, let alone had the opportunity to input. While the Data Revolution Secretariat acknowledged the constraints of the tight timeframe, the reality is that better planning is needed to ensure inclusivity. Most civil society organisations have a responsibility to be accountable to their constituencies – whether partners around the world or people living in poverty – and this gives no chance to engage them in this debate, which will ultimately have profound effects on their lives.
  • Secondly, the report was initially only released as a PDF. We need not point out the irony of the line in the draft report which says: “Access is often restricted behind technical and/or legal barriers that prevent or limit effective use of data. Data buried in pdf documents, for example, is much harder for potential users to work with”. Forget about being on the cutting edge of technology and opening the door to new ways of collaborative learning and co-creation. At least Twitter provided a space to share frustration.
  • And thirdly, the draft report was only published in English. There was no provision for non-English speakers. Not even in the other core UN languages which would have opened doors for so many individuals around the world to be part of this conversation. Again, better planning would have allowed for translation into at least some of the other core languages.

On Arnstein’s ‘ladder of citizen participation’ we’re struggling to reach rung 4, well within the tokenism stage. We’re not even half way to meaningful engagement.

We're still some way from meaningful participation.

We’re still some way from meaningful participation.

Full, accurate and timely information is essential to effectively participate in any consultation process. If consultation is genuine, the objectives, method and timeline of the consultation process (including opportunities to engage with different actors who may be involved) and the format is critical. Further, as this data is going to have some impact on the lives of millions, especially those discriminated against and living in poverty, it is imperative to ensure additional measures are taken to reach out to such groups who may face greater difficulties in engaging with the process.

What’s the takeaway from this? If the UN and the experts it works with are serious about meaningful consultation, they need to show due diligence to issues of time zones, languages, formats, access and most of all, genuinely create an enabling environment which allows people across the world to share their experience, insight and knowledge. Tokenistic exercises in consultation only reinforce the increasing disillusionment that many around the world feel that the UN is not listening to them.

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8 Responses to “How [not] to run a consultation: lessons from the Data Revolution”

  1. Ross Bailey (@rossb82) Says:

    Great blog Neva. I’m glad you clarified the timeframe. I thought I had missed it and was just late to the party on the Monday morning.

    I think the only good thing that can be said is that the PDF commenting system was quite seamless.

    One of the dangers of a “data revolution” is that we drown in the detail. One wonders how many hours were spent by people commenting in what I’m worried isn’t much of a consultation. Could this have been more hours spent on MOI process or watching the 2nd committee discuss accountability dialogue.

    • Neva Frecheville Says:

      Thanks Ross. Just to be clear – initially the draft report was only launched as a PDF which you couldn’t comment on, which was supported by the online commenting system a couple of hours later. I found that it wasn’t that compatible with my browser but glad that you had a good experience with it.

      In terms of where people focus – from the conversations I’ve had with other civil society actors, I don’t think that many people have spent a lot of time on the data revolution so far, and definitely not in comparison with the earlier HLP or OWG processes which are more central to the post-2015 agenda.

      I would say that we have some way to go collectively to engage with the MOI process, the HLPF and the accountability dialogue – but that goes back to the earlier point on the size of the post-2015 process and how difficult it is to know where the important decisions are being taken.

  2. Rakesh Rajani (@rakeshrajani) Says:

    Thank you for your challenging post. Intentions may be good and constraints real, but consultations need to be meaningful and well done.

    • Neva Frecheville Says:

      Thanks Rakesh, I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment as a member of the advisory group. We have to see a change in the way that institutions of power operate if we want to have meaningful inclusion.

  3. Sarah Fisher Says:

    I would add that the final report was going to print the same day of the deadline for comments. That of course begs that question of whether the report’s authors would actually be able to meaningfully take civil society inputs into account, even if anyone had been able to turn around a response over the weekend!

    • Neva Frecheville Says:

      It’s a good point, although I would say that from my own analysis the final report was markedly improved from the draft and seemed to take many of the comments made over the weekend consultation into account.

  4. wearerestless Says:

    Reblogged this on We Are Restless.

  5. Will the Data Revolution Be Well-Advised? | The Transparency and Accountability Initiative Says:

    […] weeks of consultation—and a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” public comment period—a group of expert advisors to the UN has issued a report on the […]

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