When It Comes to Politics, Social Networks are Old News

As we explore how organizations can use technology to further their transparency goals, we also face some very “non-tech” questions about political power.

In discussions with NGOs about their strategies for creating change around greater transparency and accountability, the Transparency Policy Project (TPP) has asked groups to describe their approaches to influencing decision-makers. One basic reality we observe is that some of the most effective pathways for delivering change run through existing, and still very powerful political channels. And these structures in turn operate through vital, informal networks of personal relationships.

More than a few of the groups we spoke with have origin stories, of how groups came into existence, in which political access or employing established channels to reach government decision-makers figure in their early successes. For one group, the original donor had connections with government.  For another, funding comes from a very influential corporation that has the ear of government officials.

To students of politics, such stories come as no surprise, but they may be a missing piece in the popular change narrative in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, where new technologies naturally dismantle asymmetries of power and information simply by improving connectedness for a common purpose.

It’s an obvious point, but one that must be included in a thorough review of how advocates push the levers of change on social and policy issues. Any group looking to create greater transparency and accountability needs to look critically at existing political power structures. An NGO’s ability to navigate these political systems is a distinct offline tool that undergirds and enhances online campaigning.

As TPP observed in its 2010 research on the impact of technology on transparency in the developing world, the unique political context a given NGO operates in has a huge impact on a NGO’s ability to carry out its mission and goals. We should not diminish the power of personal contacts when compared to our digital tools, nor should we expect the Internet to be a game-changer on its own.

Authors: Hollie Russon Gilman and Jed Miller

 

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