Measuring Systems Change: An Atypical, More Meaningful Approach

By Munyema Hasan (Deputy Director Open Government Partnership)

Image credit: DEVEX

In early 2013 Jeremy Weinstein, a Stanford professor then serving the Obama administration described an atypical gathering of government and civil society leaders busy chalking out an atypical approach to fighting corruption and decay in governments. Powered by President Obama’s challenge to make the fight rooted in action, the group created the Open Government Partnership (OGP) at a time when the term ”democratic recession” was firmly in the political discourse and public distrust toward governing institutions was playing out through mass protests around the world. 

The atypical approach focuses on equalizing power, building coalitions between those inside and outside of government, and providing strong political incentives and tools to design and implement policies that give people a genuine say in how they are governed. However, the inherent complexity of this work can make identifying concrete signs of progress, or lack thereof, extremely challenging. As Weinstein said, the pathways to change are often “fuzzy and opaque.” Of course, measuring and demonstrating progress is critical as  anti-democratic values and authoritarianism increasingly impact communities around the world. 

Working to tackle root causes of corruption, particularly by addressing power dynamics, human interaction, and incentives, is emblematic of systems change. But it faces three measurement problems. First, changing behaviors of people is not easy to quantify. Second, change happens in a non-linear fashion, from opportunistic to stabilizing to transformational, and nothing is ever permanent. And third, an ecosystem of actors individually and collectively contribute to the change, making assessment difficult. 

We know that quantitative metrics alone cannot capture these realities. And while there are many creative and rigorous tools that measure systems change, we lack the incentives and resources to put them to use. We not only need a shared vocabulary to understand typologies of change—we also need to be comfortable with pulse checks or mission-critical markers that are contrary to a traditional approach to measuring outcomes, yet give confidence that change is moving in a positive direction.

A key lesson has been to see the centrality of local reformers, and their space for change as powerful indicators of systems change. This space can exist when power and influence are shared, evidence of results are leveraged to increase the salience of policies, and individual and collective capabilities are strengthened to advance policy wins. 

Assessing Shared Power & Influence

A multi-stakeholder approach to making policy decisions can help to equalize power among actors. This includes establishing processes and structures inside government that define how actors with very different hierarchies of power and influence interact with one another. However, real transformation comes from building institutional trust between these actors, which is developed over time by having an equal seat at the table when designing policy.

In Mexico, the federal government, civil society groups, and the Independent Information Commission jointly formed a permanent and institutionalized space for decision-making, consultation, and monitoring compliance with policy reforms. Though, the integrity of the effort was seriously questioned in 2017 when it was revealed the Mexican government was using Pegasus spyware software to monitor journalists, politicians, and activists who were members of the group. Civil society withdrew, delegitimizing the government’s OGP membership, and refused to re-engage until a more credible investigation of the illegal digital surveillance was undertaken. Almost two years later, Mexico resumed the effort but with an explicit objective to address the surveillance issue beginning with agreement “on a roadmap to avoid cases like Pegasus from ever happening.”

Having a seat at the table empowered Mexican civil society in various ways, including through their ability to build relationships with civil servants in relevant ministries who shared their goals and put pressure on those who were more resistant. Civil servants from the Information Commission, Finance Ministry, and Digital Strategy agencies also used the process to draw attention to help secure space on the policy agenda for open government initiatives.

Today, data from across OGP’s 70+ countries shows that a multi-stakeholder approach has proven intrinsic and instrumental value. When nongovernment actors engage in effective and iterative dialogue and agenda setting with the government,, it predicts stronger policy design, implementation, and results. OGP looks at the degree to which civil society actually has a say in shaping the policy cycle. Since 2013, we’ve seen the percentage of OGP countries that involve civil society in policy decisions increase from roughly 30 percent to 80 percent today.

Measuring governance engagement, policy-making structures, and power and influence allows us to see the value in a shared approach in real, data-driven and outcome-focused terms. They help better understand how trust is built over time and how it can result in more relevant and meaningful public policies. Even the longest-held and most dated power and influence norms can change as the benefits of discussion, negotiation, and mutual decision-making are clear.

Understanding Policy Salience

Opening governments up to more scrutiny is often a lonely fight for reformers inside of government. However, evidence and narratives of where they’ve succeeded and how open governments can deliver meaningful change are incredibly valuable. It helps understand how they resonate with decision-makers and can be a good proxy for determining the salience of a policy.

A Governor in Kenya, for example, used a high-level policy summit to present his county’s rising position in national rankings related to open contracting. The opportunity became a source of recognition and pride that had cascading effects domestically, politically, and internationally. His re-election was widely perceived as influenced by his campaign emphasis on open government. It empowered him to provide the high-level authorizing space to advance open contracting reforms despite resistance from the procurement department. It also helped him secure more technical support for reforms and further reinforced his commitment to open government.

Government reformers in the Philippines speak of the “legitimation effect” that comes from being a part of a network of like-minded reformers. Reformers in one corner of the world can become inspired by the work of others, giving more credence to the idea of advancing open government domestically. Philippines stakeholders have used evidence and peer inspiration on where and how open government delivers to foster senior government buy-in and implement difficult reforms at home.

In these examples, methods like ‘contributions tracinghelped to understand how global campaigns, advocacy, and peer inspiration influenced decision-makers. ‘Policymaker ratings’ help practitioners understand decision-makers’ responsiveness and gauge their support for and influence on a policy issue. As USAID Administrator Samantha Power said, “Show up and help leaders show tangible benefits as they move towards freedom, more respect for human rights, and more accountability for democratic institutions.” 


Identifying the “Missing Middle”

Policy wins, whether they’re small adjustments to the status quo or full transformations, are easily observable outcomes of systems change. But these wins take time, and the confluence of factors that lead to these wins often go overlooked and unmeasured, creating a ”missing middle” of outcomes. Within the open government community, policy wins have manifested in legislation to curb anonymous shell companies or open up public contracting—and frequently have a strong coalition of actors and individual leadership capabilities undergirding these successes.

Starting in the mid-2000s, several civil society organizations began laying the groundwork to advocate for legislation in the United Kingdom to disclose who owns, controls, and benefits from companies and their profits—a landmark effort given that over 70 percent of corruption cases involve anonymous companies. Now, 10 years later, the UK Government and all British Overseas Territories have a register of beneficial ownership. UK leadership also pushed the European Union to adopt a stronger anti-money laundering directive, covering 28 countries.

Hugely influential in bringing about this policy outcome was a dedicated coalition of advocates, civil society leaders, and individual government champions – and their actions forming the “missing middle”. Civil society actors played a critical role in shaping the conversation through trusted relationships with civil servants and thought leaders who were influential to Prime Minister Cameron’s commitment to launching a public beneficial ownership register. Notably, there was strong trust and collaboration instead of competition among the civil society organizations.

Individual champions, their leadership capabilities, and their resources can also bring ideas to fruition. Systems change acknowledges that local ownership should be at the forefront of reforms—and that who controls the resources and which core capabilities are emphasized matter. When resources are localized, we see those closest to the problem have the power to solve their own problems. Importantly, leadership capabilities that shift how leaders think about a problem can challenge deeply held assumptions and beliefs that prevent change.

Methods like outcome harvesting and contributions tracing allow us to understand how effectively individuals and coalitions negotiate the space for change in their unique contexts. Measuring the strength and ability of reformers to affect local change – collectively and individually – gets us closer to capturing the missing middle of outcomes and  predicting policy wins that measurably improve and strengthen systems over time. 


Centering People in Measurement

The scale and complexity of today’s challenges can make measurement insurmountable. Many systems change organizations still struggle to understand whether the work they are doing is making a difference. Many reform models and funding mechanisms still incentivize oversimplifying and quantifying progress rather than embracing the discomfort of working with measurement tools that unpack what is truly needed to drive meaningful and lasting change today.

The open government movement’s experience over the past decade continues to spotlight the essential role of local reformers, individually and collectively, in moving the needle towards positive change. Systems change measurement needs to reflect that. 


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