In April, some of our South African grantees were lucky enough to have a visit from our Founder Fran Perrin and Chair of the board and one of our trustees, William Perrin. It was the perfect opportunity for OpenUp to present their Democracy in Action/Accountability Stack framework. The framework seeks to explore how we can go about helping citizens address real challenges, like ensuring they have access to social housing, good healthcare and well equipped schools close to home.

This will take more than just civic tech solutions, though these tools have an important role to play, but there’s also a need to ensure that citizens are sufficiently informed and enabled in order to take action. We need to identify real life problems, understand the legal and policy frameworks, rights and responsibilities that exist and explore government and public participation processes. Do these really work? Who can help? It’s also critical to understand who the key stakeholders are-which civil society groups work on which issues? How can the media help? Is there a role for the private sector?

After a fantastic presentation from Jennifer Walker of OpenUp, I gave a presentation showcasing some of the ways this framework has been put into practice across Africa. Then it was time to open up the floor to some of our fantastic grantees – Ground Source, Parliamentary Monitoring Group, Livity Africa, GroundUp, Open Data Durban, Social Justice Coalition, Black Sash, Open Democracy Advice Centre, Health E-News, Fundza and South African History Archive to discuss how they’ve worked with government and what learnings they could share.

The conversations were really insightful, highlighting both the successes and frustrations. As we’d expect, there’s no one size fits all solution. Many expressed how important it was to identify the right people in government to establish relationships with and to take the time to build strong relationships with them. It can help to try and align your mission with performance targets of decision-makers and to help government operate better. After all, many champions in government also want to improve many of the services that civil society are also working hard to improve. It’s important to be responsive and focus on issues that are topical and to tell powerful stories that give a sense of how the issues are really affecting people’s lives. People also found working with bureaucracies/the civil service as well as local government helpful at times.

Different grantees had opposing views on whether to take an adversary role or a friendly/ supportive one. Both are often needed. The role of politics also can’t be underestimated and it’s crucial to take into account the different national government factions, levels of government things operate on and power dynamics taking place. It’s also worth understanding government/corporate relationships as decision making can often be outsourced to business and consultancies.

We also asked our grantees to give us honest feedback about how funders could help them do their work better. We’re always interested in learning more about how us and other donors can do our jobs better. Some of the feedback was unsurprising-reduce onerous reporting requirements, support core costs and avoid difficult, bureaucratic, infrequent timeframes that are unpredictable, clash with government bureaucracy and leave civil society groups in between.

Others were more unique to our sector-stop focusing on what’s trendy and remember that true social change takes longer than funding cycles, structure software development funding so that it supports iterative development, don’t overly specify tech requirements to enable organisations to adapt and stop expecting scale up, unless you’re going to fund it.

We hope that us and other funders can adapt our processes so that we support the important organisations doing the hard work to effect change on the ground. We also look forward to seeing how OpenUp can work with our grantees, alongside other social change focused organisations to see how they can really hold government and other service providers to account and make positive changes in people’s lives. We also look forward to sharing some of the learning from this process across our network.