Learning how to reinvent a partnership
By María Paula Angel-Arango
It took more than six years of advocacy and legislative effort, and in 2014 the president of Colombia finally signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) into law. At Dejusticia we celebrated this victory together with the network Alianza Más Información Más Derechos (“Alliance More Information More Rights”), a partnership of 5 civil society organizations with whom we had been collaborating in the effort to pass the Act.
After the celebratory glamour fluttered away, it was time to get to the hard work of implementing the Act. This kept us the Alliance – a group of leading human rights and transparency organizations in Colombia – engaged for a number of years. However, by 2018 the members’ own priorities had shifted, the Alliance was in a stagnation phase and the group was facing an identity crisis. This was also the year when Dejusticia assumed the secretariat role of the Alliance. What could we do? It became clear we needed to rethink the Alliance, and the Learning Collaborative was there to give us a hand.
Looking back to see the way forward
Thanks to the support of the Collaborative, Dejusticia for the first time created a set of spaces to reflect on the successes and failures of the Alliance together with all the members, and to jointly plan for the future. We organized one and a half days for reflection events to look over the past before charting the course forward. Through the reflection exercises we critically reviewed the evolution of the Alliance. What started as an endeavour with a clear mandate to pass the Freedom of Information Act (2008-2014) lost its focus after the victory of the Act’s passage. In contrast, during the second phase of following the implementation of the Act, the Alliance members did not share clear and specific advocacy goals. Each member pursued different types of training, capacity building, monitoring activities, and advocacy strategies, with different types of actors and geographic locations, sometimes coming together in response to funding opportunities for joint activities. Although some of the activities were high impact and opened innovative space for FOI implementation (e.g. in political parties or the justice sector), the partners of the Alliance identified the need to find a way to return to the initial nature of the partnership, when the work of the Alliance as a group was more than the sum of its parts.
We agreed that it would only make sense to keep the Alliance alive if we could jointly craft another common goal which could galvanize members and focus our participation in the Alliance.
Finding a common vision was not easy, but we rallied around the need to alert the public on the apparent backtracking of the Colombian government on the FOIA commitment. However, to be effective, we also realized that the partnership’s modus operandi and its joint work strategy had to be rethought. In particular, it was necessary to find a new mode of operation that would strengthen the added value of the partnership, better satisfy the members with their belonging to the partnership, improve the results of the advocacy for the TAP goals, and allow members to advance regular reflections on progress and failures.
Charting new territory: political voice based on evidence
The mission was to jointly design an initiative that had sufficient elements to deliver a meaningful product for the new advocacy objective of the Alliance, but that was adaptable enough to adjust to each organization’s mandate, capacities and interests. We decided that more than an operator of joint projects, the new Alliance should operate both as a platform to express a political voice based on rigorous research, and a as a guide to help citizens and journalists to take advantage of the FOIA law.
Quite literally, as well, we needed a platform and that is how the magazine “Destápate. Contra la opacidad del poder” ( Open Up! against Government Opacity) came to life. Drawing on the resources from the Collaborative, Dejusticia supported the Alliance to develop and launch the first edition of this annual magazine on 28th September 2019, the International Right to Know Day. “Destápate” is unique because it combines the voices of civil society and public opinion with rigorous evidence on the status and progress of the protection and exercise of the right to access to public information in Colombia. The social media campaign that accompanied the launch generated a few hard copies sent to key stakeholders of the Colombian Government, 11 tweets, 58 re-tweets, 101 likes in Twitter, 3 Facebook posts, 29 Facebook shares, and 32 Facebook likes.
The magazine platform also gave us a simple but effective mechanism to add other civil society organizations from across the country to the Alliance, by inviting them to author articles and share their own experiences with regards to access to public information. And finally, it gave the partnership an opportunity to deliver its message, and reach the general public as well as the responsible public agencies in a friendly and understandable format of the magazine.
More clarity, better collaboration
Internally, the Alliance was able to re-focus and to establish clear rules of the game in terms of collective decision-making procedures as well as on the role of the rotating technical secretariat of the Alliance, currently with Dejusticia. We experienced the spaces generated for joint reflection and learning as genuinely productive and very useful, a view shared by the different members of the network. The learning angle, supported by the Learning Collaborative, promoted our creativity, pushing us to go the extra mile and design innovative strategies for working together. For all these reasons, this experience was key for the Alliance to embrace learning and reflection as fundamental elements in our work.