Driving governance reform in times of uncertainty: A case study from Beirut

As Lebanon faces governance challenges, world leaders and Lebanese citizens alike are looking for positive solutions to empower change. We hear from Chevening partner organisation, Siren Associates, a Lebanese NGO finding innovative reform solutions.

In partnership with other organisations, Siren Associates have achieved early successes in transforming the state audit process and in bringing normally conflicting stakeholders together to work in the common interest. In this interview with Carole Alsharabati, director of the UK-funded Governance, Accountability and Oversight in Lebanon project, we hear some of the lessons learned over the past 21 months and some top tips on how Siren’s work could be replicated, adapted or scaled-up to help reform public administration in other contexts.

 

What is the objective of the project?

In short, we’re trying to root out corruption and enhance the performance of our civil service by reviving public sector oversight in Lebanon. This means instilling a culture of accountability and transparency in the sector. To bring this about, we’re introducing new e-governance tools that enhance efficiency, link diverse stakeholders, enable communication and allow transparent auditing. We’re also helping Lebanon’s primary oversight agency, Central Inspection (CI), to take advantage of modern and effective audit methodologies, while rallying political support around this key institution that has been under-resourced for years.

""

How is it going so far?

Pretty well, I’d say. The new tools and methodologies we’ve introduced at CI have been effective at bringing different people from across government, civil society and the public administration together to work on common issues.

The Inter-Ministerial and Municipal Platform for Assessment, Coordination and Tracking (IMPACT) is the most significant tool.  Acting as Lebanon’s first e-governance platform, it’s now the most searched keyword on Google in Lebanon in 2021. In under two years, key governmental and public sector stakeholders have turned to this platform to manage aid distribution, the COVID-19 vaccination campaign and to make lockdown mobility permits available fairly and transparently.

CI is also now auditing all public administrations digitally through IMPACT’s General Inspection Module. Conducting this initial mapping will be essential to reform. It’s interesting to learn through this exercise, for example, that 59% of public administrations do not have any form of strategic plan in place.

Critically, CI is sharing public data it collects. IMPACT’s website allows the public to get involved in the reform process, with journalists, public policy experts and the like able to access and analyse what different state entireties are doing. So far, public perceptions of IMPACT show us that we’re on the right track. A survey conducted by our interns over the summer showed that 73% of IMPACT users among the general public found it useful or very useful.

""

How did you achieve this?

We’re betting that the system can be reformed from within by identifying key individuals and providing them with the necessary tools to do their jobs. We cannot understate the importance of the strong leadership and vision of those who work at CI.

What’s also been amazing to see is conflicting groups being pushed to work together because the debate has been taken to a technical level. By mixing politics with technology, decisions have started to be made based on the available data and evidence about people’s real needs across Lebanon.

Finally, in building our team, we relied on Lebanon’s most important asset: its people. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness report from 2019, Lebanon ranks fourth out 141 nations for its quality of maths and science education; 18th for the quality of its higher education system; and 23rd in terms of the digital skills among the active population.

 

What have been the biggest challenges, and what lessons could you share with the Chevening community about overcoming them?

Ambitious and transformative projects of this nature will always face pushback. That IMPACT has triggered the formation of four security commissions to monitor it, is therefore both a challenge and a source of encouragement. The lesson here is that if you think big, you’ve got to be prepared for intimidation, know how to handle it wisely, and never compromise on your overall goal.

Ideally, however, you want to avoid these situations. This can often be done by properly consulting with the full range of stakeholders around your project, setting expectations, helping them to understand their needs, and working together on solutions. There will be times when you find you need to go back to various stakeholders, but don’t be afraid to do this!