GATE: Increasing the Public Value of NGOs
Alan Fowler, April 2013
The need for a GATE perspective. Across the world, there was a common assumption that NGOs are effective, valued and trusted by the public and by governments that no longer holds true. In responding to this reality, together with leadership development, a lot of individual and collective NGO effort involves updating Governance models, improving Accountability, adopting shared standards for Transparency and gathering reliable Evidence of results = GATE. The components of GATE are interdependent. Yet many efforts aimed at their improvement are fragmented and lack synergy – hindering increases in performance and cost-effectiveness. In working with NGOs on these issues, a GATE template and process has emerged as comprehensive perspective and practical approach to (a) enhancing effectiveness, and (b) making NGOs more publically valued, viable and resilient.
In a rapidly changing world, NGO governance is emerging as a point source of organizational weakness. Given governance is where ultimate responsibility lies, GATE’s principal concern is to improve this critical function – which is vital for making transparency and accountability for results work for the public good. But the effort required must not be isolated from other critical factors that translate good governance into good performance and positive reputation. With this need in mind, the connections between GATE components bring together other key issues– risk, compliance, legitimacy and credibility. A crude link to legitimacy stems from demonstrating accountability (to key stakeholders) in all locations and scales of operations. Credibility is fed by showing you know what you are doing – there is external recognition of competence. Tackling such issues often involves difficult trade-offs. They are all sensitive to the moral dilemmas that NGOs face, particularly given the resource poor, volatile and ‘fragile’ settings in which they often work.
GATE principles in a nutshell. GATE: (1) is informed by the specific features of NGO effectiveness when converting gift and grant finance to sustainable development outcomes; (2) recognises distinct characteristics and intermediating features of NGOs that differentiate them from commercial firms or public bodies; (3) connects internal NGO processes to the external world by highlighting three critical factors – Results, Reputation, Resources -required to ensure organizational value and viability, and; (4) seeks to enhance efficiency, effectiveness and value for money by aligning internal processes at acceptable cost in resources and effort. A GATE perspective enables NGOs to adapt to the speed of change and volatility of global development conditions.
How the GATE process is used by NGOs or government agency partners. The GATE process is, by design, adaptable to users’ conditions. It requires involvement of those responsible for governing and managing an organisation, be it public or private Movement from start to finish revolves around a series of capability-building reflections leading to a change agenda and its implementation. Often this involves revisiting relationships and paying attention to improving relational capabilities.
A GATE sequence can be tailored to availability of participants. Typically, with the right people a two day exercise is sufficient to reach a change agenda. But this process can be spread out, for example, over a series of board meetings which include senior management. To reduce costs it can also be designed include web-based methods that collect self-assessment information and produce analysis for further reflection and decision making.
The sequence is guided by participant’s gaining familiarity with a practical analysis of links between critical internal factors influencing organisational effectiveness and their connections to the external environment. Performance management in relation to governance is an important point of reference.
This awareness is applied to the specifics of the organisation and its environment(s) to arrive at an assessment of Governance, Accountability, Transparency and Evidence (GATE) in terms of their ‘alignment’ and their association with Results, Reputation and Resources (3Rs).
Assessment is translated into an action-for-change agenda. Implementation is anticipated to require periodic reviews and revisions.
GATE components in more detail: The selection of GATE components stems from applied practice. In brief, the governance task is about the NGO: staying true to mission; strategically orienting towards the future; demonstrating accountability in the broadest sense; ensuring cost effectiveness; and maintaining viability. These tasks have both political dimensions of integrity, authority, mandate and representation as well as demands for technical competencies in development, law, finance and specialist professional fields. Both dimensions can involve complex allocation of decision rights and delegation of authority across multiple operating environments. Getting the design of governance right is not easy or uncontested. There are many NGO transparency and accountability initiatives (TAIs) that enjoy collective effort. Signing up to shared norms, standards and disclosure requirements is a cost with the anticipated benefit of ‘signaling virtue’ that should enhance reputation and public trust. However, there are frequent problems of alignment between the two. For example, recent assessments of current TAIs point to practical gaps in the way transparency – in terms of public information – actually connects to (non-financial) accountability and the impact of both in terms of the costs and benefits. In particular, demonstrating ‘downward’ accountability to constituencies and ‘horizontal’ accountability in NGO partnerships remain difficult. Finally, self-reporting without some form of verification remains a common structural weakness. It is therefore important for an NGO to be clear about the pathways it relies on so that signing up to norm-setting arrangements actually has an impact on what it does, together with showing how this will be tracked and assessed. The need for evidence is wider than just the requirement for information about results. Evidence about development performance is not sufficient to ensure that wider organizational requirements – such as reputation, internal efficiency, being consistent with policies, etc., – are satisfied. Those who govern and those who manage need to be clear and in agreement about what evidence is vital, what is conditional and what is ‘nice to know’. There is a growing body of approaches and tools which can be used to generate the various types of information GATE calls for. A challenge is to select and consistently apply and then properly interpret information generated – which is often strongly context specific.
Why GATE helps. The GATE approach and perspective has significant value because, among other benefits, it:
- Brings leverage on Results, Reputation and Resources through a systemic approach to managing internal processes.
- Enhances effectiveness by providing set of ‘alignment’ questions that connect critical factors in performance management to measuring the impact of development interventions.
- Facilitates the development of a more integrated and cohesive form of NGO external reporting and public communication.
- Highlights any gaps in many NGO evidence systems which can aid in aggregating programmatic results.
Applying a GATE lens helps develop broad, coherent and succinct knowledge, information and learning framework which factually demonstrates an organization’s ability to create value. As an aid to both strategic an operational decision making, it supports innovative responses to the problem of public trust and demonstrated public value.
Although some components are not new, the GATE perspective is. What the approach does is to open up old paradigms to a more holistic and integrated way of thinking that offers significant gains for NGO futures. It brings together the disparate experience of efforts that NGOs are making both individually and collectively to increase their value and effectiveness. The combination brings a meaningful addition to improvements already underway.