Social Accountability from the Trenches: 6 Critical Reflections

Originally published on the GPSA website
By Gopa Kumar Thampi, Director, Economic Governance – Sri Lanka, The Asia Foundation & GPSA Steering Committee 

There is a clearly a surge in social accountability initiatives across the globe today. From informal expressions at the grassroots to entrenched voices in corridors of power, the social accountability multiverse has become stronger and diverse. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we are indeed witnessing the rise of an ‘audit society’ that animates the spectrum between confrontation and collaboration in citizen’s engagement with the state. The proliferation of toolkits and manuals embellishes this trend as social audits and scorecards have become commonplace parlance for civic activists, policy wonks and academics as they line up an impressive array of data to hold the state to account. However, viewed from the trenches of day-to-day encounters with social accountability, some notes of caution need to be flagged:

1) Primacy of technique over politics: ‘Bring politics back’ is an oft-quoted plea that is heard at the closure of every learning and sharing event on social accountability. Though some excellent conceptual writings exist on the rationale and approaches to acknowledge politics, there is clearly a knowledge gap on praxis. This gap becomes accentuated when projects finish their shelf lives and local interlocutors are left dealing with unplanned political aftermaths. What we need is not just the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of navigating politics, but the ‘how’ too. There is also the bias of working with executive ‘accelerators’ – reformist executives who push the frontiers of constructive engagement and deliver high quality impacts on pilot projects. But the reason why these ripples of change never result in a transformative wave is because politics is often viewed as a problem best avoided. We need to acknowledge that any change sans the inconvenience of politics is bound to be short lived. Working with politics and programming with sensitivity to political ecologies means more flexibility in design and implementation. This is where contemporary discourses on ‘Doing Development Differently’ are opening up new opportunities and pathways.

2) Tyranny of tools: Social Accountability tools like public hearings, scorecards, report cards and social audits have played a major role in bringing rigor to discourse and praxis, by moving the frame of reference from the anecdotal to the evidential. However, projects driven by the novelty of applying tools run the risk of not just undermining sustainable impacts, but paving the way for a far more serious erosion of trust and acceptance. Tools have a tendency to trade efficiency over inclusion, and participation over representation. There is also a case for ensuring quality. As an evolving field where theory consistently lags behind practice, it is critical that the field of practices is constantly reviewed, reflected upon and improved. Finally, there is the issue of local capacities. Applications of tools in rural areas often rely on external agents to play the role of interlocutors, but seldom do legacies and capacities get left behind for continued actions by local interlocutors.

3) Interrogating civil society: A dominant theme in the discourse and praxis of accountability is the emphasis placed on the role of civil society as the vanguard of change. There are genuine concerns that the sector is fast losing its rootedness and legitimacy –a schism grows between genuine informal social movements and formal organized civil society. One, exhibiting the vigor of confronting and embracing the politics of governance and the other, seen as obsessed with the rigor of getting the method right. We need to honestly interrogate our understanding of civil society organizations and widen our focus to bring in new, unseen but genuine champions from the cutting edges. A considerable proportion of existing civil society proponents of accountability often tend to be urban centered, and speak a language that appeal to our funding imperatives. We need to empower and enrich the language that has the credibility and endorsement of the basic constituency that we seek to address – citizens, especially the disadvantaged.

4) Seduction of contestation: Rights-based social mobilization sometimes leads to an unintended consequence – spiraling expectations. When amplified voice encounters weak responses from the state, ‘rude accountability’ manifests. The grammar of engagement changes swiftly to a confrontational mode. In social contexts where power asymmetries are accentuated, these confrontations can take very violent forms. There is a case for calibrating social accountability initiatives to match state capacity. In contexts marked by a trust deficit between state and citizens, it may be prudent to focus on trust building exercises as a starting point. The other issue is of public dissemination. Should one go for a big bang release of the findings from a social audit, thereby securing a guaranteed news coverage? Or, should the state be allowed to frame its responses and then go public with the findings and responses? To strengthen principles of constructive engagement, closing the feedback loop in the public domain becomes a critical factor. Voice needs an ear to respond.

5) Rethinking evaluation: It is near impossible to engineer transformative changes given the short project cycles of social accountability initiatives . End of project evaluations can seldom provide meaningful insights. What the field of social accountability needs are longitudinal studies that explore questions related to sustainability and uptake of reported successes. In particular, five aspects could be emphasized: (a) Extent of multi stakeholder engagement; (b) Width of citizen involvement, especially aspects of inclusion; (c) Long-term partnership among stakeholders; (d) Legal or institutional recognition of civil society engagement; and (e) Extent to which processes generate compliance and provide deterrence. Rather than focus on narrowly defined outcomes, evaluations should dwell into process indicators that reveal if critical pathways and enablers are set in place.

6) Illiberalism and social polarization: Perhaps the greatest challenge for social accountability initiatives is the growing popularity of illiberal electoral democracies and, in parallel, the deep social polarization that is tearing up fragile social fabrics. Leaders with divisive agendas and populist outlooks, aided by manipulated (and at times, completely fake) news are posing a grave threat to democratic institutions. There is also the distinct disconnect between the informed public and the mass public in terms of their expressed trust in institutions. All these have substantive repercussions on the way we imagine and operationalize social accountability. We need to focus on activities that build bridging social capital – locating actions that result in enhanced inter-group collaboration. The role of traditional media – once the trusted ally and champion for accountability – needs to be evaluated given the ubiquitous spread of social media. Rather than lamenting the loss of old spaces, the strategy should be to appropriate the new ones.

To sign off: Social accountability is recognition that there exists a lack of engagement with the public institutions that are so critical to our daily lives, a lack of influence in decision-making and more importantly, a lack of voice for expressing our needs, concerns and demands. We believe that social accountability approaches enable citizens, especially the voiceless and the powerless, to engage with state institutions in a proactive and constructive way to demand and exact accountability and responsiveness. This moral high ground of the concept and praxis of social accountability needs to be protected and nurtured.

Limitations to develop a culture of transparency in the public sector

by Carolina Maturana Zúñiga

Originally published on the GPSA Knowledge Network

Transparency and access to information are not only human rights, but also means to allow citizens to know and monitor what their government is doing. But, what are some hindrances to develop an effective culture of transparency in the public sector?

Using data from the National Study of Public Servants, held by the Consejo para la Transparencia in Chile (Council for Transparency)[1], we explored the role of the bureaucratic system’s traditional structures on the practical limitations regarding the implementation of governance reforms and specifically toward the proper development of access to public information.

The results show that, even though most Chilean public servants perceived their major obligations are toward the citizen, and they have high levels of referential knowledge and valuation of transparency, there is a decrease on both dimensions while deepening the analysis. Data shows that higher levels of hierarchy and contractual stability of public servants seem to be two main factors that can make the difference on the willingness to embrace transparency. This highlights the limitations that medium and lower public servants face to be part of the democratic reforms –for example, they do not access proper training, they are not included in the discussions about the potential benefits of these reforms, and they are only assigned to implement these changes as administrative commands like: “if you get an access to information (ATI) request it should be answered in 20 working days” –. Because of the abovementioned factors, the staff in front line of public services is not prepared to guide or empathize with a citizen requesting information.

In addition to the challenges transparency has to overcome inside the bureaucratic system, it is possible to identify challenges among citizens as well. Traditionally, people have not been involved in the public decision making process and political institutions in Latin America function under the principles of secrecy. Under this historical premise, citizens do not perceive the need or the right to request information and it is hard for them to perceive the potential value of public information, weakening the ATI system by disuse. These perceptions are complemented by strong distrust in electronic and online means to access information; reinforcing the idea that ATI is a slow and complicated process with uncertain results [2].

All these factors, contribute to generate and maintain informal methods for accessing information through personal connections with public servants. This practice allows people involved in those networks to access more information and in a faster way than the regular procedures mandate, damaging the legitimacy of the ATI system and reproducing patronage [3]. At the same time, these practices replicate the power structures that transparency seeks to eliminate.

Then, in order to advance toward a culture of transparency, it is necessary to recognize that legal reforms are not enough and the implementation phase is key for success. Implementation should consider the promotion and engagement of a broader scope of public servants in the discussions regarding the improvement of the bureaucratic system, changes on governance standards, and the democratic vision our societies are aiming for. Public servants should be more aware that quality of service and positive experiences accessing public information, improve citizen’s perceptions about them and their institutions, so they will understand the reasons behind the efforts to change some of their bureaucratic practices [4], an element that will allow them to see themselves as part of a process that strengthens democracy and promotes social rights.

From the lessons learned about the Chilean experience, it is possible to address effectively the practical challenges related to transparency. Elements such as the real capacities of public institutions of different scale and resources to meet their legal obligations; the development of archival systems; the standardization of specific documentation (such as formularies, electronic websites, etc.); and the information and training granted to public servants whom will assume these responsibilities are key components of a successful implementation. Without them, it will be really difficult to install the perception that transparency is more than an additional administrative burden. When traceability and information recall has to be done manually, it becomes a major task and the burden of this labor undermines the social validity of information requests, eroding the social value of ATI and transparency [5]. If public servants perceive that transparency is an important element to improve the public administration, any effort toward the creation of a culture of transparency in the public sector will find a solid ground to start growing.


 

[1] http://www.cplt.cl/estudios-nacionales-de-funcionarios/consejo/2014-09-11/125235.html

[2] http://www.cplt.cl/consejo/site/artic/20121213/asocfile/20121213155411/estudio_nacional_de_transparencia_2012.pdf

[3] Moya y Dueñas  (2015), http://200.91.44.244/consejo/site/artic/20150108/asocfile/20150108180133/t_s_n3___web.pdf

[4] Maturana (2015), http://200.91.44.244/consejo/site/artic/20121213/asocfile/20121213161557/articulo.pdf

[5] CPLT (2016), http://200.91.44.244/consejo/site/artic/20121213/asocfile/20121213160518/avances_y_desafios.pdf

The language of citizen engagement

By Mwazvita Machiri: MobiSAM Project strategist and evaluator

As a member of the MobiSAM team one of my core tasks have been to attend a number of Municipal meetings and forums including: communication forums, the inauguration of councillors, municipal public accounts meetings the Water and Sanitation forum and the Kowie Catchment management forums to mention just a few.

One of the most common observations that I have made is that of the relatively poor attendance of these events by citizens. As such both the number and demographic of those usually present at these meetings do not offer a representative sample of local residents. This means that many groups and communities of people are never represented at these public gatherings.

These public platforms organised and managed on the part of the Municipality aim to function as places in which municipal representatives and elected officials are able to hear and respond to comments and feedback from citizens. As citizens this process requires our buy-in as a way of engaging local government in ways which force them to listen and respond to the people they have been elected to serve. The lack of residents present at these meetings and public fora made me wonder if we as citizens actually know what citizen engagement means and how it stands to benefit you and me as citizens.

Definition?

Citizen engagement can be understood as the two-way communication and interaction between the local government and the citizens. Therefore communication with the aim of assisting government in making decisions that are supported by the public. Citizen engagement can be shown and therefore understood through the relationship between civic action and user feedback as shown in the diagram below.

civicengagementvennd_peixotofox2016_forblog

Civic action is more of a collective action and is therefore public, compared to user feedback which is individual and undisclosed. An example of this is the reporting of an issue by a CSO to the public whilst user feedback is the act of providing information as an individual to an institution like a local municipality which usually takes the form of an undisclosed report. In light of the above, MobiSAM can be understood as a true representation of what citizen engagement should encompass as it aims to involve both individual and civic action by providing real time access to mechanisms to report issues to all stakeholders. This allows the policymakers to identify and address service delivery problems from a more informed position. Added to the above, the benefit of the current system is that through collective “critical mass” action there is a higher chance of overall responsiveness on the part of local government. The ideal state of affairs would be as is depicted in the centre of the diagram where these two processes overlap and allow for useful Citizen Engagement. Therefore by engaging with an institution in this case Makana Municipality MobiSAM can encourage and foster a higher degree of responsiveness to issues of service delivery.

The evidence so far indicates that most of the ICT platforms similar to MobiSAM that manage to leverage responsiveness somehow directly involve government. As such many public agencies are using mobile phones and social media to disseminate information efficiently. The Makana Municipality has therefore signed an agreement with MobiSAM as a way of engaging with the citizens and promote transparency and accountability to improve service delivery.

But it’s important to bear in mind that citizen engagement does not always only assist official or municipal structures and processes, but citizens too as it promotes and enables;

  • Reducing the chances of receiving unwanted or unnecessary services therefore promoting better quality in the delivery of services;
  • Empowering local citizens through making local information freely available and promoting participation in local decision making processes;
  • Logging a database of service delivery issues and responses which enables citizens to hold government accountable with recent and relevant evidence if and when complaints are not dealt with adequately;
  • It removes the distance factor, as mobile technologies allow people to connect and share information across diverse geographic terrain.

As such the main aim guiding the project and the various civic and municipal partnerships and interventions that MobiSAM has launched and will continue to monitor and develop into 2017 rests on the following: “Improved citizen engagement has the potential to improve service delivery.”

This post first appeared on the MobiSAM blog. You can find it here:
http://www.blog.mobisam.net/2016/11/the-language-of-citizen-engagement/

Connecting the Dots: The Coordination Challenge for the Open Government Partnerhship in South Africa

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete Commitments from governments that promote transparency – the implementation of these Commitments is then monitored by an independent review mechanism. South Africa has been a founding member of the OGP since 2011, having submitted three National Action Plans (NAPs). But change will only happen through a mechanism such as this if its implementation is effective. What can be done to get government departments coordinating on the OGP to make its projects a reality?

This research seeks to address specifically how implementation might be improved, through enhancing inter-departmental coordination on open data commitments. Worryingly, very little of the OGP conversation so far has practically considered how we can get a variety of departments (and not just lead agencies) to coordinate to make OGP commitments a reality.

After a several months of extensive research ODAC believes that one of the answers lies in driving departments to work together on both the OGP more broadly, but also in relation to specific commitments. Inter-departmental coordination has never been an easy ambition – but ODAC have posited some simple strategies, within the OGP process, that will help in moving open government ambition to open government reality.

You can download the full report here

Zambia

Baseline Study of the Zambia Social Accountability Mornitoring Partnership

This is a report on the baseline study of the Zambia Social Accountability Monitoring Partnership as regulated by a Memorandum of Understanding between the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) based at Rhodes University Grahamstown South Africa; and three Zambian partners: Caritas Zambia, Civil Society for Poverty Reduction (CSPR) and the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) hereafter referred to as Implementing partners. The baseline study was carried out in May 2013.

Click here to download the report: Baseline Report Zambia Social Accountabilty Partnership May 2013 Final


Growing the demand for social accountability in Muchinga Province, Zambia

This documentary shares the experiences of how ZGF and its partners grew the demand for social accountability and citizen participation in governance in the Muchinga Province in northern Zambia.  While ZGF fostered community engagement and capacitated community members through training in the PSAM approach, they saw the empowerment of community members to carry out the social accountability monitoring themselves, and slowly recognise their rights as citizens.

You can watch the documentary here