South Africa’s print media is failing to empower citizens on corruption

By Vanessa Malila, Rhodes University

The mainstream media can play an important role in fighting corruption. Investigative journalists in South Africa, for instance, helped to expose how the politically connected Gupta family “captured” elements of the governing African National Congress.

As watchdogs of society, the media is well placed to forge social accountability: the collective effort of citizens and civil society in holding governments to account for their management and use of public resources. These groups need to be informed if they’re to succeed.

There are two ways for the media to fulfil its social accountability role. The first is through good investigative journalism. This, as scholar Professor Sheila Coronel has written

exposes not just individual, but also systemic failures. Investigative reports show how individual wrongs are part of a larger pattern of negligence or abuse and the systems that make these possible.

The second is that the media should function as a bridge between governments and citizens. It can provide the public with the information they require to debate and participate in public discussions and processes. This notion is much more aligned to the media’s role as a space for debate and engagement by citizens regarding public and political life. Here, journalism’s function is educational. The public is in the driving seat – but only if they’re a well informed citizenry able to participate in decisions about how public resources are managed.

So how is South Africa’s media doing when it comes to fulfilling this second role? Not very well, according to research conducted for the Public Service Accountability Monitor at Rhodes University. The accountability monitor forms part of the School of Journalism & Media Studies and aims to ensure the right to social accountability is universally realised.

Our findings reveal gaps in the media’s work. Journalists assume that merely reporting on scandals, corrupt officials or maladministration justifies their role as watchdogs. Instead, mainstream print media coverage on service delivery and public resource management normalises corruption because it reports in an episodic fashion, focusing on events rather than systemic failures.

This normalisation of corruption and public service failure means that media coverage doesn’t result in actual accountability.

Analysing coverage

The Eastern Cape is a troubled province. It’s home to 7 million people and is the poorest in South Africa. It measures badly against almost all metrics. More than half of the province’s schools have no water; 73% have no proper toilets. None of this information is unknown: there are daily stories in the press about the poor state of education in the province. Blame is apportioned and fingers are pointed. But little changes.

The research conducted by Public Service Accountability Monitor looked at coverage of education in the Eastern Cape by mainstream print media between 2005 and 2016. The articles analysed provide a glimpse of the type of “balanced” and episodic reporting that proliferates South Africa’s mainstream press.

Rather than connecting incidences of corruption or maladministration to citizens’ daily lives, the coverage simply alerts readers to the event with no context and no clear lines of accountability. This is inadequate for providing citizens with the information they require to become active participants in holding public officials in the education sector to account.

Instead, coverage of maladministration follows a formulaic pattern: an event is reported and a government official is asked to comment. There’s little or no investigation of how this maladministration was allowed to occur and how it will be prevented from happening again.

This type of coverage also normalises corruption and public resource management crises in the public sector. This is because it reports on these issues in much the same way as it reports other events, producing journalism which fails to act as the fourth estate because it fails to hold public officials to higher standards than other citizens.

The media needs to help people understand that poor service delivery is a result of systemic weaknesses. And these weaknesses result from the way in officials handle resources that actually belong to the public. The stories in our sample lack depth, context and a critical understanding of the way in which individual events are related to a bigger system of public resource management.

For example, when reporting on education infrastructure – the kind of problem
that can result in learners being hurt or even killed – the coverage is consistently about the event. Journalists writing the articles fail to ask why a department with infrastructure problems consistently under-spends its vast budget.

More importantly, who is responsible for such under-spending and mismanagement? Journalists fail to understand where weaknesses in the public resource management system are resulting in maladministration, lack of service delivery and corruption.

Strengthening the media

So how can the media’s contribution towards its role as a “bridge” between government and citizens be strengthened?

One strategy proposed is to build better relationships with civil society organisations that have spent years developing expertise in the area.

Why not draw on the voices of civil society? These are the groups implementing advocacy programmes, conducting research and engaging at a deeper level on how to improve public resource management and curb corruption.

The ConversationBoth the media and civil society need to rethink the way they understand their roles when it comes to social accountability – as well as their roles in relation to each other. By drawing on the strengths of both civil society and the media, the potential for social accountability practice, and through this greater service delivery, can be improved.

Vanessa Malila, Public Service Accountability Monitor: Advocacy Impact Programme Head, Rhodes University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

State of Access to Information in Africa 2017

In celebration of International Right to Information Day in 2015, the African Platform on Access to Information (APAI) Campaign and fesmedia Africa released a research study on the state of access to information in Africa. The research provides a useful snapshot of the state of access to information on the continent while providing clear and simple summaries and infographics, measured against the APAI Declaration of Principles.

The study examines Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

Of the twelve countries examined, ten have specific access to information laws. Only Namibia and Madagascar did not, though both did have an Access to Information Bill in process. This is encouraging – particularly as in our last survey in 2015 three of the countries we looked at, which we have examined again now, only had a Bill in progress (Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania).

The results across the countries examined revealed that the existence of an ATI law is a necessary, but insufficient, step for ensuring a positive access to information environment. Problems with the implementation of ATI laws often cited a lack of awareness of the laws, and weak political will for implementation, as key inhibitors. Both of these factors highlight the important role ATI activists must play in developing the positive discourse around ATI to both encourage users, as well as bureaucratic and administrative actors.

There is also generally a very weak implementation of proactive disclosure, and low levels of utilisation of Internet and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to facilitate access. Both of these indicators make the reality of open government data, in particular, a problematic area on the continent. Proactive disclosure and open data are vital avenues for access – particularly when we consider the non-existence or weakness of laws, coupled with discriminatory access practices.
A further identified trend is that not a single country cited a practice in the domestic contexts that demonstrated a presumption of openness. While some countries have laws, which provide such a presumption – practice does not correspond with this obligation. This is not surprising when we consider the notes on implementation, but it again means that the reality of trying to access information for citizens is still a struggle on the continent.
There are positive trends however – a steadily increasing number of countries with laws, as well as the growing breadth of application of laws. The AU Model Law stands as a real opportunity, particularly given its credence, for advancing
access to information laws. And the APAI Declaration provides a useful, practical standard for helping to capacitate and reinforce positive access to information practices in the region.

You can download the full report STATE OF ACCESS TO INFORMATION IN AFRICA 2017

 

Which Citizens? Which Services? Unpacking Demand for Improved Health, Education, Roads, Water etc

By Ruth Carlitz of the University of Gothenburg. Originally posted on the From Poverty to Power blog.

Clean water. Paved roads. Quality education. Election campaigns in poor countries typically promise such things, yet the reality on the ground often falls short. So, what do people do? Wait for five years and “throw the bums out” if they fail to deliver? For many people, the stakes are too high, and they may have well-grounded doubts about the ability of democracy to deliver anything other than a new set of bums. It’s worth asking, then, what other actions citizens take to improve their lives.

Building on Richard Batley and Claire Mcloughlin’s work on service characteristics as well as my own research on the politics of service delivery in East Africa, I’ve identified various factors affecting the likelihood that people will mobilize for improved public services. These include how frequently people experience (problems with) a given service, their ability to pay for private alternatives, and their expectations about the likelihood of improvements in response to their actions.

To better understand such dynamics, I’ve begun exploring data from the Local Governance Performance Index survey implemented in Malawi in 2016. The survey asked respondents what problems they faced with a range of issues related to service delivery. Those reporting problems were then asked if they turned to someone for help with the problem, who they turned to and why, whether and how the problem was resolved, and whether they were satisfied with the response.

Carlitz fig 1The figure depicts the main actors people turn to for help. In general people are most likely to turn to family members, friends or neighbors, followed by village leaders. Higher-level government officials are in a distant third place, despite the fact that they may hold much more sway when it comes to influencing outcomes on the ground.

Next, we can look at how demographics affect the likelihood of people turning to different actors. Wealthier respondents and those with more education are less likely to turn to friends and family, perhaps because they have the resources to solve problems on their own. This may also reflect their ability to exit the public system (e.g., going to a private clinic when the public health system falls short). On the other hand, such people are more likely to turn to other government officials, and to school officials – suggesting they may feel more empowered to approach authority figures. Gender also matters. Women are less likely to turn to village leaders or any other government officials but more likely to turn to school officials with their problems – perhaps because they are more involved in their children’s education. Finally, civic skills (having attended a community meeting in the past year) is positively associated with seeking assistance from all actors.

In neighboring Tanzania, recent survey data finds that nearly a quarter of all respondents took action to improve service delivery (education, health, or water) in 2015. The chart on the right unpacks what people meant by “taking Carlitz fig 2action.” Overall, Tanzanians were more likely to attend committee meetings than take any other action. We also see that people were generally more likely to raise issues in smaller group settings rather than more publicly (e.g., by calling in to the radio). Finally, note the low proportions of respondents who report tracking things like drug stockouts, teacher attendance, or water point functionality – suggesting that the focus of many citizen monitoring initiatives (report cards, etc.) may not jibe with people’s normal way of doing things.

When it comes to which citizens are taking action, we see similar results to Malawi. Specifically, civic skills are associated with increases in all forms of action-taking. Women on the other hand are less likely to take action across the board. Wealth matters, though only for actions related to education and health. Respondents who are more informed (listen to the radio more frequently) are also more likely to take actions of all kinds, though it is interesting to note that education levels do not demonstrate any relationship with action-taking. Finally, internal efficacy (belief in one’s own ability to make effective demands) is positively associated with actions related to all sectors, while external efficacy (expectations of government responsiveness to such demands) only seems to matter for water.

The paper I prepared for Twaweza’s recent Ideas & Evidence event digs into these relationships in greater detail. While preliminary, it highlights the importance of paying attention to the ways in which service delivery differs twaweza conferenceacross and within sectors. This is critical when it comes to supporting initiatives to enhance the efficacy of citizen engagement, which, despite having generated mixed results to date, continue to benefit from considerable amounts of funding.

As a final thought, practitioners may wish to consider which aspects of service delivery might be amenable to influence. For instance, establishing community groups could create greater scope for users to share information and coalesce around shared needs. Such groups will likely be more effective when they build on existing institutional channels rather than set up parallel structures. This implies taking time to learn about people’s existing routines for problem-solving, and supporting those strategies which seem to be generating more results. In other words, working with the (local) grain.

Public goods and services can also be distributed in such a way that reduces the availability of exit options. For example, a recent study of handpump distribution in Kenya advises against clustering, as people will be more motivated to maintain their local water points if they don’t have ready alternatives.

Finally, it may also be possible to shift expectations about the possibility of improved service delivery — in particular, providing information in a way that facilitates bench-marking. For instance, learning that everyone in the neighboring district has water piped into their houses when you are spending hours each day collecting buckets from a far-away tap could serve as a tipping point

Where does this leave us? For those of us who earn our keep by cranking out conference papers and journal articles (and the occasional blog) there is much work to be done. Hopefully, such work can help to guide donors when it comes to making impactful investments, and practitioners when it comes to making actual impact.

Originally posted on the From Poverty to Power blog.

Could the open government movement shut the door on Freedom of Information?

By: Suzanne J. Piotrowski, Rutgers University Newark ; Alex Ingrams, Tilburg University, and Daniel Berliner, London School of Economics and Political Science

For democracy to work, citizens need to know what their government is doing. Then they can hold government officials and institutions accountable.

Over the last 50 years, Freedom of Information – or FOI – laws have been one of the most useful methods for citizens to learn what government is doing. These state and federal laws give people the power to request, and get, government documents. From everyday citizens to journalists, FOI laws have proven a powerful way to uncover the often-secret workings of government.

But a potential threat is emerging – from an unexpected place – to FOI laws.

We are scholars of government administration, ethics and transparency. And our research leads us to believe that while FOI laws have always faced many challenges, including resistance, evasion, and poor implementation and enforcement, the last decade has brought a different kind of challenge in the form of a new approach to transparency.

Technology rules

The new kid on the block is the open government movement. And despite the fact that it shares a fundamental goal with the more established FOI movement – government transparency – the open government movement threatens to harm FOI by cornering the already limited public and private funding and government staffing available for transparency work.

The open government movement is driven by technology and seeks to make government operate in the open in as many ways as possible.

This includes not just letting citizens request information, as in FOI, but by making online information release an everyday routine of government. It also tries to open up government by including citizens more in designing solutions to public policy problems.

One example of this hands-on approach is through participatory budgeting initiatives, which allows citizens to help decide, via online and in-person information sharing and meetings, how part of the public budget is spent. Thus, while open government and FOI advocates both want government transparency, open government is a broader concept that relies more on technology and encourages more public participation and collaboration.

One type of open government initiative is data portals, such as Data.gov. Governments post lots of data that anyone can access and download for free on topics such as the environment, education and public safety.

Another popular open government reform is crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing asks the general public to come up with ideas to solve government problems or collect data for government projects. Two popular crowdsourcing initiatives in the U.S. are Challenge.gov and citizen science projects, such as the ones for Environmental Protection Agency where citizens are testing water quality.

Advocates of FOI and open government talk about them in similar ways and indeed participate in many of the same initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership. That initiative is a global partnership of countries that develop multiple types of open government practices like anti-corruption programs, open budgets or crowdsourcing events.

Movements complement each other

The open government movement could help FOI implementation. Government information posted online, which is a core goal of open government advocates, can reduce the number of FOI requests. Open government initiatives can explicitly promote FOI by encouraging the passage of FOI laws, offering more training for officials who fill FOI requests, and developing technologies to make it easier to process and track FOI requests.

There’s a lot to the Freedom of Information Act.
U.S. Department of Justice

On the other hand, the relationship between open government and FOI may not always be positive in practice.

First, as with all kinds of public policy issues, resources – both money and political attention – are inherently scarce. Government officials now have to divide their attention between FOI and other open government initiatives. And funders now have to divide their financial resources between FOI and other open government initiatives.

Second, the open government reform movement as well as the FOI movement have long depended on nonprofit advocacy groups – from the National Freedom of Information Coalition and its state affiliates to the Sunlight Foundation – to obtain and disseminate government information. This means that the financial stability of those nonprofit groups is crucial. But their efforts, as they grow, may each only get a shrinking portion of the total amount of grant money available. Freedominfo.org, a website for gathering and comparing information on FOI laws around the world, had to suspend its operations in 2017 due to resources drying up.

We believe that priorities among government officials and good government advocates may also shift away from FOI. At a time when open data is “hot,” FOI programs could get squeezed as a result of this competition. Further, by allowing governments to claim credit for more politically convenient reforms such as online data portals, the open government agenda may create a false sense of transparency – there’s a lot more government information that isn’t available in those portals.

This criticism was leveled recently against Kenya, whose government launched a high-profile open data portal for publishing data on government performance and activities in 2011, yet delayed passage of an FOI law until 2016.

Similarly, in the United Kingdom, one government minister said in 2012, “I’d like to make Freedom of Information redundant, by pushing out so much data that people won’t have to ask for it.”

Open data, no substitute for FOI

But the World Wide Web Foundation, the founder of the global open data ranking system called the Open Data Barometer, reported in 2015 that the United Kingdom government was using its first place ranking in the Barometer to “justify a (government) mandate to review, and allegedly limit, the Freedom of Information Act.”

Open government programs not mandated by law are easier to roll back than legislatively mandated FOI programs. In the U.S., the Trump administration took down the White House open data portal. The move was immediately condemned by open government advocates, to no avail. In other cases, new open government efforts could hinder existing FOI implementation due to a limited number of staff members assigned to transparency work.

One indication of this is a 2015 Mexican reform that increased the categories of information that government agencies were required to post in the online Portal de Obligaciones de Transparencia.

But the job of identifying and digitizing this information was given to agencies’ existing FOI response units – without any additional staff or resources. This led to severe administrative burdens and, in some cases, slower response times to FOI requests. Meanwhile, the updated portal was criticized for a complicated interface and unreliable or missing information.

Is it possible for open government and FOI to avoid the mistakes seen in the Mexican case? Some experts are optimistic. Beth Simone Noveck, who served as the first United States deputy chief technology officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative from 2009 to 2011, suggests that “in the long term, FOIA and open data may themselves converge as we move to a future where all government data sits in a secure but readily-accessible cloud.”

The ConversationSuch a happy convergence would require a commitment by government to have any new or merged systems reflect the goals of both FOI and open government. That would mean a system that both supported existing avenues for transparency while also adding new ones. As scholars, we are unclear which direction government will take and thus, whether the public interest will ultimately be served.

Suzanne J. Piotrowski, Associate Professor, School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA), Rutgers University Newark ; Alex Ingrams, Assistant Professor, Tilburg University, and Daniel Berliner, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Declining institutional trust: the need for the South African state to reconcile itself with the society it governs

Originally posted on the IJR website by Tiaan Meiring

Over the past two years, the trustworthiness of political institutions across the globe have generally taken a hiding. This is best illustrated by the rise in populist leaders across Europe and the USA, many riding the wave of increased anti-establishment sentiment (alongside anti-immigrant nationalism).

Domestically, the South African polity continues to be plagued by multiple divisions: i) structural exclusion that still correlates with apartheid boundaries, ii) vast disparities in income and wealth between different class and racial groupings, iii) perpetual incidences of racist and xenophobic confrontations (and the persistence of their underlying sentiments), iv) high levels of civil unrest and demands for increased resource allocation in a stagnating macro-economic environment, and v) large sections of the governing executive and public institutions that stand accused of large-scale, systemic nepotism, corruption and being ‘captured’ by private interests. Not only does this sketch a society and social groupings that are divided amongst themselves, but it also highlights the lack of trust in a central authority that can act as a unifying, progressive and developmental force. Supposedly, this central authority should be the state envisioned in all of the country’s key legislative- and policy literature, from the Constitution to the National Development Plan.

In a society with such a divisive history, the post-1994 government’s role in state- and nation-building was always going to be crucial to its cohesion and sustainability. Indeed, the post-apartheid government has made significant strides on both aspects, especially in terms of nation-building. Every iteration of the IJR’s South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB) survey has shown that the vast majority of citizens from diverse class and race backgrounds buy into the desirability and possibility of creating one, united South African nation. This is no trivial feat for a collective that was arbitrarily grouped by colonial boundaries and that shares a subsequent history of conquest, violent oppression and resistance.

However, recent institutional failures are disconcerting. Indeed, some argue that the success of nation building project itself is inextricably linked to progress in the building capable state institutions. Service delivery has been a long-standing challenge for a post-apartheid government in the process of building capacity with limited resources. However, more recently service delivery frustrations have increasingly been exacerbated by perceptions of large-scale corruption. Too many public institutions, especially those crucial to economic development (like the state-owned enterprises), have been hollowed out by narrow private interests. In tragic irony, this has occurred under the very pretence of ‘pro-poor’ economic transformation under the guidance of a supposedly ‘developmental state’.

2006 2015
Parliament 6,4 24,9
National Government
4,8 22,8
Local Government 15,0 22,0
Legal System 8,2 21,7

*Trust on provincial government data available up to 2013.

Commensurately, confidence in political institutions have declined significantly in recent years. The table compares the high point of institutional trust in 2006 (when the country’s GDP growth also peaked at 5.6% per year), to the record lows recorded in the latest SARB survey in 2015. It highlights the increased proportion of South Africans that indicate that have no trust at all in key governance institutions. The decline in trust is also not limited to certain institutions, but affects all branches of government (the executive, legislature and judiciary). The political system as a whole thus increasingly suffers from a trust deficit.

This has important implications for both social cohesion and economic development. First, in a society with particular historical fault lines along race and class, there is all the more need for a central arbiter that is widely trusted to formulate and enforce “the rules of the game” on how the society and its economy operates. Perceptions of fairness in the distribution of power and material resources play a fundamental role in a society’s cohesion. In turn, state institutions and -policies are central to the objective of achieving a fair distribution of power and resources, by alleviating exclusions and inequalities. A society consents to the distribution and redistribution of resources based on need (predominantly by means of progressive taxation, labour market policies, and social welfare policies) based on two phenomena

  • the extent to which members regard themselves as bound to the beneficiaries by strong ties of community, and
  • the extent to which they have a widely trusted and efficient central mechanism (i.e. the state apparatus) by which to do so.

Therefore, if the state is not trusted, it cannot address these inequities- leaving a sense of injustice and uncertainty to fester within society.

Second, a term pervasive in South African policy- and economic development literature is that of the “social compact”. It implies a developmental consensus between the major societal stakeholders (business, government, labour and civil society). Such a developmental consensus is required to provide the basis for the durable institutions and policy certainty that would foster inclusive economic growth. Again, the central agent in driving such a developmental consensus must be a widely trusted and capable state. A trusted state is required to bring together these diverse societal stakeholders, provide leadership and ameliorate differences between them, as to produce coherent policy measures. Widespread buy-in, in turn, is required for policies to be implemented.

In short, South Africa’s immediate development path remains uncertain as long the state suffers from a trust deficit amongst the society over which it governs. Measures to address perceived corruption should go a long way to reconciling state-society relations in the short run. Longer term social stability and inclusive development requires something more, however. A sustainable and inclusive long run growth path requires a capable and committed state that enjoys the confidence of its society.

Tiaan Meiring is the Project Officer for the Inclusive Economies project at the IJR.

HOW CAN WE BRIDGE THE GAP BETWEEN CITIZENS AND STATE? PREVIEWING THE OPEN BUDGET SURVEY 2017

Originally posted on the IBP blog here

VIVEK RAMKUMAR, SENIOR DIRECTOR OF POLICY, INTERNATIONAL BUDGET PARTNERSHIP— JAN 04, 2018

On 30 January 2018 the International Budget Partnership (IBP) will release the Open Budget Survey 2017 – the latest round of the world’s only independent and comparable assessment of budget transparency, citizen participation, and independent oversight institutions in the budgeting process.

The Open Budget Survey 2017 findings on the systems and practices that countries have in place to inform and engage citizens — or not — in decisions about how to raise and spend public resources, and on the institutions that are responsible for holding government to account, come at a critical juncture. Around the world, there has been a decline in public trust in government, in part due to instances of corruption but also because of dramatic increases in inequality. In a number of countries, leaders who have disguised their intolerant and reactionary agendas with populist rhetoric have been swept into power by those who’ve been left behind. These political shifts have driven out many government champions of transparency and accountability — especially those from countries in the global south. More broadly across countries, there has been shrinking of civic space, rollbacks of media freedoms, and a crackdown on those who seek to hold government to account, including individual activists, civil society organizations, and journalists.

Because open and accountable public budgeting is at the center of democratic practice and equity, it is the first place we should look for ways to strengthen the interaction between governments and citizens. Ensuring that the budgeting process is characterized by high levels of transparency, appropriate checks and balances, and opportunities for public participation is key to stemming the decline in confidence in government and representative democracy.

In the face of the spread of profound threats to active, informed public participation, and thus the ability of citizens to ensure their governments will pursue policies that improve their lives, the Open Budget Survey 2017 will provide essential data on the state of budget transparency and accountability around the world.

The International Budget Partnership has conducted the biennial Open Budget Survey since 2006 to answer these two fundamental questions for representative government:

  1. Are the basic conditions needed for representative democracy to function — the free flow of information and opportunities for public participation in government decision making and oversight — being met in the budget sphere?
  2. Are empowered oversight institutions in place that can ensure adequate checks and balances?

To answer these questions the Open Budget Survey (OBS) assesses whether national governments produce and disseminate to the public key budget documents in a timely, comprehensive, and accessible manner. In addition, the 2017 survey includes a newly enhanced evaluation of whether governments are providing formal opportunities for citizens and their organizations to participate in budget decisions and oversight, as well as emerging models for public engagement from a number of country innovators. It also examines the role and effectiveness of legislatures and supreme audit institutions in the budget process.

The OBS 2017 is the sixth round of the survey and covers 115 countries across six continents. The coverage of the survey expanded in the 2017 round to include 13 countries for the first time, including some advanced economies such as Japan and Australia, emerging economies such as Côte d’Ivoire and Paraguay, and fragile states such as Somalia and South Sudan.

The survey, which is implemented by independent budget experts in each country and rigorously vetted, provides governments, civil society organizations, and development practitioners with key data and analysis to allow them to identify baselines and trends in country practices and implement or advocate for reforms to close gaps.

In addition to providing the latest findings on open and accountable budgeting, the report for the 2017 survey will also provide suggestions for improving countries’ public finance systems and practices to better ensure more effective and responsive use of public resources to meet public needs.

The Open Budget Survey 2017 could not come at a more critical juncture as we look to reinvigorate democratic practice, re-engage the disaffected, and restore public trust in public institutions. Be sure to see the results at www.openbudgetsurvey.org on 30 January 2018!

 

Using open aid data for accountability in Benin and Tanzania

This post was originally published on the Open Data Charter website, written by Elise Dufief, Research and Monitoring Manager at Publish What You Fund

The government of Tanzania announced in August that it was withdrawing from the Open Government Partnership (OGP) process. This was seen as a dramatic turn of events by some as the previous administration was regarded as a champion of transparency reforms. For others, it highlighted some of the challenges of international transparency initiatives and potentially offered an opportunity to reflect on how these initiatives could better respond to domestic issues and put citizens’ needs at their heart.

Earlier this year, I travelled to Tanzania and Benin and conducted interviews with representatives from government, donors and civil society organisations to investigate some of these issues. I looked into the opportunities and barriers for open aid data to be used as an accountability mechanism for partner country citizens. We at Publish What You Fund published a discussion paper earlier this month detailing the findings of our work.

Publish What You Fund, among other organisations, has argued that the public disclosure of information on development activities by major donors is an essential and necessary step to increase aid effectiveness. Substantial progress has been made at the international level through initiatives such as IATI and individual efforts of some major donors and governments to publish more and better quality development data. However, transparency alone is not sufficient as this information also needs to be used to promote accountability to local actors and respond to citizens’ needs.

We are also not the only ones reflecting on this. Organisations such as Oxfam and Open Contracting are also trying to find a constructive and collaborative way to move the transparency agenda forward and shed light on the necessary conditions for data to be used for accountability.

The new framework developed by Liz Carolan of the Open Data Charter, alongside the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, also helped shape our thinking on the matter. That study found 5 steps connecting open data and accountability: data production, sharing and processing, use and action. We proposed two additions to it: an initial step of identifying information needs and mapping potential users; and to also implement feedback mechanisms once data is made available to create a circular and iterative process from transparency to accountability.

Additionally, five key findings emerged from the interviews conducted in Benin and Tanzania:

1.There is a clear and repeated need for more high quality information on aid and development finance.

This was articulated clearly by donor country offices, government representatives and civil society organisations. Recent efforts to provide more information should be sustained and respond to these needs where possible.

2. International donor-led initiatives are not yet meeting country-level needs.

Tanzania’s withdrawal from the OGP is a manifestation of this. More attention needs to be paid to the national context and dynamics at play between different actors. This would help to identify where and how transparency and open data can help to improve development outcomes and accountability to citizens.

3. Both the development and data landscapes are fragmented and this is increasing.

The international development landscape increasingly involves more actors, more diverse flows and varied interests and objectives. In the absence of effective coordination, this complexity is reflected on the governance of data at country-level, also impeding its potential users.

4. A lack of trust in open data and its applications impedes its use as an accountability tool.

Data accuracy issues aside, examples from Tanzania and Benin demonstrated that more openness and transparency is sometimes met with fear of criticism and misinterpretation of the data. These are serious concerns that should be addressed. Shrinking civil society space and legislative restrictions to the access and use of this information, however, do not appear as viable solutions; they rather contradict the stated aim of the open data agenda.

5. With publication comes responsibility.

All actors have a responsibility to go beyond mere publication to make data truly accessible, usable and used. This requires putting people at the heart of transparency initiatives. It is only by working towards the identification of their needs, understanding their concerns and actively seeking their feedback that adequate responses and meaningful change will be implemented at country level. Data alone does not bring change. People do.

You can read our discussion paper ‘With Publication Brings Responsibility: Using open data for accountability in Benin and Tanzania’ here.

Award-winning journalism hitting hard in social accountability

September 2017 – Malawian journalist Alick Ponje received the inaugural Southern Africa Media Award in Social Accountability Reporting during the Telkom-Highway Africa Awards Gala Dinner held yesterday evening at the 21st annual Highway Africa conference, the world’s largest gathering of African journalists, at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.

Presented by Highway Africa and the Partnership for Social Accountability (PSA) Alliance, the award recognises journalists from Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia whose investigative reporting on social accountability has contributed to improved services in public health and agriculture, particularly in the areas of HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), and food security.

Ponje’s article ‘Private Hospitals Breach Government Pact’, published in the Malawi News, a newspaper of the Times Group, on 4 February 2017, documents how privately run clinics and mobile clinics are breaching their contracts with the Ministry of Health. The clinics order drugs from the district health office and also demand fees from patients for under-five and maternal health services, which are supposed to be free. The situation has reportedly contributed to the depletion of drugs for publically run health facilities.

“Ponje successfully draws upon and weaves together multiple sources of information, including documentation from the district council, input of officials during council proceedings, and interviews with the Ministry of Health,” stated Highway Africa’s Director Chris Kabwato. “His reporting provides insight into a critical issue of social accountability in the use of public resources, which has affected both health budgets as well as the provision of affordable services.”

 “The news media have a critical role to play in holding governments to account for the provision of quality public services,” said Rachel Gondo, Senior Programme Officer at Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM). “Ponje has clearly shed the spotlight on the need for governments to closely monitor and regulate the services provided by privately-run but publically-funded health facilities, both in Malawi and across southern Africa.”

SAfAIDS’ Deputy Director Rouzeh Eghtessadi applauded Ponje for interrogating the provision of sexual and reproductive health services at local clinics. “We need more journalists who are willing to delve into the real-life challenges people face in accessing health services, in an unsensational and discriminatory manner. Without such reporting, mismanagement of scarce public resources goes undetected, resulting in a decline in the quality and effectiveness of healthcare services.”

Ponje, 28, now a special projects reporter at the Nation Publication Group, joined the mainstream media in 2014 after graduating as a teacher from the University of Malawi. “Receiving this award is going to motivate me. It shows that people are recognising the efforts we put into our work. I’m in the early years of my career and this will give me the confidence to work on these issues [of social accountability] going forward,” said Ponje.

Ponje applauded Highway Africa and PSA Alliance for initiating the award. “With awards like this, journalists will be more motivated to track how public funds are being utilised. And, at the end of the day, some of these problems might be history.”

Partnership for Social Accountability Alliance is led by ActionAid International together with Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM), Eastern and Southern Africa Small Scale Farmers’ Forum (ESAFF), and SAfAIDS, and supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

Why isn’t Tech for Accountability working in Africa?

Research is shedding light on the problems inherent with adopting technology for accountability initiatives, and providing recommendations for future projects.

In an article published by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), Indra de Lanerolle, argues that “it seems that civil society organisations (CSOs) and governments often ‘re-invent the flat tyre’: experimenting with new tools without finding out what has been tried (often unsuccessfully) before. They also do not follow best practices in how to soure, develop and test technologies to ensure that these are ‘fit for purpose’. Decision makers should focus on building an effective innovation ecosystem with better links between technologists and accountability actors in both government and civil society to enable learning from success – and mistakes”.

Recommendations include:

  1. Those with responsibilities in creating the innovation ecosystem, including funders, should focus  on building a supportive innovation ecosystem.
  2. Funders should shift their focus from supporting short-term pilots to building institutions capable  of success over time, and invest in strengthening links between initiatives and disseminating  learning resources across the continent.
  3. Those who are leading and managing innovation initiatives – in government and CSOs – should  focus on getting better and smarter at managing the innovation cycle.
  4. Research suggests the following ‘rules of thumb’ will lead to better outcomes: acknowledge what  you do not know, think twice before building a new tool, get a second opinion, test technologies in  the field, plan for failure, budget to iterate, and share what you learn.

To find out more and read the full article: Why isn’t tech for accountability working in Africa?

 

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