In the GPSA, we – the grantees, partners and staff – have been discussing a lot recently about the extent to which the social accountability field is ready to think politically and strategically. One of the questions we asked ourselves was: If international development partners created a space for the implementation of strategic social accountability, how would the field respond?

The social accountability field has been growing rapidly for more than a decade. Civil Society Organizations have been experimenting with a range of technical tools (see here and here) from social audits to participatory budgeting.

For the GPSA, social accountability – or citizen engagement with policymakers and service providers in monitoring and assessing government performance – provides feedback on and enables citizens to voice demand for improved service delivery, thereby contributing to greater development effectiveness. See here

Researchers have begun to analyze what social accountability approaches show promise and which ones we need further refining. The evidence of  the benefits of social accountability interventions is mixed at best – an unsatisfying situation after so many years of hard work (see herehereherehereherehereherehere and here). However, the experience from the field  taught us a great deal about when social accountability is effectively generated (h/t Jonathan Fox).

In short, although there may not be an exact recipe that guarantees successful social accountability, we have learnt why so many projects fail: Social accountability’s promises have not been fulfilled, in large part, because the technical tools we have been using do not take account of the political nature of accountability processes.  Holding public officials accountable is a contested and uncertain process, and therefore ignoring public officials’ incentives poses large risks to the success of a social accountability project. There is an urgent need to evaluate more systematically the role of political processes, context, multiple tactics, and learning – what we and others call ‘strategic social accountability’.

Political Economy for Strategic Social Accountability

Political economy analysis is concerned with the interaction of political and economic processes in a society. It focuses on power and resources, how they are distributed and contested in different country and sector contexts between different groups and individuals, and the processes that create, sustain, and transform these relationships over time (see here, also see hereherehere, and here).

Applying political economy savviness to social accountability approaches means much more than writing up a map of stakeholders and institutional and governance arrangements. For the GPSA (see application template here), strategic social accountability is a process encompassing:

(a) the use of a combined set of linked, fit for purpose tactics, mechanisms and “tools” including formal (mandated by laws and regulations) and informal (set up or organized by CSOs and citizen groups themselves)

(b) the choice of mechanisms and tools is grounded on several considerations. These include a cost-benefit analysis of alternatives, an analysis of the political-institutional context, an assessment of needs and problems regarding the service delivery chain or the management process, among others, as well as of “entry points” for introducing the process, and of existing capacities and incentives of the actors to be engaged, including service users, CSOs, service providers and public sector institutions.

Ideally, all these stakeholders learn from each other (and even work together) to figure out options in terms of strategies and solutions and put them to work. CSOs drive strategic social accountability interventions, but are by no means lone actors.

We are encouraged by the potential of a strategic approach to social accountability, recognizing the constraints of politics but also embracing the opportunities provided by a detailed understanding of local incentives for  collaboration (see box to the side).  But what constitutes a politically-aware strategic approach to social accountability? How do you recognize a strategic social accountability effort when you see one?

Ideally, in evaluating social accountability proposals, we would look into the specific chain of actions through which an organization expects its resources to lead to realistic, measurable outcomes. You can call this description a theory of change (e.g. here and here) or a “super-duper impact plan.” The description should identify the assumptions underlying the organization’s vision as well as the outputs. It should also outline the key contextual factors expected to influence the effects of its inputs on outcomes within particular countries and sectors. If the description outlines how each of these elements adapts to the political factors that impact implementation and the prospects for generating social accountability, then the theory of change can be said to be `strategic’.

Assessing the Field’s Preparedness

The aim of assessing the field’s preparedness for strategic social accountability in the six-part series of GPSA dissemination notes we’ve prepared is to stimulate a conversation about the key components of strategic social accountability. In reviewing projects submitted to the GPSA, we distilled four strategic components that are relevant for the broader field:

A. Strategies that harness the context

B. Strategies that are responsive and multi-pronged

C. Strategies that pick partners and allies that bolster your social accountability efforts

D. Strategies that employ adaptive learning

The systematic evidence about the impacts of strategic social accountability interventions is limited. Often, reviews of evidence suggest that the field has not done as well as promised because it failed to even think about applying these strategic recommendations. Yet, some colleagues argue that the constraints to thinking strategically have to some extent been self-imposed: international development partners and their standard operating procedures often discourage civil society groups from applying strategic insights, let alone reward them for pushing the field into potentially more productive directions (arguments: hereherehere and here).

Creating Space for Strategic Social Accountability

We would like to reflect on how we can change the approach: what would happen if international development partners created a space for the implementation of strategic social accountability? Would the field be ready and primed for the challenge? Where do we need to focus our support efforts to encourage more strategic social accountability initiatives?

To kick off this conversation we put together a six-part note series. Note 1 briefly presents the Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) and explains why and how the GPSA’s application process and the more than 600 proposals it received can help us to think about strategic social accountability.  Notes 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 use the data in the GPSA applications to reflect on the field’s preparedness for the four key components of strategic social accountability: i) strategies that harness the context; ii) strategies that are responsive and multi-pronged; iii) strategies that pick partners and allies that bolster social accountability efforts; and iv) strategies that employ adaptive learning in the social accountability field. The final  note concludes with some ideas on the future and next steps.

Dissemination Notes Series

Here we introduce a six-part series of notes that discuss whether the social accountability field is already primed with the knowledge and capabilities to design, implement, fund, and learn from strategic interventions. This series presents results from systematic analysis of more than 600 applications submitted to the Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA). We’re starting off with a note that explains why and how we started to think about strategic social accountability as a result of the GPSA’s grant applications process.

Note 1: Creating Space for Social Accountability: The Global Partnership for Social Accountability (PDF)

Note 2: Strategies That Harness the Context to Generate Social Accountability (PDF)

Note 3: Responsive and Multi-Pronged Strategies (PDF)

Note 4: Picking Partners and Allies that Bolster Your Social Accountability Efforts (PDF)

Note 5: Adaptive Learning (PDF)

Note 6: What Next for Strategic Social Accountability? (PDF)

Note 7: Supporting Politically Smart Social Accountability (PDF)

Note 8: How are GPSA’s Partners Thinking About Scale and Trying to Achieve It? (PDF)

The Note Series has been developed by Florencia Guerzovich (Consultant to the GPSA Knowledge Component, and Maria Poli (GPSA Team Member, with support from Jonathan Philips (