Stories from the field
Cross-sector efforts and social accountability’s new agenda (Part 5)
Social accountability’s future has to climb a steep hill. It has to figure out how to transition from ‘going alone’ to ‘being embedded in cross-sector change making.
The sectoral agendas already have good entry points for social accountability. Practitioners working in the middle do not always need to put participation on the agenda. It is often already accepted (particularly in sectors like healthcare). They start from a different place – what role can social accountability play and what capacity can it bring when addressing a sector’s delivery challenges (quality and equality)? The answer is many.
The switch between civil society going alone and embedding social accountability as part of a broader effort suddenly makes social accountability a much more obvious choice for sectors. Paradoxically, it is also a tougher sell for those social accountability practitioners to go with “business as usual” pitches. We continue offering tea and coffee to customers who know and want to buy chocolate from us. And there are many chocolate makers among social accountability practitioners!
Thinking of social accountability through the lens of bureaucrats, relationships, and sectors also suggests what kinds of research, learning and evidence we need to identify promising ways to work with others, and to break through the current bottlenecks many organizations face.
For instance, the new OECD-DAC criterion coherence – which aims to better capture synergies, linkages, partnership dynamics, and complexity – could be instrumental. We could ask in more research and evaluations how do civil society led interventions plus public sector interventions support short-term collaborative problem solving at the frontline, medium term service delivery system strengthening and long term sustainability of the results of choice (empowerment of specific actors, trust building, other sectoral outcome, etc.)? Many actors are learning about these issues tacitly. We rarely document the lessons or systematically analyze cases (for exceptions see, this evaluation). To do so, first we need to create incentives to talk and report about issues we are not used to discussing with outsiders.
Or think about the plausible causes and consequences of this shift towards the managerial and programmatic space between national politicians and people. It dictates the sorts of relationships practitioners were talking about and how we engage differently in different sectors. Looking at the politics of education, healthcare, and other services, broadly speaking, we suspect that there may be some identifiable reasons for the turn towards the unglamorous among social accountability practitioners. For example, Hickey, Hossain and Hackman contend that school level governance matters, especially if connected to key stakeholders in the sectors’ subnational governance, to ensure that accountability mechanisms at the frontline contribute to learning. This is an important insight to be able to understand plausible synergies between technical reforms and collaborative social accountability that brings parents to schools in places such as Morocco, Mongolia, and Moldova, as well as how different actors become active citizens together and transform education systems in Kenya.
Other decentralization and devolution reforms assume that citizens will engage, and power relations will not affect their functioning, but social accountability when targeted at the right level can address asymmetries of power and strengthen delivery systems. In Indonesia, Wahana Visi was able to mobilize resources for health by targeting the use of village funds available in law and practice, rather than the more scarce discretional national budget. According to evaluations, in the DRC, provincial level work in Sud Kivu can explain the activation of village health committees and their catalytic role to mobilize communities beyond the sector – going to the “national state” would make little sense. In Ghana, Social Enterprise Development Foundation of West Africa (SEND) was able to unlock national resources to address local health and education problems when it drew on the know-how of national bureaucrats. In these cases, civil society was effective partly because they calibrated and differentiated tactics to make the right demands on the right public actors who have the authority and responsiveness to introduce change from promising entry points, rather than engage in burdensome coordinating processes to tackle many levels at once in complex multi-level systems. The point is that what matters is not the number of levels that an initiative should tackle but identifying which levels have actual levers. Plus, groups have to figure out how the lever works. In these cases, levers were unresponsive to “glamorous” idealized versions of advocacy campaigns. Relationship building, donor brokering, and staff rotation were more effective ways to open and sustain dialogue and action. In other words, officials were responsive because civil society was responsive to where and how the system works first.
New actors and spaces are becoming central for effective social accountability practice thanks to broader sectoral and governance dynamics. Monitoring, research and evaluation could do a better job to help us discuss and navigate multi-level systems of service delivery and complex reform efforts – even if practice looks slightly different in different places – if we are to harnesses the actors, institutional entry points and reform efforts that exist on the ground (as opposed to ignoring or bypassing them ).
To be sure, there have been some efforts to think and look into so-called “accountability ecosystems.” We could build on those ideas. However, the discussion so far has been rather exclusive by design. Substantively, it has been focused on big “P” politics. The prioritization of accountability institutions through public financial management systems over service delivery entry points may be productive for some groups and contexts but not many others (also see here).
We need more operationally relevant research that focuses on how a broader group of organizations unblock bottlenecks by muddling through (or by going a different route). We often end up caught in dialogues of the deaf between abstract ideals, rather than focus on practice.It would also help to focus on boundary conditions of alternative approaches, respecting that one paradigm does not fit all. In the umbrella of social accountability, and social accountability in the middle, many approaches and ideas have to and should be able to coexist.
Civil society groups have the challenging task to learn by doing, know who these actors are, where they sit, how the answer changes by sector, and which allies may bolster their efforts or not. The more is not necessarily the merrier – where resources are limited and transaction costs of coordination high. This information matters to understand the boundary conditions for alternative strategies. Funders and intermediary organizations could also benefit from more systematic insights as to the conditions under which they should target scarce material and non-material resources (including power, people’s time, energies and hopes) in certain spots, or vying to go bigger in terms of horizontal and vertical civil society coordination and pressure.
It is time to course-correct and close the gap with practice. We can stand on the shoulders of research beyond our niche conversation in a number of ways. The mountain is easier to climb when we are willing to cite new mental models, disciplines, and authors. Want to share pieces that can help us build interdisciplinary research from outside social accountability to our thought process? Let us know!
This blog post series reflects the views of the author. Thanks to Tom Aston, David Jacobstein, Maria Poli, Sol Gattoni, Courtney Tolmie, Jeff Thindwa, Marine Perron, and Jamila Delly Musa Abdulkadir for input and suggestions.
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Read also: Boundaries, relationships, and incremental change, by Thomas Aston
Capitalizing on the ability of civil society organizations to collect information from users of public services about the state of public service delivery, and effectively channeling this information to decision-makers in government and parliament can contribute to evidence-based policymaking, and, ultimately, to improved public services.
Collaborative social accountability focuses on solving governance and service delivery challenges by convening, capacitating, and enabling purpose-led collaboration among those stakeholders that can evoke change in a particular policy area.
What does it take to make meaningful and lasting civil society-government collaboration happen?
Social accountability tools can be adopted in the most unlikely places, including those characterized as being hierarchical and where there are no existing accountability processes.