We are increasingly—and more openly than ever—grappling with what to do about the problems of politics and government accountability. Much emphasis and faith seem to be placed on the role of information and transparency. Using information interventions to enable civil society to hold their governments accountable seems so eminently sensible that it’s become an end in and of itself, an “already known” and ticked box. Is it?
Community radio in Africa, for example, has been supported as a particularly powerful vehicle to inform and enable the poorest citizens; yet surprisingly, we have no real evidence about its impact on government accountability for public services. That is, until now.
My colleague Phil Keefer  and I find the impact of radio access does not operate through greater government accountability. To examine the issue, we gathered new and unique data from Benin, a country which serves as a “natural laboratory” in village access to community radio. It also has relatively greater political freedoms and competitive political processes than several others in the African region, and therefore a plausible setting in which to undertake such work. The data show that government inputs into public education, the only source of education services available to the majority of Benin’s citizens, are no different in villages with greater access to community radio. This is particularly surprising because we collected our data at a time following large increases in public education spending, so that if radio influenced people’s ability to demand better public services, there would be scope to capture its impact on availability of government-provided inputs to public schools. Instead, radio programming persuades households to invest more private resources into the education of their children, leading to higher literacy rates in villages with greater radio access.
This result from Benin is similar to what I learnt in working with Pratham , an influential civil society organization in India, and the ALJ Poverty Action Lab . We found that information and advocacy campaigns had no impact on community monitoring and the performance of village public schools; yet surprisingly, it had a large impact on community activity outside the public school system. Village youth volunteered to hold private remedial classes, parents enrolled their children to class capacity, and the children made dramatic improvements in learning.
Such findings of private citizen participation are, of course, inspiring, but they leave open a billion-dollar question: how do we make public resources less wasteful and more effective in delivering development?
Radio’s lack of impact on government accountability in Benin contrasts with demonstrated impact of mass media in the U.S. and in India. Phil and I argue that this is because the political and economic context within which media operates in Benin, unlike those in the U.S. and India, neither encourages media to provide "accountability" information nor facilitates citizen mobilization in response to that information. Investments in building capacity of media alone may not be sufficient to achieve greater accountability. Instead, to make public spending more effective, we may need to invest more in specifically-designed information that address the underlying political incentives for poor government performance.
The lack of impact of our grassroots mobilization interventions at the village-level in India can be contrasted with the results of other work with more success in changing the behavior of public agents. In ongoing work reviewing the varied evidence on information, transparency, and civil society action, Shanta Devarajan, Mike Walton and I are attempting to provide some arguments—hypotheses really—about what successful interventions depend on. One of our emerging conclusions is that accountability failures of lower-level bureaucrats and providers are more likely to be addressed when higher-level politicians or powerful state actors endorse the information, signaling to civil society that their action on its basis will be taken seriously.
But what information enables citizens to hold higher-level politicians accountable, for perhaps the larger resource allocation decisions taken at those levels? There are far fewer instances of such information interventions that have been credibly evaluated. We don’t really know, for example, whether institutions for budget transparency work in the political contexts of many of our client countries. We don’t know whether other types of information interventions suggested by theories of political accountability—such as those designed to spur yardstick competition across political jurisdictions on the basis of performance improvements—can overcome clientelist politics. Some civil society organizations  are working with researchers to begin to fill this gap. Yet there is scope to do much more, especially in the context of institutions like ours that work in larger policy-making arenas.
Can we be at these front-lines to generate credible knowledge on what works, when, why, and how to scale it up? Can we be more experimental and learning-oriented in our operations and less sanguine that we already have the answers?