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Transparency & Social Accountability: Where’s the Magic?

Kate Henvey DeMoss's picture

Are citizens receiving the greatest development impact for their development dollar? This is the basic principle at the heart of International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), a voluntary, multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to improve the transparency of aid, giving citizens in developing and donor countries the information they need to hold their governments to account for use of those resources.

Last week, as Publish What You Fund (PWYF) released their second Aid Transparency Index (ATI), which assesses adherence of the world’s major donors to their IATI commitments, the question turned from one of how institutions performed on the index to one of how aid transparency enables effectiveness, accountability and social change in real terms.

Kicking off the conversation, Duncan Edwards of the Institute of Development Studies challenged the basic assumption that because better data/information is accessible, citizens, governments and institutions will use it in their decision making processes. The common narrative in open development projects is flawed, Edwards claims, it simply cannot be proven that to “provide access to data/information –> some magic occurs –> we see positive change.” 

AidData, along with several other voices, countered that while open data is certainly not sufficient to provoke positive change it is a necessary baseline to catalyze better development outcomes. 

Transparency can only lead to greater social accountability if citizens understand what data means and if there is genuine public debate about a country’s development spending. The panelists at the October 24th Brookings Institution launch of the 2013 ATI report suggested how transparency can catalyze positive change:

Government Planning—Hector Corrales from the Honduran Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation demonstrated how the publication of IATI standard data by donor institutions has allowed the Honduran government to map which areas of the country are most in need of aid and what sectors are most in demand. Ultimately, Honduras plans to have a central repository where aid proposals can be submitted by citizens and donor institutions can select proposals according to their institution’s mandates and priorities.

More important than citizen engagement in development planning is building social accountability for government spending, argued Caroline Anstey, former Managing Director of the World Bank. While looking at donors’ aid is very important, citizens should see how their national government is spending all money, not just aid money. More transparent budget management is a significant role of the World Bank Group’s role in the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), which seeks to help signatories go beyond mere reporting to better management of resource wealth.

Donor-Funded Projects—Sheila Herrling of the Millennium Challenge Corporation argued that rather than simply disclosing data and information, donor institutions must operationalize transparency—ensuring policies and technical decision-making go “hand-in-hand.” Data should drive decisions at every step of the process from creating institutional strategies to selecting projects to monitoring and evaluation. Anstey added that what is missing from the chain from donor to disbursement in the field is real-time feedback from citizens. In the private sector, companies continually ask customers what they want, but in development this tends not to happen, not by donors and not by governments. Looking to improve aid delivery to citizens is a critical part of aid effectiveness.

Demand Side—On the demand side, institutions must harness what entrepreneurs are already doing to use data, Robert Goldberg from the U.S. Department of State noted. Institutions can spend a tremendous amount of resources creating ICT platforms that are never used by citizens. During the recent World Bank Annual Meetings, Vinay Bhargava, from the Partnership for Transparency Fund, noted a successful example of social accountability in a conditional cash transfer immunization program where community awareness programs on benefits was tailored to the local context. Danny Sriskandarajah from CIVICUS also noted an example where the organization, Section 27, that worked with parents to develop a mobile service that allowed them to notify officials when textbooks in impoverished areas were not in the classrooms.

At the World Bank, the 2010 Policy on Access to Information, opened the institution to a world of innovative Open Initiatives including— Mapping for Results, Open Finances, Open Data, Open Government Data, Open Knowledge Repository, Open Contracting, Knowledge Platforms and Hackathons to name a few. These Open Initiatives aim to close the feedback loop, encouraging citizen engagement, social accountability and ultimately greater aid effectiveness by making information and data freely available and searchable.

But where’s the magic? How can the Bank and other donor institutions be better at catalyzing transparency to achieve greater social accountability? The challenge for the Bank and other donor institutions is to operationalize transparency initiatives under a coherent framework focused on better aid planning both by donors and governments, as well as focused engagement with citizens on what works on the demand side. While the performance of donor aid transparency on a standard index such as ATI is critical, the real magic occurs when focus is shifted to how aid transparency can be used to increase social accountability so that citizens are able to hold their governments to account for use of those resources. 

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Hi Kate,

Great post!

Just to clarify - I DO believe that access to data and information is an essential element and, similarly to Brad Parks and Samantha Custer from AidData, firmly believe that open data and information is critical in underpinning decision making at every level. My main thrust is that this on its own is not enough to bring about change. We need to develop our understanding of the how "the magic" might happen and evolve our work to increase our impact.

So i would argue that essentially my blog post is making the same point rather than counter to Brad and Samantha - data IS important, but there are many other elements which are also important. We really need to do be doing a lot more to understand how we get to the usage and action end of things.

Equally we need to utilise our increasing understanding of what is happening to be able to demonstrate the impact of "open".


Submitted by Sandor Sipos on

Hi Kate and Duncan,

I think the 'magic' goes beyond us and we will see more of it over time. Our 'Open' is making available, in a steady, reliable and usable way a global public good to enable and empower the public to produce that 'magic'. On the first place, we should be held accountable precisely for producing (and validating) this public good. We should then be able and open to responding to new initiatives that arise from the increased data and information in our operations. But we should be clear about the roles, accountability and attribution. Producing, validating and making available open data is a value in itself from where we should not step back even if the 'magic' disappoints in the beginning and even if it costs us a lot to upkeep. Instead we should rephrase the question: How (and who) can we help the public make better use of the data and information?

We should also monitor and measure the uptake and use of our open data in view of both being better informed about its impact and in order to produce it more efficiently and effectively - for which we are clearly responsible.

WBG (and ex-IDS Leverhulme Fellow 1988-89)

Hi Kate, Having had many conversations with Duncan (referenced in the first part of the post), I am pretty sure he is not "against open" but rather pointing out that we need to think far beyond the tech and the data to a number of other elements that make for effective citizen engagement and accountability work. These are often not sufficiently considered in theories of change because people get caught up with the tech and the data. It seems that we need a better understanding of how these things work, and we need more evidence on what approaches are effective.

Submitted by Andrew Ecclestone on

It's worth reading the discussion about transparency that took place during this livechat on the Guardian. See, for example, the comments I made about Onora O'Neill"s work on transparency. Basically, she says simple disclosure of information or data is insufficient to achieve what is claimed for transparency. What is needed is communication of the relevant information to the target audience in a context-appropriate manner. Then you stand a better chance of achieving the results that some may claim logically from simply disclosing data/information. A good example is the small print of a travel insurance policy you're considering buying: it may be 'transparent', in the sense that it discloses all the provisions and caveats, but how many people read a page full of 8 point type?

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