The debate around social accountability is not short of energy, enthusiasm or ideas. It has gone through many phases over the last 20 years and has become increasingly sophisticated as its evidence base has grown, a trend reflected in discussions at the recent ODI-World Bank conference on “New directions in governance”. Despite this progress is being held back by a lack of clarity on some issues and a narrow focus on the demand side. This blog argues that we need to broaden our thinking beyond a focus on civil society and citizens alone to engage much more strongly and strategically with the state and its divisions, aims and capacity.
One basic issue that raises tensions is whether or not social accountability works – a question that can be endlessly misinterpreted. Often when we talk about social accountability not working what we are actually saying is that external projects to support social accountability have not delivered what we expected them to deliver. Without this caveat, debate on what works can raise hackles amongst activists and SA proponents as it is taken as an attack on the idea of social accountability itself. In fact there is broad agreement that social accountability is a good thing in principle and can produce results. However the need to assert this point of principle is should not hold back attempts to identify where evidence is still needed – particularly on whether external agents can contribute to SA, how they can do so and under what circumstances.
We also need to be clearer on what we expect social accountability to work for. Some see it as a problem solving mechanism – a way to make sure grievances are answered, to reduce corruption and to improve the delivery of public goods and services (what the forthcoming World Bank framework calls instrumental impacts). Others are much more ambitious – seeing social accountability as a way to create movements that can transform existing power structures and make them more open and democratic (institutional impacts in the WB schema). Current policy thinking often takes the view that these aims are not mutually exclusive and may, in fact, be mutually reinforcing. While this idea is appealing, it can blur the lines between these two aims and obscures the trade-offs that might lie between them. This brings me to what I call naïve social accountability, in that a strong strain of optimism can encourage confusion between one aim and the other. The recent crackdown on corruption in China provides an interesting example: Advocates for social accountability point to citizens’ protesting and publishing allegations of corruption online – and the investigations and convictions that follow – and argue this shows the power of ICTs and social accountability to empower citizens. Here we undoubtedly have a positive instrumental outcome – less corruption is certainly a good thing – but the reasons behind it have less to do with the power of citizens and more to do with the power and motivations of the ruling Communist Party. By selectively cracking down on officials who are out of favour with the hierarchy it can reduce corruption that creates economic inefficiencies and also improves the public image of the Party. This causal mechanism is not a problem if we are mainly interested in reducing corruption and improving immediate living conditions. However, we must recognise that, for the moment at least, this is not the same thing as changing the balance of power between state and citizens.
Another major issue that this example highlights is the way in which we tend to think about information, citizen demands and the state. There is a tendency to focus mainly on citizens – what information do they need, how can they access it, how can ICTs and mobile technology help, what do they need to organise and make noise? Little time or energy has been spent thinking about the other half of the social accountability question – the state that we expect to react. The key element of the Chinese example is not the citizens that gave information but the fact that there were divisions within the state that had the capacity and incentives to respond to the information. For every story of information acted upon there are many where officials simply ignore the noise of campaigners, or select scapegoats and continue to act with impunity.
To make progress we need to look at the state in a more nuanced way and understand more about how it links with society. The “accountability sandwich” approach advocated by Fox and others has clear merits here – a combination of citizens pressing up and the state pressing down as in the China case – but we need to understand better how to engage different actors in different contexts. Forthcoming work from ODI and CARE has found that in states that are strong and hierarchical, social accountability programmes must often work through the state and may be co-opted by it – producing improvements in service delivery but not transformative change. In contrast, for states that are weaker or less coherent, the most important aspects may be the ability of some social accountability tools to bring the supply and demand side together at a local level to improve understanding and solve problems collectively. This has implications for our tendency to assume that social accountability begins with civil society. In fact, in some contexts the state or local government may be best placed and in still others local chiefs or politicians. What this work and others suggest is that to move the social accountability agenda forward we must be realistic in our aims, broaden our thinking on means and be strategic in the alliances we seek.