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Is It Time for a New Paradigm for "Citizen Engagement"? The Role of Context and What the Evidence Tells Us

Simon O'Meally's picture

The meteoric rise of "citizen engagement"

Almost all development agencies promote some form of citizen engagement and accountability, often framed as 'voice', 'demand-side governance', 'demand for good governance' or 'social accountability'.   The current World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, recently put it that, "citizen voice can be pivotal in providing the demand-side pressure on government, service providers, and organizations such as the World Bank that is needed to encourage full and swift response to citizen needs".  There has, in turn, been a mushrooming of useful operational guidance on different "tools" for social accountability - i.e. steps, inputs and methodologies - that guide discrete interventions, ranging from citizen score cards to participatory expenditure tracking.

One might, however, be forgiven for thinking that some of the debates on citizen engagement need an injection of realism; especially as contextual factors can make or break a "tool's" implementation.  A review of experience to date would be one good place to start.

This blog focuses on the poorly understood area of how context provides constraints and opportunities for social accountability to take root and achieve its objectives.  It summarizes preliminary work – called Mapping Context for Social Accountability – which draws on a global analysis of the, albeit very patchy, evidence-base (here and here).  It is an input to a stream of work on social accountability in the World Bank's Social Development Department.  

In a nutshell, this work calls for a shift – in some ways a (very) radical shift – in the way social accountability is often operationalized.  In so doing, it also broadly supports growing calls to rethink the old paradigm on governance for development (like here).  Let me walk you through its main contentions.


Why context?

Social accountability can broadly be understood as a range of actions and strategies, beyond voting, that societal actors – namely citizens – employ to hold the state to account.  It is, however, increasingly recognized that:

  • there are major challenges associated with transplanting one model from one context to another;
  • the "tools-based" approach risks obscuring the underlying social and political processes that really explain why a given tool is, or is not, effective; and,
  • there has been a tendency to be overly optimistic about the potential of "demand-side" governance approaches to solve difficult and context-specific development problems.

There is nothing too radical here – most of us would agree that 'context matters'! Yet there is a long way to go for our knowledge and practice to catch up.  Our understanding of how context matters remains limited; and there are few systematic attempts to help practitioners tailor 'demand-side' initiatives to contextual variation.  

This report begins addressing this Herculean task by developing a framework to help us better think through, analyse and tailor to context.  Rather than hard statements, it often presents tentative hypotheses. Let's turn to a very brief summary (please see the report for a more nuanced discussion!).

What contextual variables matter? Six domains

Let's suppose you want to understand the contextual opportunities for promoting social accountability in your context…where do you start?  

There are no easy answers but – based on what we think we know – the work tries to nail down six critical contextual domains. (In reality, these domains are overlapping but useful to separate for programming purposes).

Domain 1: Civil Society

The first domain, unsurprisingly, is 'civil society' (CS).  The more difficult question is: what characteristics of CS seem to matter most?  What seems critical is the extent to which CS is able to exert an influence over often-contested and politicized decision-making.  Two key points are worth highlighting.  First, CS influence is not only shaped by its technical capacities – it is shaped by its 'political capabilities', especially the capacity to build change-minded alliances across society and with pro-reform state actors.  Second, CS is not always a force for change, (contrary to the way it can be portrayed); it is tangled up in the political economy and can embody both pro- or anti-reform forces.

Domain 2: Political Society

The second domain, political society (PS), is comprised of politicians, political parties, public servants and so on. Fundamentally, the prospects for effective citizen engagement are shaped by the extent to which PS actors and state institutions are able, and have the 'political will' to, facilitate and respond to citizen demands.  This domain is critical – some reviews note that "demand" alone can be a weak driver of change, and that such initiatives have often been most effective when supported by top-down state responsiveness and capacity (even if citizen engagement may play a role in low-capacity environments). In short, PS is as important as (if not more so than!) CS, especially because that is where the power to enforce sanctions – a fundamental aspect of accountability – can often be found. 

Domain 3: Inter-Elite Relations – the Political Settlement

A third domain relates to 'inter-elite relations' and this is where the framework starts getting a bit more complex and fluid.  As noted, 'political will' is critical yet this vague concept needs unpacking if it is to influence our choice of social accountability intervention. One way to do so is to examine the power-sharing bargain – or 'political settlement' – between powerful elites, which underpins any state. The character of the political settlement would shape elite incentives, and 'room for maneuver', to respond to the demands of certain groups.  One report notes that: "If…leaders…do not have incentives to deliver on development, putting [civil society] pressure on bureaucratic state agencies is likely to have limited…effects".

Domain 4: State-Society Relations

A fourth domain can be broadly termed 'state-society relations'.  Three aspects emerge as critical: (1) the form of 'social contract' around specific goods and entitlements – to make meaningful accountability claims there must be an assumption about the responsibilities of the state and entitlements of the citizens; (2) the effectiveness and inclusiveness of existing formal and informal accountability mechanisms; and, (3) the character of pro- and anti-reform state-society networks on specific issues.

Domain 5: Intra-Society Relations

A fifth domain relates to the power relations in society – 'intra-society relations'.  What seems to matter most is the degree of inequality and social exclusion in a given context.  These dynamics present barriers to people participating in, and deriving benefits from, demand-side activities.  Social accountability might reproduce existing inequalities and the better-off tend to participate more effectively in such activities, (unless the initiative is rooted in a strong 'pro-poor' orientation). 

Domain 6: Global Dimensions

Although a number of initiatives have a 'local' orientation, many accountability failures are shaped by global drivers.  Some key global drivers include: (1) donor-state relations – aid flows can undermine, or support, the forging of development accountability; (2) global power-holders – Multi-national corporations are increasingly the target of 'social accountability'; or, (3) international economic processes – such as trade in illicit goods, which provide enablers for corruption.

But the intervention can also shape the context!

So these are the domains.  But to complicate matters further, the context does not seem to linearly dictate what is possible.  Interventions can also shape the context, depending on how well they are designed.  Three design features seem to matter most:

  • Work across the supply/demand divide. The strength of networks linking pro-accountability state and society actors are critical.
  • Build on what is already there.  Embedding initiatives in 'organic' pressures for change and in local (formal and informal) institutions and narratives of accountability is important.
  • Communicate relevant information effectively.  Information needs to be high-quality and relevant to both the accountability problem in question and local citizen capacity and incentives.  However, information is not sufficient - action (and often sanctions) is needed.

The figure, above, tries to succinctly capture all the above!

So what? Toward practical implications

So what does this mean for practitioners? This may all seem a little dizzying and we know of the perennial challenge of bridging research with practice.  There are no ‘magic bullet’ solutions; but the report does try to distil some of the major practical implications.  Here are some of the headlines.

  • Context shapes the effectiveness of citizen demand, but sometimes in unpredictable ways. Some contexts will be more enabling of SAcc.  But there are few recipes-for-success because SAcc shapes, and is shaped by, the context in sometimes unexpected ways.  So we should: (i) undertake careful analysis and tailoring to context, especially to 'do no harm'; and (ii) adopt an adaptable 'learning by doing' approach with longer-term planning horizons.
  • Think "politically" in design and implementation.  Power and politics seem critical in making or breaking social accountability.  'Technical' approaches – such as formal institutional reforms or the so-called bureaucratic 'short route of accountability' – tell only part of the story.  We need to assess the 'political economy of demand' in a context before engaging.  Also, 'social' and 'political' accountability are rarely separate spheres and the synergies should not be ignored; voter education programs or linking initiatives with – or at least not undermining – reform-minded political movements may have some purchase.
  • Facilitate pro-accountability collective action that cuts across the supply/demand divide.  Citizen demand alone is often not sufficient nor always a force for positive change - much depends on which 'citizen' you talk too!  The simple principal/agent and supply/demand divides, too, are not always the most relevant guide to action. In practice, this implies: (i) invest in network-building approaches to link pro-reform elements of state and society; (ii) focus less on actors' technical capacity and more on their socio-political capabilities, such as constituency-building, political literacy or advocacy; (iii) resource CS more carefully to 'do no harm', as donor funding to CS may not always be beneficial; and, (iv) increase citizen activism only alongside parallel efforts to build the state's developmental effectiveness. Also, changing accountability does not always have to hinge on adversarial relations – what is sometimes needed is for different stakeholders to work together effectively.  While true, the report tends to see meaningful accountability reforms as a contested process that involves changing the balance of power between pro- and anti-reform forces in state and society.
  • Build on what is already there.  Experience gives weight to the now loud calls to go beyond "best practice" and to pay greater attention to "best fit" (even if the "best fit" agenda still needs to be fleshed out more).  More concretely, this means supporting citizen engagement, however incrementally, in areas where there are organic pressures for change and ensuring that it builds on local narratives of accountability and the 'social contract'.  What may result have been termed "practical hybrids" – where modern bureaucratic and formal standards combine with, or adapt to, locally-accepted cultures and practices.
  • Put inequality and exclusion issues at the heart of this agenda. The poorest and most excluded groups can have a very hard time in engaging as effective citizens.  Yet, in social accountability programming, agencies have treated such issues with differing degrees of attention, and have sometimes appeared overly-optimistic about the potential of the poor to 'have a voice' or 'assert their rights'.  These issues need systematic attention. There are no quick fixes but this would mean that the following aspects should be part and parcel of any social accountability intervention: (i) seeking to understand and mitigate social exclusion dynamics; (ii) building in components to address the poor's capabilities deficits (e.g. literacy or livelihood development, inequality-mitigation measures); and, (iii) focusing on securing the effective socio-political representation of the poorest.
  • Think and act beyond the national level.  Taking global dimensions seriously opens a range of potential activities to complement citizen engagement.  For instance, aid flows should "do no harm"; or the international drivers of poor governance – e.g. weak financial regulation, limited corporate accountability or illicit trades – would need to be addressed.

A 'new' paradigm for citizen engagement?

In short, the report gives weight to calls for a shift – in some ways a radical shift – in the way citizen engagement is often operationalized.  This is not to claim that what is being proposed is entirely 'new'.  The report cites initiatives that already put in practice some of the proposed aspects (see here for instance).  

Yet this 'new' thinking clearly needs further deepening and operationalizing. It is yet to seep into the mainstream DNA of social accountability discourse and practice; and we remain some way from operational guidance in these areas.  If the report begs more questions than it answers – but it nonetheless gets you thinking – then it has achieved one of its objectives.  Have a read here and let us know what you think…

Photo Credit: Speak Your Mind / Julian Koschorke
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Comments

Submitted by Guy Janssen on

Nails and Hammers
Thank you for the excellent report, Simon. In your domain 1: civil society you wrote: "CSOs that are able to draw on popular support and be accountable to their own constituents, as opposed to being upwardly accountable to donors, seem to be more effective in achieving SAcc goals. This type of CS is not limited to professional NGOs—they include other sources of popular agency, including trade unions, social movements, and religious organizations (Banks and Hulme 2012; Hickey and Bracking 2005)." What mechanisms have been successful in supporting or establishing such CSOs (because we cannot assume that such CSOs exist) without disrupting the organisation’s accountability to its members? You mention that donor interventions have not always been effective. In other words, shouldn't we look at our funding mechanisms at the same time as we analyse our context? If not, every problem will turn into a nail because the only solution we have is a hammer.

Paul Dosh (Demanding the Land) identified the four strategies that local communities use to get what they want/need in the informal communities where most of them live these days: militancy (large angry marches), alliances (trading votes for services), taking it (illegal grid connections), or building it themselves (self-help). Any one of these strategies may work better than the others in a given context, but the question that this very interesting blog post implicitly asks (that is, dances around) is, which of these strategies is the Bank really comfortable with being part of? Any of them at all?

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