"Imagine this: A health care worker or parent in a village, with a laptop or mobile device, can access development knowledge in real time through geocoding and geomapping. She can see which schools have feeding programs and which go without, and what is happening to local health... She can upload her own data, throw light on the likely effect of new interventions and mobilise the community to demand better or more targeted health programs." Robert Zoellick, Former President of the World Bank
I found this quote while attending a World Bank facilitated discussion on open data and development at the World Bank/ IMF Annual Meetings  in Tokyo, Japan, a few weeks ago. There, and elsewhere, increased interest in the potential of open data is spreading from high level ‘open’ initiatives, such as the Open Government Partnership  (OGP) and the International Aid Transparency Initiative  (IATI), to tools for enabling local accountability and service provision. These projects aim to introduce greater availability of the most needed ingredient for citizen engagement with their governments: access to public information.
The common assumption in all these initiatives is that ordinary citizen, armed with copious information, can mobilise others and generate resolve to demand better public services. Implicit behind this assumed ‘demand’ is that information will be put to work in an ‘us versus them’ process of holding government to account (us being the mobilised, informed community, and ‘them’ being the holders or monopolisers of public information, often governments).
Visit local communities, however, and you realise they can ill afford such an antagonistic, zero-sum power game. In many communities, particularly in Africa, connections proliferate between citizens and those providing political and social services: a local nurse may be a distant aunt, or tribal member, relationships intertwine with complex webs of power relations.
Turning away from ‘us versus them’, what works is often to think of social accountability as an opportunity for building relationships so that as transparency increases, the less powerful do not lose traction because of informal relations and power networks. The Mwananchi Programme  supports a number of projects using information to empower communities, including the Lira NGO Forum’s project  to track funding and service delivery in rural Uganda.
The project helps pupils elect one student from among themselves to monitor teacher attendance in class. At the end of the week, the report is shared with the headmaster who records the reason why the teacher did not attend the class. The report is then sent to Lira NGO Forum secretariat, who, after accumulating similar reports from various schools and classes, arrange meetings with the District Inspector of Schools and other stakeholders, as well as meetings in each school. In this way, issues that can be immediately addressed by the school are addressed there and then, while those that cannot are looked at by the school management committees, the NGO Forum and the state actors. This relationship is also appreciated by the district level officials, who are linked to immediate feedback from service users (children).
During one of the community-teacher-pupil dialogue meetings, a teacher got up and said, “It is very shameful for me to be marked by a child on how often I come to teach. From now onwards, I will always come to teach on time or otherwise if there is a good reason for my absence, I will let the headmaster know before the scheduled time for the class”. The teacher was able to make this open reflection because an environment of mutual respect and dialogue had been created. Where this doesn’t exist, tension and conflict can flare up, which not only damages relationships in tightly knit communities, but also takes the service users no closer to a better, more reliable service.
The project has since been exploring ICT enhancements so that the selected monitor pupils can use their mobile phones to send short messages to a central phone or computer at the project office, giving real time feedback on teacher attendance. As the practice becomes institutionalised, the roles needed will be clarified and tasks that the project team is currently doing will be passed to local stakeholders as a way of ensuring sustainability.
Building accountability relationships on a transparent platform helps to make sure that the less powerful are not taken advantage of, at the same time doing it in such a way that antagonistic relationships are avoided, unless it is indeed the case that corruption was involved.
Through the Mwananchi projects, we have learnt  that creating demand for accountability through the work of civil society, media, elected representatives and other interlocutors (intermediaries in the language of the programme’s theory of change) is about reinforcing these transparent and yet progressive relationships. This happens when these interlocutors identify and strategically facilitate citizen-state relations that encourage mutual responsibility, use shame carefully as a sanction and link formal and informal mechanisms of accountability. In Lira, schools are able to use both community shame and the authority of the district inspector of schools to reinforce good teacher behaviour.
The impact of the current push for open data and open government should be seen as a breakthrough, but its impact will be context specific and dependent on the prevailing relationships. Finding ways to encourage positive relationships, rather than imposing a technical ‘us against them’ understanding of accountability can work for lasting change in the rules of the game for poor people.
Mwananchi  has been working in communities for four years, identifying how civil society, media, traditional leaders and elected representatives can best work with ordinary citizens to increase their ability to hold their governments to account. Starting this week, we present a series of blogs from our local coordinators that explore their experiences of working on social accountability: the first, from Ghana, looks at changing attitudes to women’s land ownership through drama .
Photo Credit: Arne Hoel/World Bank