Does better information lead to better development outcomes?

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ImageThe idea that citizens can directly contribute to strengthening the governance and quality of service delivery has been gaining momentum. The recent globabl uprisings, from revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia to the Occupy Wall Street movements here in the US, have highlighted the important role that individuals play in demanding more accountable governments and policies.

There are a variety of tools and techniques that help people effectively demand (on their own or collectively) better services from government providers: information campaigns, social audits, citizen scorecards, and report cards among others. These fall under the rubric of “social accountability,” with the premise being that the combination of better information and the ability to use this information appropriately, allow citizens to change the behavior of service providers.

Such tools are increasingly a component of World Bank funded projects. The World Bank’s updated GAC strategy in fact advocates using social accountability measures in the Bank’s agenda going forward to tackle corruption and improve governance. And notably, Bank president Robert Zoellick has highlighted the central nature of citizen empowerment and demand-side accountability to the development process. But do we have enough evidence to understand whether these techniques succeed in improving accountability, and if they do so, which of them are most effective in accomplishing this? In other words, does the evidence show that when provided with the right information, people will demand better service delivery? And if they do so, will they receive it?

While it’s clear that information is fundamental to breaking down barriers between citizens and service providers, it is not entirely obvious that information spurs people to act differently. The evidence for this is rather mixed. There is the famous Uganda newspaper campaign study that showed that publishing school budget allocation data in newspapers reduced leakage in transmission of funds. However, there are also more recent studies from India on information campaigns and their effect on increasing participation, which have shown no significant improvements in parental participation in school governance or changes in learning levels. Similarly, a community radio study in Benin found that households with access to radio programming invested significantly more in education inputs – and yet there were no positive increases in government inputs into public education.

These mixed results means that instead of simply assuming that better information leads to better services down the road, we should carefully evaluate and learn from our projects that incorporate social accountability. There is no disputing that making certain the same information – from budgets to entitlements – is available to everyone is important. But it is equally essential to understand what other factors lead to changing entrenched behaviors. For example, why should we assume that an illiterate parent will demand that a teacher show up and teach? In almost all cases the provider of a service has lot more clout than the recipient. We need to collect more evidence to figure out what approaches and methods can break down these existing power dynamics. Tools like social audits and scorecards assume collective action. However, there is evidence from South Asia that in some cases, people prefer to opt out of government-provided systems and rely on the private sector, regardless of their socio-economic status. And this despite the possibility of joining with others to collectively demand changes. Why assume that people want to act collectively? Maybe people prefer the easier solution, even if it costs them a little more. Perhaps people need choice rather than only a voice for empowerment. Or maybe what is best is a combination of the two.

I think there is space to experiment more in this area. What is key is that we monitor and evaluate our projects so that we can better understand the underlying mechanisms that lead to change. Maybe information, coupled with other tools, can improve accountability and transparency. We need to study this further. In the human development sectors, many current projects are testing the effectiveness of different types of tools: information campaigns in Indonesia; complaints handling procedures in a cash transfer program in Panama; and scorecards in health and education in Egypt and Nepal. Perhaps we should focus on how these interventions interact with supply side initiatives. It would be prudent to learn what works and how it works while we have the chance to do so. 

Photo Credit: Flickr User Jorge Franganillo

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