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Connecting the dots for accountability

Brendan Halloran's picture
A Quechua leader addresses the Minister of Health at the 2nd National Conference on Health in Peru.  Photo credit: ForoSalud

In the past decade, efforts to promote more open and accountable governance have proliferated. These endeavors have taken on many shapes and sizes, from international multi-stakeholder initiatives to community-level citizen action, and everything in between. 

Most often, these approaches have sought to leverage elements of transparency and information along with some form of citizen engagement or participation, with the goal of influencing government actions to be more responsive and accountable.  

But has the formula of transparency + participation = accountability really worked?

Civil society organizations (CSOs) have often been at the front lines of these efforts, whether it be advocating for improved policies, monitoring government actions, mounting legal challenges to ensure accountability, or any number of other strategies.  

But do all these individual initiatives and approaches, many of which result in specific wins, really to add up to more than the sum of their parts?  Furthermore, do external actors too often focus on a relatively narrow set of civil society actors, specifically formal and professional CSOs, failing to engage with diverse membership-based organizations, grassroots movements, and other kinds of citizen mobilization?

Last year, researchers and practitioners from the global north and south met to discuss more strategic approaches to citizen-led accountability.  Specifically, the workshop organizers sought to explore how CSO efforts could ‘connect the dots’ in ways that involve multiple actors, tools and tactics, and levels of governance. 

These ideas drew on insights from American University professor Jonathan Fox’s work on vertical integration and strategic accountability, as well as experiences of organizations trying to navigate the ‘accountability ecosystem’ of diverse institutions, mechanisms and processes.

Underpinning the workshop were five key challenges found in many efforts to promote more responsive and accountable governance, particularly through the frameworks of open government and social accountability, namely:

  1. Efforts to strengthen responsive and accountable governance often make simplistic assumptions about how transparency and citizen participation lead to accountability that do not reflect a deep and iterative understanding of the political realities and power structures that limit government accountability.
  2. Isolated and fragmented transparency and accountability interventions often do not strategically engage with the ecosystem of accountability actors, mechanisms and processes to address the structural causes of corruption, impunity and poor service delivery, but rather more superficial symptoms; ‘scaled up’ initiatives often repeat this mistake…at scale.
  3. Transparency and accountability efforts are often undertaken by a narrow set of actors, frequently carrying out pre-determined and short-term projects based around a single tool or tactic that fail to build up countervailing power throughout the accountability ecosystem.
  4. Accountability efforts generally rely on citizen participation, but often fail to strengthen meaningful engagement through citizen-centric organizations or movements, rather promoting narrow involvement by individuals, isolated groups, or professional NGOs.
  5. Organizations and initiatives are often pushed towards delivering ‘results’, often predefined, and are often not supported or incentivized to engage in real learning and reflection to adapt their course to changing contexts and lessons learned.
Workshop participants acknowledged and tackled these challenges, proposing the idea of ‘connecting the dots’ as a shorthand for efforts that bring together multiple actors working across scales of governance, leveraging a diversity of approaches and tools, and engaging with formal and non-formal accountability institutions and processes.  Working jointly to connect the dots is based on an understanding of accountability, impunity, politics and power as embedded in a complex ecosystem, requiring an equally systematic approach to address.

These lessons reflect the growing evidence coming from social accountability, open government, and other related efforts; insights we now must put into practiceA new report draws on the practical experiences and conceptual insights shared during the workshop on ‘connecting the dots for accountability’.  Key contributions include:
  • Conceptual framework for connecting the dots
  • Five concrete case study summaries of CSO strategies to connect the dots
  • Workshop rapporteur’s report with insights organized around 8 key takeaway points
This report serves as a resource to those who want to address the challenge of isolated and fragmented transparency and accountability interventions that often do not strategically engage with the ecosystem of accountability actors, mechanisms and levels of governance to address the structural causes of corruption, impunity and poor service delivery, but rather more superficial symptoms.

Moreover, the 'Connecting the Dots' report pushes back against simple ideas of ‘scaling up’ transparency and accountability efforts as replicating interventions or otherwise incorporating more [users, participants, localities, data, etc.] that are also unlikely to strategically engage with the accountability ecosystem.

Instead, this report argues that efforts to strengthen accountability should adopt approaches that strategically 'connect the dots' across actors, mechanisms and levels of governance.\

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