Seeking accountability from public service providers remains one of the most prominent governance challenges in developing countries. In recent years, there has been a burst of social accountability tools, and NGOs and governments have promoted their use widely. Broadly, social accountability refers to approaches that seek to foster accountability through enhanced civil society engagement.
The advocates of social accountability approaches believe that the regular cycle of elections—in spite of the near continuous cycle of elections for the village councils, state and centre—are not enough to bring about a substantive change in service delivery. In this context, there is the opportunity to experiment with alternative mechanisms of fostering social accountability. Researchers at the Centre for Future State of the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, UK, conclude from their field studies in Delhi and Sao Paulo, Brazil, that social accountability tools can be used to set the minimum required standard of public services by “highlighting deficiencies in existing provision or entitlements”. This also works when citizens’ demands are “framed in terms of legal or moral rights”.
As a set of approaches for “good governance”, social accountability tools represent an interesting collection of hypotheses. One, that involving citizens in local planning, budgeting and spending decisions will ensure that the design and implementation of public services is pro-poor. Local governments and decentralized systems for local planning and service delivery are the usual form in which this approach manifests itself.
A third one, that citizen (specifically, users of public services) feedback or performance outcomes presented to service providers would act as a catalyst for change for these organizations. Exercises such as the Annual Status of Education Report (for primary education in India), report cards on service providers (such as Citizens Report Cards in Bangalore) are instances where such data may be collected and used for advocacy to generate pressure on service providers to reform service delivery and improve their performance.
None of the above examples belong in water-tight compartments, tied to the social accountability approaches described. At the same time, what is evident is that information is at the heart of each of these approaches. However, each of these approaches and the respective interventions have seen their fair share of challenges. To begin with, there is little conclusive evidence that decentralization of reforms on its own will lead to an improvement in service delivery and performance outcomes. Experience suggests that for local governments to succeed, the government bureaucratic machine will have to play a facilitative role. Simultaneously, it appears that in order to effectively reform the centralized bureaucracy, top-down measures have a very important role to play.
In the second approach—that of providing information to citizens—critical assumptions are being made regarding the ability of citizens to form collectives and demand accountability from service providers. For vulnerable population groups, this certainly is not an easy task. For societies steeped in feudal power relations, political empowerment remains a distant dream. In the third approach, where citizen feedback is transmitted back to service providers, there is (arguably) excessive focus on providing information to citizens to enable them to hold public authorities to account—a point supported by the Africa Power and Politics Programme, a five-year research programme in multiple African countries. Going back to the earlier point of bureaucratic reforms, it is clear that interventions for social accountability and good governance require a good mix of top-down and bottom-up approaches.
To conclude, the proliferation of social accountability approaches are a significant positive in the field of development action and political empowerment. The experience so far shows that there is plenty to learn—especially in terms of mixing and matching tools and approaches, and developing new ones, towards promoting greater accountability. Such interventions will have to be sensitive to the context and be able to target specific weaknesses in public service delivery—and even then, they may not all succeed. Exciting times lie ahead!