Richard Mayhew, Montecito

Introducing a resonance pathway to scale

Thomas Aston


Written with Florencia Guerzovich

In our previous post we previewed our forthcoming paper “How do we shape and navigate pathways to social accountability scale? Introducing a middle-level Theory of Change.

We discussed the dilemma of scaling up in the Transparency, Participation, and Accountability (TPA) sector, and particularly, in social accountability. We argued that there is not one but several pathways to scale and that there is no best pathway, only the pathway that best fits with the available opportunities and constraints in any given context. We defined the pathways as: (1) the replication of best practice; (2) leveraging the countervailing power of resistance; and (3) seeking resonance with existing public sector efforts. In the next three posts we’ll illustrate what these pathways look like.

This post will focus on the resonance pathway. We’ll briefly discuss some theory and illustrate it with examples from three contexts (Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Moldova). For a discussion of the other two pathways to scale, you’ll have to wait for the next post.

What is resonance? The theory at a glance

A resonance pathway expects social accountability to scale up based on deliberation, compromise, and coordinated collective action. The logic here is that social accountability processes contribute to overcoming the challenges of collective action and social learning in a game theoretical sense (Ostrom, 1990; also see World Bank, 2017). That means enabling a group of individuals to organize and work out how to make the most of a situation (e.g., insights learned by implementing social accountability in select locations) to create shared gains (e.g., using those insights to inform decisions in other locations).

As the graphic below illustrates, a resonance pathway may not be possible when there are very high levels of perceived opposition (either by government actors or civil society organizations themselves). Nor is it likely to work when there is a very limited appetite for stakeholders to solve problems with others or view things as a purely zero-sum game of winners and losers, goodies and baddies. However, we believe it has potential when there is a reasonably high appetite to solve problems with others and either a low or medium level of perceived opposition.

Own construction

Social learning and collective action do not entail harmonization of interests nor collusion (in our view, a straw man critique). They can happen even when there are conflicting interests, disagreements, asymmetries of power, and all face temptations to free ride, shirk or act opportunistically (for more, listen to Eric Sarriot here).

Below we briefly illustrate the dynamic with a few examples from Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Moldova to show how a resonance pathway to scaling up might work in practice. It should be noted that we have not yet carried out primary research on these cases ourselves, so there is still plenty more to discover.

Unlearning a placard-carrying mindset in Nigeria

As documented in a recent 20-year study on the UK’s governance programming in Nigeria, the emergence of what appear to be resonance pathways to scale may have a long history. The UK-government funded State and Local Government Program (SLGP) was launched in 2000 with a specific aim to “promote best practices” in governance reform. The State Accountability and Voice Initiative (SAVI), which followed SLGP in 2008, then adopted a constructive engagement approach. We find that some SAVI partners had to ‘unlearn their “placard carrying” mindset [and it] took time and subtle advocacy from group members to convince stakeholders in the state government.’ A well-known study on SAVI by David Booth and Victoria Chambers captured the social learning dimension perfectly: ‘in a non-adversarial setting, unlikely alliances can be forged as stakeholders discover congruent or mutual interests they didn’t know they had.

The Partnership to Engage, Reform and Learn (PERL) program (which Tom worked on) inherited this constructive engagement approach to reform to ‘help ensure that reforms are realistic, relevant, self-generated, locally-driven, evidence-informed and self-sustaining.These efforts took place in several states and regions at multiple levels with both supply and demand integrated into the program. The 20-year study above argues that ‘more durable changes along the service delivery chain…almost always took the form of constructive engagement, rather than confrontational or less structured engagement.’ So, both SAVI and PERL seem like promising candidates for a resonance pathway to scale across various states. In several cases, this approach led to the partial scale up and adaptation of social accountability approaches, such as the “institutionalized constructive engagement” in accountability platforms in Jigawa, Kaduna, and Yobe states, as well as the adoption and adaptation of citizens’ charters in Anambra, Enugu, and Abia states. The description of the realist mechanism for “new public spaces and processes” in the 20-year study captures the main thrust of institutionalization in the following way:

“Government and societal/political representatives (e.g. civil society groups, private sector, State House of Assembly members as elected representatives) identify and act on areas of shared interests and mutual benefits because newly created spaces or processes (e.g. transparent budgets, formal consultations) which are repeatedly used, over time, generate trust in each other’s intentions.”

So, we can see how institutionalization might perhaps take place through deliberation, compromise, and coordinated collective action over a sustained period of time.

Trickle up learning in Bangladesh

Another promising example comes from an evaluation of a World Vision-USAID social accountability intervention in Bangladesh by Long and Panday (2020). They found that existing theories enabled them to assess multiple locations at the frontline, but their greatest challenge came when they had to figure out whether the intervention had produced results outside the initial sites.

Long and Panday found what they called “trickle up” processes that produced tangible results. Processes of relationship and trust building, deliberation and problem solving, catalyzed collective action and social learning. They encouraged actors to overcome inertia — all without altering public officials’ formal scope of work or mandate at the local level in other levels of government. Gradually and unevenly, the intervention filtered up insights from the frontline to the wider system through regional and national officials. It incentivized them to think creatively and begin problem solving by unlocking their and others’ existing mandates at the subnational and national level. The results affected policy design, implementation, as well as their determinants.

Collective action, adaptations and uptake did not depend on the number of actors mobilized but rather on their stake, standing, and relevant resources including learning with and from others (Levy, 2014; Guerzovich and Poli, 2014). It helped to turn localized results into inputs for other processes and adaptations beyond the places where social accountability was originally implemented.

Project echoes in Moldova

For another example, listen to one social accountability practitioner’s reflection about scale and evaluations in her own words:

“After the end of the (My School) project when we had 30 ambassadors … that continued at the regional level to implement by themselves the social accountability tools and to promote the social accountability tools at the regional level … They started to … organize by themselves other non-participants in our project and teach them and transfer the knowledge and the experiences that they had and the problems that they had at school levels and share knowledge on how to deal with that at the institutional level and how to promote change at the national level. And when I had two Ministers of Finance and Education telling me: ‘so I had these 30 school headmasters that are kind of revolutionizing […] things at the regional level and they are giving me a headache, let’s be frank, they are a headache for everybody. What did you do with them? Who are they and could you tell me, please, how to approach them better?’ These are some aha moments that are going beyond beautiful numbers and just saying that we are promoting citizen engagement and collaboration.”

Listen to more from Tatiana Savva from Expert Grup in Moldova in the video below almost a year after the project ended.

And read more about imperfect, non-linear, but ongoing scale up from the World Bank’s viewpoint about the sustainability of the project here (especially paragraph 49).

Throughout this series we’ll draw attention to a number of other potential examples of a resonance pathway to scale such as in Indonesia, Cambodia, DRC, and Egypt, including potential pivots either to or away from such a pathway in Malawi, Peru, Uganda. These are cases that we suspect could capture better the opportunities, limits and processes of resonance — but where sufficient secondary sources are not readily available and more research is needed.

As the result of a resonance process to scale seems likely to be an imperfect hybrid, or sub-optimal adaptation, it doesn’t fit neatly into the hero narratives we tell ourselves. This may partly account for the reason why it has been largely ignored or left undiscovered. Primary research is, however, needed to uncover this further.

We’ve discussed resonance with social accountability practitioners and donors in multiple fora over the last few years. It’s often familiar, a known part of the quest for scale, but it’s not often discussed publicly precisely because it doesn’t fit neatly into existing theoretical boxes (and therefore sometimes potentially mislabeled).

We’ll discuss two alternative pathways in the next post.



Thomas Aston

I'm an independent consultant specialising in theory-based and participatory evaluation methods.