Anselm Kiefer

Pathways to scale in social accountability

Thomas Aston
5 min readDec 26, 2021


Written with Florencia Guerzovich

Scale is a complex change process that is often misunderstood. We need to better understand what it looks like in practice, whether, how, and under what conditions (by whom, where, when) social accountability might be scaled up. Better understanding pathways to scale is the theme of this 5-part blog series.

In this post, we’ll argue that there are many paths to Rome, challenging the notion that there is a single, best pathway to scale in the sector.

In post 2, we’ll introduce the first of three plausible pathways to scale, what we call “resonance.” This is a pathway to scale based on social learning, deliberation, compromise, and collective action, one which, although theoretically new, reflects the lived experience of many practitioners. Post 3 will contrast the resonance pathway with two other pathways to scale: resistance and “best practice.” In post 4, we’ll unpack the other missing piece of the puzzle: how contextual factors might affect the success (or failure) of each pathway to scale. We’ll discuss four key factors.

We don’t take the evidencing challenge of complex processes and results for granted, as we discussed in a recent blog series about the Transparency, Participation, and Accountability (TPA) sector. So, the last blog in the series (post 5) will consider the challenges for monitoring, evaluation and research in evidencing different pathways to scale.

For those interested in digging deeper, in 2022 we will publish a paper, with co-authors Brian Levy, Paula Chies Schommer, Rebecca Haines, Sue Cant, and Grazielli Zimmer, which presents a research agenda and approach to thinking, supporting, monitoring, evaluation and learning about scale. The paper came about due to seed funding from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) Centre of Excellence for Development Impact and Learning (CEDIL). The research was conducted by a consortium of organizations and individuals led by World Vision.

Learning about scale

Scale is a substantial area of attention and contention among donors, governments, and civil society groups. Many want to reach the goal, but few actually do, as recently discussed in a webinar convened by the Scaling Up Community of Practice. International Non-governmental Organizations (INGO) such as Oxfam and CARE have undertaken their own research and evaluations on achieving scale. It’s also a common theme in publications such as the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

In fact, discussions about scale within the TPA sector around social accountability, in particular, are something of a dialogue of the deaf. One reason for this is the gap between governance and sectoral agendas in development. Another, related, reason is that we are anchored in highly normative notions of “good” and “bad” pathways to scale.

Our view is that there is not one but various potentially effective pathways to scale, and that the right pathway is the one which fits with the available opportunities and constraints in a particular context. In our experience, there are some successes, but also many perceived scale up “failures.”

We’re often only looking for the most dramatic change (full replication, total institutionalization) and if we don’t see this, we conclude (wrongly) that no change has taken place.

Our worldview here is one in which sometimes there are different answers and shades of grey, rather than assuming black and white answers to big questions. We sought to learn and grapple with what scale (a complex process and outcome) looks like in practice, how scale might happen through different pathways, and what might be the key factors that may facilitate or limit the potential of each pathway.

To do so, in late-2019, we decided to take stock of knowledge in the TPA field and began a journey to articulate potentially different pathways to scale. Our goal was not to advocate for a best pathway to scale, but to explore the evidence base and see how this squared with practitioners’ experiences.

We engaged tacit knowledge from our experience working with and talking to hundreds of social accountability practitioners around the world, we critically re-read the social accountability literature, and compared this with other relevant literature on bureaucracy, organisational sociology, game theory, among others. An early highlight of the process in November 2019 was convening over 40 practitioners and scholars from around the world to listen to how they explained their work in a Chatham House-style space.

The result of the process was a nested mid-level theory of change which we believe is better grounded in the diversity and evolution of the field’s practice. While mid-level theory is semi-abstract (by definition), we believe that it can be helpful to grapple with day-to-day and strategic concerns of doing and supporting TPA efforts. It can help better articulate what the work actually is, describe relevant aspects of context that may affect programs, design TPA programs that better fit that context, and more effectively strategize to navigate that context in practice. Wrestling with these issues can thus help deliver better bang for one’s buck and hopefully make a bigger impact. Watch here and read here, respectively, how colleagues engaged with our proposition.

There are many paths to Rome

Through our research, we identified that practitioners can pursue at least three pathways to scale in the social accountability sector: (i) the replication of best practice; (ii) through leveraging the countervailing power of resistance, and; (iii) seeking resonance and best fit with existing public sector efforts. The key challenges for each pathway are displayed in the table below.

Own construction

As we’ll explain in our next two posts, each pathway places different emphasis on the dividends derived from conflict and on the promise of social learning to resolve collective action problems. We will discuss each of these pathways in detail with some examples to illustrate what it looks like.

Tune in for post 2 next week.



Thomas Aston

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