Cai Guao-Qiang, Sky Ladder

Shared goals, common strategies?

Thomas Aston


In recent months, I’ve found myself in a number a number of conversations with social accountability wonks (like me) who have raised concerns that we’re not having a shared conversation, and instead are talking past one another. There are probably a variety of different reasons for this, but one of them is that we may, in fact, have a different hierarchy of goals and underpinning assumptions.

I want to put it to you that there are really three broad types of goals in the social accountability sector:

  • Addressing corruption and/or impunity;
  • Enhancing citizen participation and voice;
  • Improving the quality of services.

It’s often assumed that these three goals go together. We often chose more than a single goal in social accountability initiatives, and there are usually some overlaps between them. However, it’s scarcely acknowledged that how you prioritise and weigh different goals has a substantial effect on the strategy and methods you employ, and the overall direction of travel.

I listened to a webinar last week, “Voice Needs Teeth to have Bite,” which brought the potential fissures into stark relief. Some academics and practitioners see this statement as self-evident. Of course, voice needs teeth (assuming, of course, “bite” is what you’re going for).

Yet, “bite” (and indeed “teeth”) has been interpreted in radically different ways in recent years. The original phrase was about “triggering virtuous circles” where enabling environments encourage voice, voice encourages reform, which, in turn, encourages more voice. A selective reading of Fox’s argument irons out clarifications around conflict that is targeted to weaken vested interests, which is central to a “sandwich strategy.” But, as I discussed previously, there are different forms of teeth here: ‘capacity to deliver’ you might consider as molars and capacity to sanction’ you might alternatively consider canines. It matters which teeth we’re talking about. And indeed, whether teeth matter at all depends on what your goals are in the first place.

What struck me in the webinar was speakers’ subtly different emphases, which, in turn, reflect different emphases in a hierarchy of goals and underpinning assumptions.

Addressing corruption and/or impunity

Ana Lorena Ruano of the Center for the Study of Equity in Governance in Health Systems (CEGGS) emphasised the importance of an approach which leverages “political and reputational costs to push power holders to respond.” Unusually (yet helpfully), Ruano listed a set of what she considered to be assumptions about social accountability, which include:

  • Social accountability is (primarily) a means of restraining power;
  • Power is delegated (to elected officials, and then presumably to public servants and service providers);
  • Power can (and, presumably, should in some cases) be taken away;
  • There is a high likelihood of opacity.

Whether intentional or not, this framing appears to embrace Enrique Peruzzotti and Catalina Smulovitz’s (2006: 11) view that social accountability is primarily about:

‘Exposing and denouncing cases of government wrongdoing… generat[ing] symbolic costs to the officials or agencies suspected of wrongdoing but also, by bringing cases of corruption or official misconduct into the public agenda, forces political institutions to address these cases and raises the actual costs of illegal or improper political behavior.’

The prevalence of this perspective (at least in academia) has led Jane Mansbridge to suggest that ‘accountability has [increasingly] become synonymous with punishment (rather than providing answers, responses or remedies).’

If you accept this perspective, like Grandvionnet et al. (2015), then it seems only natural that increasing ‘potential reputational costs or the fears of triggering traditional accountability mechanisms and subsequent sanctions’ should be the ‘main route’ to achieving outcomes. You may well consider it the right thing to do (bad people deserve to be punished) long before any reflection on whether taking such an approach will work in your context.

In CEGGS case, there is actually a decision tree for REDC-SALUD monitors to determine the appropriate course of action, depending on public authorities’ response (a clever idea, I think). For instance, we find a collaborative strategy in San Marcos which had supportive authorities and the use of petitions and litigation in Totonicapan and Santa María with less supportive authorities.

Yet, if you share Ruano’s normative assumptions and accept CEGSS’s evocative portrayal of widespread negligence and impunity, you’re primed to the kind of suspicion that make an adversarial (or confrontational) approach a clear preference, rather than what is a last resort option in the decision tree. This normative anchoring is likely to be a key reason why litigation has been a growing focus area for some social accountability programming, including for CEGSS, despite rather disappointing results.

While efforts to tackle impunity and corruption are not necessarily the same thing, they are often interpreted in a similar light, and they carry similar assumptions of widespread wrongdoing, misconduct (and concomitant injustice). In Andres Schedler’s canonical conceptualisation of political accountability which coloured Peruzzotti and Smulovitz’s definition of social accountability, it’s assumed that the misdeeds of politicians have already been exposed and an abuse of power has already occurred. His emphasis on ‘punishment,’ ‘impeachment,’ ‘dismissal,’ and ‘destruction of reputation through public exposure,’ set a particular tone for accountability. Public actors are presumed guilty, rather than innocent. ‘Weak,’ ‘toothless,’ and ‘diminished’ (in reference to answerability) are also not merely factual statements related to a supposed lack of force, but primarily normative statements about a supposedly undesirable course of action.

There’s an even deeper assumption here about whether we think public servants and service providers are generally good or bad people. I’m biased, perhaps, because my mum is a nurse and my twin brother is a teacher. I may think very little of the UK’s current Ministers of Health and Education, but I tend not to think public servants and service providers are generally bad people, or at least, not manifestly worse people than those of us in civil society. I try not to carry over assumptions between what I consider to be fundamentally different actors with different accountabilities, and starkly different incentives. I find Peruzzotti and Smulovitz’s definition of social accountability deeply unhelpful because it encourages precisely this erroneous conflation of stakeholder motivation and behaviour.

Of course, not all anti-corruption focused social accountability efforts have the same orientation (some might focus more on prevention than punishment, others even focus on positive role models). But, the aforementioned assumptions colour the degree to which you’re likely to build the threat or issuance of formal sanctions into your intervention. It’s as much normative (is it right?) as it is strategic (will it work?).

Yet, many social accountability initiatives do not set reducing corruption as a primary goal. A review of the contents of transparency and accountability reviews suggests as much. Nonetheless, the Department for International Development’s (DFID) corruption review lamented that:

“The challenge in assessing the impact of social accountability mechanisms on corruption is that this is typically not the main objective of the intervention.”

I read a report last week from a research institution which works on anti-corruption. Likely informed by their own organisational identity and the brief they were given for the assignment, they complained that most staff in the programme they were assessing saw transparency and accountability being about “participation” and lamented that corruption was not an explicit focus of the work. Like many social accountability programmes, there may have been efforts to address issues of corruption, such as under-the-table payments, over-costed materials, or phantom staff, but these likely only came up if citizens identified these as priority problems they wanted to address. And indeed, a more explicit (and overt) emphasis on anti-corruption has trade-offs.

It’s even been argued by some scholars that ‘attacking corruption may well often be done most successfully by not openly claiming that that is the aim, and by embracing more indirect reform paths.’ Of course, there is a vibrant anti-corruption debate outside of social accountability, and we should therefore let them have their own debate.

Enhancing citizen participation and voice

Nonetheless, I think it’s entirely reasonable for practitioners to view transparency and accountability as being primarily about participation (rather than punishment) if that’s what makes sense to them. Despite Ruano’s framing, I suspect that in CEGSS’s work, participation is at least as important. Participation and punishment can fit together through “naming and shaming” such as that described by Peruzzotti and Smulovitz, but they don’t always fit neatly together.

“Teeth” is most commonly interpreted in the social accountability sector as being related to sanctions, yet the “Voice Needs Teeth to have Bite ” webinar defined “giving teeth to have bite” as being about:

“Connect[ing] in mutually beneficial and mutually empowering and sustainable ways processes of raising community voice with the processes of enabling state response for regular and systematic participation in health.”

This bears little resemblance to Ruano’s portrayal of social accountability and would necessarily have radically different assumptions about the supposed widespread wrongdoing and opacity of public officials and service providers. Clearly, “mutually beneficial” and “mutually empowering” doesn’t imply an acrimonious zero-sum relationship, nor is it likely that “political and reputational costs” would be an effective means of ensuring state response if the more positive assumptions within this particular definition held true.

In the webinar, rather than emphasising the need to brandish teeth (understood here as canines) to ensure state response, Lucia D’Ambruso’s presentation instead focused on social participation and voice. She pointed to Arnstein’s ladder of participation and distinguished utilitarian approaches to participation which sees participation as a means to an end, and empowerment approaches which see collective “citizen control” over decisions as the primary goal. If you aspire to the top rungs of the ladder, then you’re likely to favour “claimed” (i.e. created) spaces outside of the institutionalised policy arenas over “invited spaces,” as these allow for greater degrees of citizen power.

Arnstein, 1969; 2007

Some prominent voices in the social accountability sector see service delivery as a lesser change and take the critique of utilitarian approaches even further. Grandvionnet et al’s (2015) influential study at the World Bank, for instance, criticised a focus on service delivery as “narrow instrumental objectives” when compared to the more institutional aims of “deepening democracy.” This hierarchy is illustrated in the table below:

Grandvionnet et al. 2015

In concert with the above, Anu Joshi’s appraisal for the challenges of accountability 2.0 was that:

“It is important to go beyond the improvements in services to track and value other important outcomes such as outcomes of empowerment, (increases in awareness, collective capacity to claim rights), as well as any changes in levels of trust, legitimacy and political commitment on the part of relevant institutions.”

Increased awareness and collective capacity to claim rights tend to be lower-level outcomes in social accountability theories of change. They’re often viewed as pre-conditions for effective voice, which in turn, are believed to contribute to improved service delivery. But, trust and legitimacy often feature (very abstractly) at the top of theories of change as higher-level outcomes, or even the primary goal for some projects with which I work. Certainly, trust and legitimacy matter and haven’t been given enough attention.

Yet, I find it perplexing that, given their evident gravity, how many women die in childbirth or how many children are malnourished, say, are considered to be of such diminished importance. I’m unconvinced that human development gains are less important than what score my country gets, for example, in the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators or whether my country gets a 67 or a 68 in Freedom House’s Democracy Status Classification. Not to mention the extraordinary claim that “better policy design” is more important than human development (have we forgotten isomorphic mimicry?). Perhaps I shouldn’t say that as an ex-Governance Advisor, but it sounds to me that this is really more about us justifying our work and suggesting that our goals are more important than sector colleagues.

I suspect the aforementioned hierarchy also reflects the belief that deeper democracy will be more durable and affect society more profoundly. Perhaps. Yet, considering the historically ephemeral nature of democracy, this pre-Trump (pre-How Democracies Die) perspective has not aged well. The effects of stunting last a lifetime, mortality is permanent, good governments with seemingly inclusive institutions rarely last much longer than World Bank projects these days.

Improving the quality of services

I recently offered an alternative definition of social accountability which proposed that improving access to and use of quality services is an equally legitimate goal for social accountability. Given that the “Voice Needs Teeth to have Bite ” webinar was about health systems, the speakers did also touch on aspects of improving health services, but it wasn’t the main thrust.

I argued that social accountability should be chiefly focused on improving the quality of services. This, I suggested, was one key aspect which distinguished it from other forms of accountability and constituted an important part of its value added. If the main goal is improving service delivery/performance, we might assume that responsiveness will tend to take precedence over traditional dimensions of accountability (answerability and enforcement). Despite its less glamorous appearance, improved service delivery (which should lead to human development outcomes) is the primary goal of many social accountability practitioners.

Yet, a focus on services, and the more collaborative approaches which often accompany this goal, has been criticised for “de-politicising” social accountability. Saying “our aim is to enhance service performance,” as ex-colleagues of mine did in one country, is obviously less inflammatory than “our aim is for you to go to jail for corruption.” Taking such an approach did, in fact, reveal corruption in some cases, with remedial actions taken. It just did so with greater subtlety than is customary.

Improving services is political because services inevitably involve power relations. Budgets are political; drug procurement is political; curricula are political. Service delivery is thus political. But you can actually be “politically smart” without telling everybody how political you are. Much “Thinking and Working Politically” in the social accountability sector takes precisely this approach.

But sometimes this contentious “P” isn’t discussed for institutional reasons. As Lant Pritchett explains, the 2004 World Development Report, where social accountability first emerged, was supposed to have articulated ‘an accountability relationship between “citizens” and “the State” called “politics,”’ but this was relabelled “voice” ‘because of the sensitivity inside the World Bank to the word “politics.”’ Given this subterfuge, we are often working with politics, but with different labels, different priority actors, and different tactics.

The anti-politics critique also tends to argue that powerful actors benefit from a lack of transparency and responsiveness, and thus drag their feet, or worse. This is certainly true in some cases. But other powerful actors can benefit from being transparent and responsive. After all, they can be rewarded for doing so (socially and politically). And this is most evident when civil society actors name and fame service providers and public servants for good work rather than simply name and shame them for bad work (something I found myself in Peru).

Empowerment, trust and legitimacy are all ultimately about relationships. Relationships matter enormously to improving services, and to accountability in general. Even the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicator on service satisfaction is very much about relationships. The dimensions of access, affordability, quality of facilities, equal treatment, and courtesy of treatment may all sound technocratic, but they are all relational and conditioned by power dynamics. Navigating power is unavoidable; it’s simply navigated differently, depending on your assumptions and goals, which in turn, shape your approach to achieving those goals.

Potential contradictions

Finally, while there are evidently overlaps and potential synergies between these three goals in some circumstances, there are also contradictions.

With the goal of “citizen control” and agenda setting in mind, “claimed” spaces are a natural preference. Various initiatives combine invited and claimed spaces, as a hypothesis from DFID’s macro-evaluation on empowerment and accountability shows:

The meta-review suggests that it’s more likely a combination will be more effective than competing models, but the hypothesis was formally rejected in the Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA). The review concluded that “invited spaces” are essential to achieve improved higher-level [at-scale] service delivery’ and found that they are also more efficient at local-level delivery than combining invited spaces with claimed/created (here labelled “uninvited”) spaces. So, while “created spaces” might be better for the goal of “citizen control,” they might perhaps be worse for service delivery.

Secondly, explicit efforts to reduce corruption might be assumed to build trust and legitimacy, and sometimes they can. Yet, recent evidence in efforts to tackle bribery in Uganda’s health sector, for example, suggests that while the establishment of an oversight body (Health Monitoring Unit) reduced bribery, in the process it also ‘undermine[d] morale among frontline health providers and probably also citizens’ trust in health services.’ And there are, unfortunately, numerous unintentional negative effects from anti-corruption efforts social accountability practitioners ought to take into account before writing their funding proposals.

Thirdly, more adversarial approaches to community empowerment can sometimes achieve service delivery effects downstream, but these may also have costs higher up the supposed hierarchy of results in terms of trust and legitimacy. A recent evaluation of a World Bank community participation and teacher accountability project in Indonesia illustrates this. One intervention arm got (quite poorly informed) citizens themselves to impose sanctions by reducing absent teachers’ pay. This created conflict between teachers and community members, and these conflicts intensified as the project progressed. ‘None of the members of the research team expressed support’ for that particular intervention, despite the initiative being widely praised as a success in some circles because test scores increased.

Clarify your goals and assumptions

As a departing thought, what your priority goals are isn’t what matters. What really matters is that you be explicit about them and articulate your assumptions about why those goals matter and how you believe they interact with other goals (ideally, with evidence to support it). And then test whether you were right or not.

This is what we’re supposed to do in theories of change, but as Adam says:

However, if we want more of a shared conversation, one step towards that is making it clear what our goals and underpinning assumptions are so we know where we all agree, where bridges might be possible, and where we might be trying to achieve different things altogether.



Thomas Aston

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