What actually is social accountability?

Thomas Aston
13 min readApr 21, 2021


Paul Signac, Opus 217 — Connecting the Dots?

Figuring out “what is the work?” we actually do sounds like a simple task, but in fact, it’s surprisingly difficult.

David Jacobstein wrestled with this question about 18 months ago, enquiring into how much to confront donors with the reality of what their work is, versus continued acceptance of the terms on which they receive funding. I’ve also been reflecting on what “counts” as social accountability recently, and reading Brendan Halloran’s piece on the evolution of “accountability ecosystems” as a concept has prompted me to share a few thoughts of my own.

Perhaps the most common definition of “social accountability,” and the one I tend to use, is the following:

An approach to accountability that ‘relies on civic engagement, i.e. in which it is ordinary citizens and/or civil society organizations that participate directly or indirectly in exacting accountability. These include, among others, participatory budgeting, public expenditure tracking, monitoring of public service delivery (e.g. social audits and scorecards), investigative journalism, public commissions and citizen advisory boards (Malena et al. 2004: 2).’

This definition gives us a good sense of the emphasis being citizen-driven accountability and it includes a helpful list of illustrative tools chiefly to monitor, assess, and contribute to the implementation of public policies.

Emphasis was historically placed on the non-exhaustive list of tools, so social accountability was rightly criticised as being too often reduced to best practice “widgets.” Having worked for what George Osei-Akoto Bimpeh referred to as “the community score card organisation” (CARE), I have considerable sympathy with the general thrust of the critique. Anu Joshi and Peter Houtzagar argued that instead, social accountability should be seen as the “long-term ongoing political engagement of social actors with the state.”

The reduction to tools and the limits of short-term individual projects are probably the two main reasons Halloran advocates that there should be no accountability ‘project,’” and argues instead that we should “navigat[e] and collectively reshap[e] accountability relationships to shift power towards those seeking to demand, enable and enforce public accountability.”

Duncan Green caricatures (his word) the great divide in accountability theories of action (and change) as being between “do more” and “do less” camps.

Like Halloran, I’ve also argued that we should focus on building, nurturing and sustaining relationships, but my perspective was that we should focus on our sphere of influence, given the potential risk of spreading our efforts too thinly. With my M&E hat on, I put it to you that more activities and more stakeholders doesn’t necessarily lead more or better results. This, therefore, would put me somewhat in the “do less” camp.

On the other hand, the “do more” camp expresses rather more faith in the potential of an “enabling environment.” This doesn’t merely change the set of tactics, though. It also requires a considerable expansion of previous concepts such as social accountability.

As a recent systematic review of Open Government suggests, conceptual ambiguity has been an issue over the last decade in the sector. Bigger definitions tend to have larger assumptions; both entail grander theories of change. As I’ve argued previously, grander theories of change can potentially becoming theories of everything. Is an “accountability ecosystem” perhaps at risk of being interpreted as one of these?

It’s assumed, I think, that the problems that actors in the different sub-systems of the accountability ecosystem are trying to address are highly complementary and indeed that we’re smart enough to connect the dots effectively. In my view, this is more difficult than is commonly believed, and these sub-systems may not always be that complementary, because we’re holding different actors to account for different things, and resolving different types of problems, often in a rather different way.

So, I can’t help but wonder whether we’re really referring to rather different accountabilities, and perhaps different work.

Social accountability ≠ government checks & balances?

It’s widely believed that combining citizens’ and governments’ efforts together might lead to better outcomes, and there seem to be some reasonable grounds for this, as I explained in my last blog. Part of this potential synergy is around combining citizens’ efforts with government checks and balances. Most commonly, hopes seem to lie with the potential of “horizontal accountability” from oversight institutions.

Halloran notes the optimism a few years ago within the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) about the promise of Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) and related government watchdogs. According to Malena et al. these are the “conventional mechanisms of accountability” social accountability may compliment. Together this becomes what the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI) call “diagonal accountability”.

Given that government checks and balances are typically quite different to those which are driven by citizens, MIT Gov Lab’s evidence synthesis of transparency and accountability interventions disaggregated “within-government accountability” and “citizen accountability,” making cautious and caveated comparisons between them. The most recent systematic review on citizen engagement also excluded “top‐down” audits from their study of citizen monitoring, because this was deemed to be a different category of work led by government rather than by citizens. So, I’m not alone in questioning the boundaries here.

But what do we really know about the connections? Two recent studies on SAIs in Latin America and globally, written by members of the “do more” camp, tell us that such agencies generally have weak connections to citizen engagement. This finding is perhaps ammunition for the camp that we simply aren’t doing enough and should do more. Maybe. But, the disappointing findings also rather imply that these may be quite different systems. The apparent fissures between them prompt us to reflect on the following claim:

Social accountability mechanisms have impact when they can trigger traditional accountability mechanisms such as investigations, inspections and audits (Joshi, 2011: 12).

Given that most of the evidence of impact we have in the sector happens in the absence of traditional accountability mechanisms, I don’t find the claim particularly persuasive. The case was made more hesitantly by MIT GovLab about 18 months ago, but the authors acknowledge that “the evidence remains thin.” When you review the references to support the more tentative argument, they predominantly come from “within-government” evidence in China. So, I’m not convinced the findings are particularly transferable anyway.

Nonetheless, I do recall the optimism from Marcos Mendiburu at the GPSA, who conducted the Latin American study. This was optimism I shared because of my own positive experience seeing the health rights social movement Foro Salud and my colleagues in CARE Peru successfully combine efforts with the Peruvian ombudsman. But was my experience an exception to the rule?

The jury still remains out on SAIs and how effectively they can support social accountability (and vice versa). The question, I think, is how much can we reasonably expect from them and how well connected are their contributions likely to be to improved service delivery?

Social accountability ≠ political accountability?

According to the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), government audits have often increased political accountability and reduced corruption. It’s very common to redeploy this evidence to suggest that social accountability works. Why? Because such studies conflate the accountability of politicians, public servants, service providers (and also private sector firms).

When social accountability was first defined, it was not about citizens holding politicians to account for the efforts of providers (a long, circuitous, and potentially ineffective route), but rather citizens holding service providers to account, as the famous diagram below illustrates:

World Development Report, 2004

Ignoring the consumer language of “clients” if you can, the whole point was about either opening or expanding the “short route” to deliver better services for the poor more directly.

The takeaway here is that if accountability is about relationships, then the relationships we’re talking about are quite different ones, and the incentives of these actors also differ greatly. Lumping them all together, as J-PAL did, doesn’t enlighten; it actually obscures.

Social accountability ≠ advocacy?

Employing advocacy tactics has become increasingly popular in the social accountability field since Jonathan Fox’s seminal evidence review in 2014. I remember my boss at the time, Gaia Gozzo, rushing back from the GPSA forum with the new words “vertical integration.” Vertically integrated strategies which combine citizen monitoring and advocacy may sometimes be highly effective, but not all citizen monitoring and advocacy efforts naturally fit well together.

My view here is partly shaped by my experience working with CARE Peru and how they saw the difference between addressing poorly formulated policy (which requires advocacy) and poorly implemented policy (which requires citizen monitoring). Taking my experience of working on domestic workers’ advocacy in the Andes, the domestic workers’ organisations we supported had very limited capacity for oversight and limited connection to service provision. We did advocacy and campaigning but not much accountability.

In Bolivia, it wasn’t until we convinced the US government to support the Centro de Información y Desarrollo de la Mujer- CIDEM to monitor and triage cases of gender-based violence in an “accountability project” that we were actually doing social accountability by monitoring services and holding service providers to account. Alternatively, the work in Peru I mentioned above very much did integrate the links between policy formulation and implementation. Yet, the comparison speaks to a wider problem of silos between teams even within the same organisation.

Once I left CARE, I did a review of the effectiveness of their advocacy globally. What I found was that campaigns (especially global ones) rarely had much connection to policy implementation and service provision. When there was a “win” that was typically the end of the “project.” Some of this did indeed have to do with the short duration and funding of projects, but teams like Peru were able to thread projects together, thus enabling efforts to be closer to the form of “long-term ongoing political engagement” which Joshi and Houtzagar advocate.

It’s also common to combine social accountability campaigning with media exposés. Grandvionnet et al., for instance, strongly emphasise the importance of increasing “reputational costs” to force public officials to be more responsive. Sometimes this can be effective (albeit not in the main study Grandvionnet et al. cite as evidence). Yet, as Namati recently put it, whether this is an effective approach to convince doctors, nurses, and administrative staff to improve service delivery is context dependent.

We also have to consider whether we’re “naming and shaming” the right people to achieve responsiveness. Depending on who you target and when you target them, “naming and shaming” can be either productive or counterproductive.

According to a recent evaluation of Open Up Contracting, for example, the programme had gradually built up “support and relationships with various champions within government” and managed to persuade the Philippines Government Electronic Procurement System and the Commission of Audit to accept its recommendations for amendments to the most recent Open Government Partnership (OGP) action plan. Yet, when a partner — the Philippines Centre for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) — started “publishing stories using contracting data that criticised senior politicians they got cold feet and stopped.” Outsider tactics to prompt political accountability thus (at least temporarily) impeded concurrent insider gains with government bureaucrats in the same programme designed to improve transparency and responsiveness.

If we struggle to align stakeholders’ efforts within projects and programmes, then, how confident are we that we that we can align these efforts across a whole accountability ecosystem?

Social accountability ≠ litigation?

Another conceptual borderland is the efforts to connect social accountability and litigation. These can and do have overlaps, as Francesca Feruglio, Anu Joshi, Veronica Herrera and Lindsay Mayka, and Marta Schaaf have explored in Kenya and South Africa, Macedonia, Guatemala, Uganda, and India, Colombia, and Mozambique. But not all legal empowerment and litigation efforts are necessarily a form of social accountability. Individual lawsuits will very often emerge from individual grievances rather than collective efforts to hold those in power to account. And in many cases, even collective action lawsuits may have relatively little to do with service provision. On a number of occasions, including in a few of the cases above, I’ve struggled to find any explicit mention of monitoring services or clear connections to service providers. So, I wonder how much of this work is really just litigation + political advocacy.

Even if the connections were clearer, the evidence base to demonstrate that the combination is effective at improving service delivery offers very limited good news. So, while litigation may solve some problems, I don’t share Joe Foti’s optimism that simply engaging more lawyers, judges and advocates will fix very many of them.

Social accountability ≠ protest?

One final area I’ve wrestled with is on the connections between social movements, protests, and social accountability. A few months ago, I was reviewing a coding tool for a review and one of the categories was simply “social movements.” There wasn’t much explanation of what these were or how they might differ from another category used, “social mobilisation campaigns.” What was the anticipated outcome? What was intervention? Dare I say, what was the “project?”

Of course, not all social accountability efforts need to be projects. One less institutionalised form of “intervention” is protests. About 18 months ago, Naomi Hossain wrote a persuasive blog questioning whether the World Bank might be missing out on an accountability revolution. She questioned whether we were “missing the real story, sitting in our orderly sessions while a social accountability revolution unfolded elsewhere.” Hossain asked: are protests really a form of social accountability?

I can’t help but feel that I was somehow an addressee for the blog because I had lunch with Naomi twice that week at the GPSA forum and I’m pretty sure she attended one of my “post-lunch snooze-sessions” where we talked about “insider advocacy.” As you can tell, I’m also exactly the sort of person that would have asked “what are the indicators?”

I think the answer to Naomi’s question, though, depends on what they’re for, and who protesters are trying to hold to account? I see no reason why social accountability should categorically exclude protest if those protests are primarily about holding service providers and bureaucrats to account for the poor quality of services. However, if on the other hand, protests are primarily (or even exclusively) about holding politicians to account and trying to kick them out of office (as is so often the case), then they are probably another form of potentially unrelated accountability. When Hossain refers to the “ruling elites,” I don’t imagine she’s referring to frontline service providers, but rulers (i.e. politicians and their cronies). So, while she rightly calls attention to protest for accountability more broadly, perhaps this isn’t always social accountability.

Should we be connecting all dots?

What the concept of an “accountability ecosystem” has done so successfully is point to the potential limits of different accountabilities (McGee and Kroesschell argue there are as many as eleven). It attempts to overcome these limits by exploring their connections under an umbrella concept.

In effect, the notion of an ecosystem could perhaps be said to bring together a number of definitions. These include aspects of Andreas Schedler’s definition of political accountability, going beyond answerability to “punish[ing the] improper behaviour” of politicians, Guillermo O’Donnell’s definition of “horizontal accountability” and his emphasis on legal sanctions (again, mostly for politicians), Enrique Peruzzotti and Catalina Smulovitz’s definition of societal accountability with its emphasis on media exposés of governmental wrongdoing (once more, mostly those of politicians), and Jonathan Fox’s definition of strategic social accountability which is geared towards giving “teeth” to citizens’ voice efforts for accountability at multiple levels of government.

There are very many dots to connect here, and it’s not always so clear how some of these dots are connected. They all refer to “accountability” (a parent concept), but they’re referring to different accountabilities from and to different actors. I can’t help but think of that Monty Python sketch where some of the members forget that they’re the People’s Front of Judea rather than Judean People’s Front or the Judean Popular People’s Front.

People’s Front of Judea

Connecting the dots is probably a good idea in general, but the question I ask myself when I see the words “accountability ecosystem” is which dots and to what end? In my view (and Brendan might agree with me), we shouldn’t seek to connect every dot, because which dots matter varies depending on who you are holding to account, what you are holding them to account for, and what kind of results you ultimately seek to achieve.

In short, it depends which accountability we’re actually talking about.

What are the system boundaries?

When I questioned whether “accountability ecosystem” might be too big of a concept on Twitter, Brendan responded:

I agree. But for me, this isn’t about applying a systems lens or not. Instead, my query was about one key dimension of systems theory which doesn’t seem much discussed in the ecosystem concept. While systems theory is about inter-relationships (the core of the ecosystem concept) and perspectives, it’s also fundamentally about boundaries. As Bob Williams explains in The Systems Thinker,

“Every endeavour has to set boundaries — make choices between which relationships to include and which to exclude, which perspectives to honour, and which to marginalize. Setting boundaries is not option.”

As we can’t do everything, my more circumspect view asks where do we set boundaries in the system? And where are we making choices about the relationships that matter most?

How would I prefer to define social accountability?

With all of the above in mind, for me, social accountability should be chiefly focused on (1) improving the quality of services, and the primary means of doing this is (2) through monitoring and oversight of those services (a sine qua non). Social accountability should be about (3) citizens’ collective, rather than individual, efforts to hold power-holders to account. Those power-holders should primarily be service providers and bureaucrats, and only secondarily politicians or other actors (4).

This, I believe, is a more straightforward and focused definition, one which is relatively faithful to the original concept. It’s not reduced to a list of tools; it’s wide enough to be inclusive, but not so wide as to be all-encompassing.

Contingent on context and the right fit, social accountability efforts can comprise advocacy, litigation, and protest as tactics, they can be connected to political, horizontal, and vertical accountability efforts. There will be times when such synergies are possible and make a significant difference, but there will also be times when such synergies aren’t possible or necessarily desirable.

Just as importantly, perhaps, I think it’s time for us to reflect on what we label “social accountability” once more. I’ve found that a surprising number of papers written identifying the work as social accountability seem to have little to do with holding service providers to account, and they don’t seem to be focused on improving the quality of services either.

So, it’s helpful to recall why the concept emerged in the first place, what its emphasis was and why this was different to previous accountability concepts. We should recognise that all concepts have strengths and weaknesses but should recall that they usually set boundaries for good reasons.

Projects too have their limitations, and while they are unglamorous, we should remember that they are helpful in setting reasonable boundaries, they help us to focus our limited energies and resources on the few things we are best placed to influence with the few actors we have influence over and with. And usually, at least in my view, this is where we can collectively make the biggest difference over both the short and long term. Therefore, in my view, we shouldn’t abandon the notion of an “accountability project” entirely.



Thomas Aston

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