Stock-take of the stock-taking: eight somewhat left-field observations on social accountability
Given the enormous popularity of social accountability initiatives (SAcc) and the proliferation of excellent empirical syntheses on the topic that have been produced over the last few years, it may be a good time for taking stock of some of the stock-taking.
This is the idea behind a new working paper I just published in the Social Science Research Network. It aims to distil and critically annotate some of the main insights from the evidence reviews already in existence, identify promising opportunities for further practical experiments and offer a bit of speculative commentary – phrased in somewhat provocative terms to enable a spirited discussion – on how the SAcc funding, design and research landscape is evolving and where it could productively venture next.
Here, as an appetizer, a quick run through some of the main messages that it puts up for discussion:
- What works – what does not? does not quite work – as a useful question
Evidence is inconclusive. This seems to be one of the most conclusive messages from all the stock-taking. And my hunch is that evidence will always remain inconclusive. Drilling deeper will not help. The persistent answer is “it depends”. Trying to further pin down the pudding of what works leads to a growing laundry list of close-to-tautological preconditions for the success of SAcc -from political will and responsive bureaucracies to media freedom or a professional, watchful civil society. This risks to filter incidences of likely success (and thus interventions that qualify for funding) down to a small band of close-to-perfect situations where the question is why SAcc might be needed in the first place or has not materialized by itself and where likely net improvements are rather limited.
- Information is not sufficient, but hugely inspiring
Agreed, information interventions are by no means a sufficient condition for successful SAcc but they open a huge design space that is not being fully harnessed yet. Experiments, practical field tests and related insights in behavioral psychology that work with norms, peer awareness and various information nudges, highlight at least two important things: a) that entrenched habits and behaviors can be surprisingly susceptible to nifty, well-designed information interventions and b) that experimentation with and systematic learning about the impact of different designs is imperative and can make a huge difference. These insights and ideas are gradually being adapted for the SAcc / anti-corruption field and open up inspiring spaces for experiments and learning.
- Yes, tech is not a magic bullet – but…
…let’s not give up on it too soon. And let’s bring to bear on it a bit more the thinking-politically approach that is widely embraced otherwise. Too cryptic? Here an example: the transformational impact from a particular budget online disclosure initiative might not be the immediate, effective and sustainable tracking of stolen money. It might rather unfold in how it inserts new stakeholders, incentive and interpretative frames into the game that might rewire expectations, opportunity structures, power relations and social dynamics in interesting ways over the medium term and provide real tactical openings for progress. Think ICT vendors, entrepreneurial chief technology officers, ambitious department directors, think ICT-led modernization, efficient service delivery, public private partnership and you have an entire ecosystem of new incentives, potential coalitions and tactical pitches for such initiatives to shine more light on budgets in the longer run.
- Experiment with new funding models
There is more than volunteerism, government-support or donor funding that can be tried out – but rarely is. How about community fees, micro-insurance schemes or pay-for-success arrangements in SAcc?
- Look around to understand more and perhaps do better
A lot of research strategies on SAcc are confined to tracing the intervention, its participants and direct impact. Yet, looking at the negative space around it, the by-standers, the deliberate non-participants, the ones that do not even know about it, the critics and opponent, the indirect ripple effects might not only be highly complementary but actually offer a highly important view on medium and longer term prospects as well as fresh levers for engagement
- and 7. and 8. and up-front and center: POWER
Social accountability is not a promote-more-hand-washing type of initiative – an intervention that produces all around winners and should be able to bring everyone on board. It is about taking on entrenched power and privilege, undue enrichment and impunity. So, from the perspective of the ones that benefit from the status quo, it is a zero or negative sum game. Bacteria do not push back against hand-washing, but vested interests do in a community, so any gains are likely to be preliminary, subject to back-lash, prone to prompt a re-grouping and re-strategizing of the corrupt. SAcc is not technocratic acupuncture but political surgery – a contested project and struggle that will come with ups and downs, that is likely to progress in jumps and fits and fragile even when on a winning streak. We might advocate for thinking politically when it comes to pick allies and plot a path two achieving objective 2.a. But we are hesitant to fully recognize the political dimension of a SAcc project when it comes to donor expectations, funding horizons, design strategies, and also the related learning and research approaches.
Interested to read more? These and some more perhaps a bit irking thoughts are included in the working paper here. Just to re-iterate, this is all formulated in a somewhat provocative way but done in good faith to contribute to a spirted conversation. This very subjective-selective stock-take of stock-takes is part of the EC-funded ANTICORRP research project. However, all opinions are solely mine and do not reflect the official opinion of the European Commission, Transparency International or any of consortium partners. Your feedback and ideas are most welcomed.