Conquering our blind spots: Glamorizing the everyday politics of accountability (Part 1)

Florencia Guerzovich

News flash for you! There is untapped energy to glamorize social accountability’s daily work – the everyday politics of accountability for service delivery. This blog post series is a call for bridging the gap between theory and practice. We need to act quickly on untapped energy to write social accountability’s next chapter. Are you up for the challenge 2020?

We have blind spots about what social accountability spends most of its time on. Our attention is disproportionately focused on  portrayals of social accountability as the short and long routes to service delivery accountability as well as account-based accountability centered around monitoring linked to sanctions as a control technology.  For many social accountability practitioners work on day-to-day accountability for service delivery by nurturing collaborative processes. In these processes, the accounts of people across service delivery systems, especially those that use the system,  matter more for solving concrete problems and catalyzing broader change than accounting and pushing for sanctions.

We are not focusing on these key aspects of the evolution of action. It is urgent to refocus our attention where it counts for today’s practice. The everyday politics of accountability include navigating bureaucratic incentives, strengthening relationships, and working with sectors.

There is untapped energy to harness opportunities: health, education, and other sectoral colleagues, increasingly acknowledge that people are part of the politics of accountability for improved service delivery. Glamorizing our daily work is about coming clean: social accountability practitioners spend most of their time building relationships (regardless of whether they have funding for it or not). In this next chapter we should be learning from reality checks: civil society cannot provide answers to people’s problems by going alone or only focusing on high level officials. We need to work with the initiatives and incentives of bureaucrats and local politicians. This does not mean shrinking the tent of social accountability to only collaborative approaches, but we cannot crowd out such a big portion of social accountability practice either. A new balance is called for to close the gap with practice.

Taking the pulse of the practice:  In 2019 there have been many debates about the growing gap between the concepts, benchmarks, and assumptions built into the design, management and evaluation of social accountability programs, on the one hand, and the language that practitioners use to describe their day to day work when they open up. I had many one-on-one conversations to understand how we might take frustration into action.

A few weeks ago, a group of colleagues, made a call to reconsider what social accountability practice is about. We  threw down the gauntlet in the largest global social accountability convening. Then, we checked whether there was broader interest in talking about everyday small “p” politics – an unglamorous topic. Yet, community organizers in Mozambique to chiefs in Zambia to public officials in Brazil, Ghana, and Argentina consider it an inherent part of delivering solutions to people rather than the so-called anti-politics machine.

We invited a group of colleagues to take a leap of faith with us on the sidelines of the GPSA Global Partners Forum. More than 40 transparency, accountability and participation practitioners, evaluators, funders, and researchers from 19 countries attended. These colleagues are focused on the programmatic, instrumental value of their efforts for improving service delivery at country level. We also invited a small number of sectoral experts trying to push collective action in country sectoral programs.

The small list of initial invitations grew through snowballing – i.e. referrals by others. We took the responsibility to ensure that as the diversity and number of the people in the room grew, there was sufficient glue to start paving joint learning (on this challenge here).

The initial proposition: Tom Aston and David Jacobstein helped design and facilitate the session. Sue Cant and many others gave us useful advice. We went in with an open mind, rather than a fully developed plan. There was no money / project / organization attached to the invitation. We piggybacked on people already coming to Washington, D.C. We were lent a room by the World Bank (I called in some favors).

We asked colleagues to tell us stories of practice following certain rules (Box 1). The trigger for the conversation was purposively daring and vague so we could unearth something different:

“Narratives (the stories we tell) about participatory approaches remain anchored in extremes and dichotomies: supply vs. demand, top vs. bottom, political vs. technocratic, grassroots vs. organized civil society, empowerment vs. performance management, tools vs. strategies, information vs. accountability, instrumental vs. normative, collusion vs. confrontation, agency vs. structure, optimism about certain groups and doom and gloom about others. However, much action for improved service delivery for all at country level happens in the unglamorous “middle” [of these extremes/poles] where people are working. These popular social accountability narratives have blind spots and conversations are getting stuck”.

We asked colleagues to listen to others talking about how they experienced the blind spots and how, if at all, they got unstuck. We offered to listen to their struggles, too.

The response was surprising in a good way. Collectively, we identified rich untold stories from around the world, each unique but potentially linked to other stories. We brought together a group that let go of concerns to speak up. We are on our way to identifying a set of incentives and actions to turn frustration, skepticism, and fear into action. The group that met in Washington, D.C. is a sample of our growing list of colleagues hoping to have a space to step up thinking for the future of social accountability action.

Below are some of the headlines of the rest of the blog post series:

In post 2, I identify aspects of the theoretical conversation that helps or prevents us from telling/listening to stories about what we do in the day-to-day. These include acknowledging that, for many, service delivery is of “first order” – and that it is a legitimate pursuit and use of social accountability. I also discuss that much action for improved service delivery at country level, happens in the unglamorous “middle” where people get stuck. However, we rarely talk about what the “middle” looks like or how we are learning to navigate small “p” politics of accountability (for a learning journey and show of courage see here).

We did not try to theorize what “the middle” route means for all participants. We crowdsourced a list of issues that mattered to them. Three elements of the “middle” emerged inductively, by listening to personal stories as the initial stepping-stones: bureaucratic incentives, relationships, and work with sectors, which I discuss in posts 3, 4, and 5 respectively.

Unlike practice, much of the literature is “idealized” and frozen in time. I argue that to catch up with practice we need new narratives (stories), more accessible language, more meaningful monitoring, evaluation, research and learning tools (theories of change and action, indicators, more realistic benchmarks) and more spaces to talk openly about the politics of service delivery.

In parallel, I hope that David, Tom and others can share their reflections on the conversations to-date. You can already start connecting dots by reading the blog posts that Sue Cant and Eric Sarriot, Yeukai Mukorombindo, Sol Gattoni and I wrote on related themes before our meeting.  The new GPSA’s theory of action challenges preconceived ideas of what social accountability looks like and the new results framework will make an effort to measure more relevant indicators for collaborative social accountability today. Also, listen into this session with Brian Levy, Charity Komujjurizi and Craig Burgess – which created a buzz at the GPSA Forum.

The last post is an emerging to-do list, we hope to turn needs into concrete proposals and actions. We welcome your input and suggestions to take this process to the next level.

Box 1: The rules of the session: 

This meeting was an explicit effort to bring out of hiding what dozens of organizations “from the field” of various stripes believe actually works in their context – rather than what they believe others (funders, academics, etc.) think works. Accountability goes on in an everyday sense whatever scholars and pundit’s flavor of the week is. We asked them to shine a light on issues that are part of their work, but rarely get talked about.

We think it is legitimate to learn about why so many international and national organizations are not focused on revolutions, even if this is in the news, and why they do what they do. Their struggle is also real (cf. here). Power in our practice is asymmetric (funders and grantees, senior and junior, native English speakers and not, evaluators and evaluated, researchers and CSOs, North and South, genders, experts vs. practitioners, etc.). Colleagues should be able to speak unapologetically and not feel guilty about their day-to-day realities and how they wrestle with these.

We needed to break the ice among a diverse group of people who did not know each other. Moderation considered asymmetries. We created a safe space (Chatham House Rule: no names, no institutions, no countries).  In these posts, we are using examples that were not discussed in the session for illustrative purposes. These new examples help us build bridges to other conversations.

This blog post series reflects the views of the author. Thanks to Tom Aston, David Jacobstein, Maria Poli, Sol Gattoni, Courtney Tolmie, Marine Perron, and Jamila Delly Musa Abdulkadir for input and suggestions.

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About the Author

Florencia Guerzovich

Florencia Guerzovich is an independent consultant and has worked for The World Bank, Open Society Foundations, Ford Foundation, among other organizations. She currently works as Senior Advisor Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning at the Global Partnership for Social Accountability at the World Bank. She has been innovating, connecting, researching, and problem solving for big, complex governance problems since 2000, when she joined the Department of Transparency Policies of the Argentinean Anti-corruption Office. Florencia also served the Transparency and Accountability Initiative's Program Officer, Impact and Learning. Florencia earned her PhD in political science from Northwestern University. Florencia also has a Master’s degree in International Relations from FLACSO/Argentina and a Bachelor’s of Arts in International Studies from Universidad Torcuato di Tella in Argentina. @guerzovich.

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