On learning about transparency & accountability… and how to move this debate forward (Part 1)

Florencia Guerzovich

Let me tell you a story about transparency, accountability & evidence. In January 2012, I landed in London at the Transparency and Accountability Initiative. My first task: supporting the development of a rigorous multi‐year research proposal on the impact of transparency and accountability interventions. The goal was to inform future T&A grant-making with stronger evidence.

In my inbox were dozens of proposals for funding the ambitious project. If a proposal was funded, the project would be co-financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK’s DFID, and The W. and F. Hewlett Foundation. They had very specific information requirements, opportunities and constraints. I recall a brainstorming session where we asked how we could design a project that would provide relevant answers for those audiences 6 years down the line?

It took months of hard work to select and approve a proposal for funding. It was a compromise between different organizational needs and assumptions and feasibility issues. Methodological preferences were brokered. A large number of technical experts and practitioners weighed in on the process through peer reviews, workshops and other means.

The result was the Transparency for Development project (T4D) – a joint effort of the Ash Center at the Harvard Kennedy School and Results for Development — which sought to evaluate the effectiveness of a transparency and participation program that aimed at improving maternal, newborn and child health. The team chose a mixed-methods proposal.

Suffice to say that the process to approve funding for T4D was my crash course on the political economy of donor-driven knowledge production. I witnessed first-hand the forces that constrain the parameters of the conversations. I saw how gatekeepers and gatekeeping mechanisms can (de)legitimate and (dis)empower people and viewpoints. Such forces make it harder to open the space for creative thinking that is fit-for-purpose. In this case, the purpose was informing grant-making in which transparency, accountability and participation add value for service delivery. In other cases the purpose could be different.

Fast forward to July 2019. Nathaniel Heller, Executive Vice-President, Integrated Strategies at R4D, posted a twitter thread about the findings of the first phase of T4D. “The result of the randomized controlled trial component of the evaluation was null — meaning that, on average, the program did not measurably improve the targeted health outcomes”. The analysis of the qualitative information reveals food for thought about the stories behind the headline, though. Check out the “bright spots blog post series” with specific examples of community-level success. The thread sparked a debate. Every so often, someone gets this kind of reaction in our area of work. Consider debates when Making all Voices Count was ending – a much bigger pool of funds put together under the same “spirit of the times” as T4D. The range of voices in both debates on social media was wide. It can be summed up in a few dialogue bubbles:

The same range appeared when, six months ago, Pia Raffler, Dan Posner and Doug Parkerson found that bottom-up accountability had null results on healthcare outcomes in Uganda. There was a virtual wonkwar a few months earlier when 3ie published a synthesis of evidence on community driven development’s impact (h/t Alan Hudson).

In his reflections on twitter, Nathaniel called for a healthy debate about the value of T&A work. We don’t know whether or how transparency and accountability contribute to service delivery and outcomes or even whether it should be explained as a means to an end and/or a valuable thing in itself. On this struggle also see Alan Hudson here.

I agree there is no one answer for all. Our space has common threads. It is also diverse. I work with groups that underscore their instrumental work, groups that commit to its intrinsic value and groups that find a balance between both (see, for example, lessons from what a group of COPSAM practitioners wanted to learn about).

This area of work and research has grown so fast since the World Development Report of 2004, that perhaps we have put too much emphasis on the commonalities that make up a less-than-coherent field. It’s been 15 years and it’s time to celebrate our commonalities AND respect our diversity. There is space (and funding) for different aims and journeys.

However, there’s a need for more recognition to be given to colleagues that have questioned and then adjusted their lines of inquiry. The World Development Report of 2004 is still presented by many as a guidepost for transparency and accountability work. Many colleagues have since departed from this starting point and explored new avenues. For example, Levy and Walton argue that we should focus on the managerial and operational space in between the short and long route to improve service delivery. This and other models that operate outside the WDR 2004 box are often overlooked by the zero-sum debate around the Report.

We also  fail to notice much practice caught in the crossfire between two ideal types: top-down, technocratic public management and bottom-up, “power” focused civil society. Many colleagues’ efforts are pragmatic – seeking principled second bests rather than ideals. Why are we trying to reduce the field to a single paradigm? Isn’t it high time we gave other theories and practices a space in the debate? Particularly given the scarcity of our individual and collective resources – that is, money, power, time, and ability to meaningfully and sustainably engage the volunteers: the citizens on which all this work hinges. (T4D has something to say about citizen participation, too).

In my second post on the T4D debates, I will propose a few actions we can take to move forward, for those who are interested in the T4D proposition: transparency, accountability and participation as a means towards improved service delivery.

This blog post reflects the views of the author drawing on prior research and experience. Thanks to Nathaniel Heller, Courtney Tolmie, Miriam McCarthy, Emilie Fokkelman, Alan Hudson, Jeff Thindwa , and Sol Gattoni for their time and input.

About the Author

Florencia Guerzovich

Florencia Guerzovich – Independent Consultant and Researcher. Sr. Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning Advisor, The Global Partnership for Social Accountability, The World Bank. [email protected]

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