Problem solving before teeth: welcome to the realm of local politicians and the bureaucracy (Part 3)
This blog post series is an invitation to consider how we might get unstuck. We need new narratives of social accountability for service delivery. In a previous blog post I explained why many colleagues seem frustrated with current frameworks that fail to tell what we collectively are doing to lever participation for service delivery, i.e. the everyday politics of accountability. As a consequence, much about what we do is left un-said. We need to make this practice glamorous like never before, or we won’t get unstuck.
If there was one takeaway that may shock those that were not in the room, it is the change in the unit of analysis of our work. We moved from empowered people in the streets to the bureaucrat – that familiar but often overlooked actor that is a critical cog in the mechanisms to channel people’s demands through the system. Bureaucracy, in its different varieties, and local politicians are hiding in the middle. But before getting into the shift, the obvious: this is not an either or argument, of course, empowerment matters. This is an argument about what practice looks like and how to make it better, without conflating the normative with the cognitive, organizational and institutional.
This shift is associated with evolving thinking about the functions and mechanisms of social accountability processes. In practice, we are talking more about responsiveness – another unglamorous term – or problem solving than accountability or teeth. As Napoleão Bernardes, former mayor of Blumenau in Brazil put it: “Running a city is like managing a permanent crisis … Civil society and city government must add up. The quality of their collaboration, and accountability of government to the citizens, are vital to the health of the city”.
Many social accountability practitioners appreciate the nature of this joint dynamic with the public sector. In this context, accountability actions emerge as a deliberative process where the accounts of those embedded in a delivery system matter more for catalyzing change than accounting and pushing for sanctions. Dan Honig and Lant Pritchett make the point looking at education systems. They explain that when efforts to address accountability deficits focus on improving what can be counted, for instance through improving data systems for observation and verification, they often fail to improve education system performance. They may even be counterproductive because those who have done the work cannot get from reality to the ideal number with the tools they have. Stakeholders often get to a dead end, or familiar to accountability practitioners, they end worst off with tired, disillusioned and demobilized communities. Strengthening “real” or “thick” accountability to students and parents in a school not only should address attendance or book delivery, but when stakeholders deliberate what happens when the teacher is in the classroom. This is something that collaborative social accountability experimentation in education is trying out in practice bridging communities and other actors in the school systems.
Bureaucrats, local politicians, and their capacities and incentives to respond to demands, rather than people’s expectations, seem to shape responsiveness and the ability to effectively solve problems that matter to people. Our colleagues believe that when service providers and bureaucrats feel their challenges are understood, they are more likely to respond in kind in many contexts. Yet, the lack of attention and learning about each side (state and civil society and their interfaces) can undermine the possibility to increase trust and continue engaging in what should be in essence a repeat interaction. Synergies between public sector programs and reforms (not just champions) seem a possible way forward (here and here) and bureaucrats are part and parcel of this approach.
Still, we continue to fall back in the public sector versus civil society dichotomy in funding and analysis. The latter often is reduced to a monolithic national government obscuring key actors and their incentives (exceptions here, here, here, here). Politics and power often get in the way of the effective implementation of reforms. Technocrats do not have the same incentives as politicians. When engaging the civil service, one cannot just turn technocratic or shift to advocacy for a number of reasons. We shouldn’t just conflate frontline service providers – the nurse – and civil servants – the director of health in the Ministry. Nor can we assume that horizontal accountability bodies (e.g. ombudsmen) have the same incentives as those in line ministries or that simultaneously using both entry points carries no unintended consequences. Yet, technical insights matter, too (e.g. on discursive institutionalism and the politics of social protection). Both are critical for sustainable service reforms that engage and deliver for citizens. Both are necessary so that we shift from demanding to collaboratively crafting responsive and accountable service delivery systems that work for all.
Next up in the blog post series, relationship building for accountability.
This blog post series reflects the views of the author. Thanks to Tom Aston, David Jacobstein, Maria Poli, Sol Gattoni, Courtney Tolmie, Jeff Thindwa, Marine Perron, and Jamila Delly Musa Abdulkadir for input and suggestions.
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Read also: Boundaries, relationships, and incremental change, by Thomas Aston