What do we need to close the gap between what social accountability looks like in 2020 and how we talk about it? (Part 2B)
Many in the social accountability practice feel stuck in the middle of debates that do not reflect the way they go about their efforts. In a recent event, a diverse group of colleagues discussed why we do not talk about what we do. Here are additional insights from the conversation. The spotlight is on some of the enabling factors that could help us to move forward: collective narratives, a new shared language, meaningful indicators, realistic benchmarks, and as importantly, spaces to talk about the stuff that matters but is crowded out of the conversation.
- It’s time for collective narratives: We need courage and an enabling environment to help us tell new stories. We need ways to make sense and explain what we do. We do not need a single paradigm that constrains what stories can be legitimately told, what is “politically correct” for the spirit of the time. It would be too hard, if not impossible, to box the many strands that make up social accountability and other participatory approaches today. Many of us think that push towards unification is unhealthy for a field that depends on ideas or that group thinking can be counterproductive. We think of the middle as an umbrella for a series of slightly different, but complementary strands (middle-range, but plural).
This umbrella, rather than a single narrative, can celebrate the learning, adaptation, growth and diversity of the practice. An umbrella can acknowledge that pragmatic action may look different when civic space is opening, closing and changing, sometimes unevenly in a single country. How do we get out of parochial debates in the transparency, accountability, and participation world to lever reform efforts that have the potential to deliver for the communities we work with? The good news is that there are some groups already pushing the boundaries. They are challenging the romantic campaigning orthodoxy and showing feasible and effective alternative ones (see here, here and here). We need to find ways to give them megaphones to connect with others who are interested in engaging critically with their findings and building our collective knowledge. We need more funding and incentives so that these initial examples are the norm rather than the exception.
- We need a new shared language to help understand our work: We are past the long-route and short-route to social accountability and the debate between them. We are past the debate of whether citizens hold providers accountable for delivering public services directly (the latter) or whether they do so indirectly by holding the government accountable through mechanisms of political representation and expecting the government to hold providers to account (the former). The use of the short and long routes to criticize practice should be long over given tacit learning from practice and evidence, yet it persists in the stories people tell about social accountability. Strawmen versions of social accountability are not what we need to be talking about, as the practice evolves and demands on it grow from citizens and governments alike.
In Washington, D.C., the conversation was about neither route. The challenge is that we don’t have a common language to talk about practice in the “middle” route. With the absence of this common language, and a willingness to listen and think outside the box, it is very easy to get trapped in the crossfire among extremes. It is very hard to convey what we do and what function we play in a system or learn how we can get better at it.
- We need meaningful indicators to monitor practice in context and realistic benchmarks to evaluate it: For the last few years, many reviews of evidence of transparency, accountability and participation have put forward unattainable benchmarks: optimal institutions and systemic and transformative change. Whether intended or not, these frameworks process outcomes, sub-optimal achievement or incremental results can be dismissed as a distraction, a sham, or a failure. In the real world, sub-optimal outcomes are often a great success.
Working with the grain – understood as a road to pragmatism – can be the politically savvy strategy for a given organization and context, even if it looks un-sexy or happens completely outside the radar screen. There are no silver bullets – efforts are bound to fail unrealistic benchmarks and monitoring is unlikely to help improve them. Political change takes time and is non-linear: the “how” can be more important than the “what” as the turn towards adaptive and collaborative social accountability suggests. We often don’t know the right “fit” solution. Local actors should be in the conversation to identify what that looks like – to turn general mantras into operationally useful rules of thumb and guidance. Yet, they often do not have or open up about their civic capacities to exercise open governance as collective problem-solving, adapting as part of the coproduction and joint learning processes. Monitoring, evaluation, research and learning actions should help us nurture the capacities and open spaces to pull this off. This includes accepting that given concrete contextual variables, the playbook that makes sense to bring about change, will likely be different (see efforts to organize thinking about how to exercise agency given alternative structural configurations e.g. here). In this new chapter of social accountability, we “can imagine that better measurement of our success would entail looking more carefully at the sorts of dynamic behaviors – continuous pursuit of improvement, innovation in approaches, crowding in by various actors – in governance” rather than some externally imposed, static, universal, and normative high standard. Part of the challenge that operational or programmatically minded colleagues face when normatively, zero-sum positions influence their decision-making sphere is that they lack boundary conditions. Monitoring, evaluation, research and learning should also prompt more honest conversation to help us come to terms with the struggle that engaging with power pragmatically may seem hollow, unfeasible or unethical for other organizations or in other conditions. A key step to close the gap between abstract debates and practice, then, may be to ask systematic questions about the interaction between context and process (causal mechanism) –under which conditions is that your preferred strategy is a better bet than the alternative option? We are taking steps in this direction (here; here). However, we still need to do much work to identify and test what markers are relevant for the ways in which change may happen through social accountability.
- We need to open more spaces to talk service delivery: Real people benefitting from better services is at least as important as other objectives. It should not be surprising that practitioners are eager to engage spaces to discuss how to make progress in and through service delivery. Lately, as conversations about global norms, civic space, social movements, and technology take over the global agenda spaces for exchanging about service delivery are relatively scarce.
We need to bring day to day concerns out of hiding and move away from unfruitful dichotomies. Each of these approaches and practitioners’ interests are slightly different but partially connected stories of the day-to-day of accountability struggles to move beyond instrumental, idiosyncratic, frontline, individual-to-individual shifts. We need to give space for colleagues to talk about what matters to them in their context. Let’s offer more space to talk about informal relationships and the messy politics of influence rather than the purist all-or-nothing politics of ivory towers. That might be about how much time and effort is required to build new relationships, it might be about acknowledging lots of bureaucrats inability to help not by choice but due to a lack of mandates or resources to deliver well. It might be that sector specialists are already fine with the discourse on participation but want more practical (less ideological, and less conceptual) means to actually introduce it.
- Let’s talk more seriously about decent bureaucrats and sector colleagues who actually care as much as we do and help them to deliver. How many of you have a family member or a friend who’s a teacher, a nurse, a doctor? Are they not trying to make the world a better place? How many of you know a public servant that works in a government ministry? Are your friends not trying their best to serve the public?
I was a public official in a previous life – working with a committed team of accountability seekers in a playing field tilted against us. It was the most challenging and rewarding experience I ever had. It forced me to open the state’s black box and gain nuance about the many ways in which institutional change can happen – the unique opportunities and constraints that actors’ within the state have. I am not alone. If you have never worked in the public sector, have you tried empathy? Have you ever tried to see the world from where they are standing and get smarter by doing so? Or do you really think that the many colleagues that have worn hats in civil society and government during their careers are “traitors”? I think many in our field think they are a great asset for social accountability work. Many activists have bureaucrats and local politicians as their “whisperers” – even in very complicated political circumstances (see e.g. here). Accountability Lab has taken this recognition a step further: naming and faming (not shaming) icons within bureaucracies around the world. I suspect that when many communities opt for collaboration rather than confrontation is because they dine on Sunday with the cousin of the town’s doctor. I am an Argentinean. At home, it hurts to stay quiet about politics with friends and family for fear that all hell will break loose. It hurts to say that I work with charities rather than on accountability to a new acquaintance in my art class to be able to strike a conversation focused on color palettes and watercolors rather than on polarized politics. After all, who are we confronting against and for what purpose? When we are reflecting on or giving prescriptions to others’ circumstances, who are we asking local communities to stand up to? Sometimes it is a real and perceived Leviathan, for others it may be a straw-man Leviathan and/or our friends, acquaintances, and relations? Confrontation and protests are legitimate. They are a right. They are one of the many ways in which citizens can demand solutions to their needs – not the only “real story” not clearly the way forward to turn grievances into solutions to problems that push people to the streets. Personally, I’ve joined my fair share of protests with pots and pans at home. However, we need to learn more about when some civil society can/should hide in the wilderness in different contexts. We need to listen more about others’ circumstances. In the meantime, accountability work continues, and we should not put a break to learning about it until things improve.
Implications: Social accountability and participatory practices are getting better at what they do and they can contribute to service delivery. Yet, they face some huge internal challenges. We need to build on the interest of colleagues to move towards tapping into opportunities to work with sectors for service delivery, both in terms of building new narratives that bridge sectors’ asks and community demands and refocusing research and evaluation agendas so we can make our practice better, our stories a better match of reality, and our case stronger. So far, our organic, gradual approach to glamorize the middle is paying off to legitimize and bring the topic and allies out of hiding. I’ll tell you more in the next posts of these series, including how you can join in the action. In the meantime, I invite your feedback: does this resonate with you? And what does this all mean for practitioners? What next steps would you take? We need to get there, I know but step by step and together.
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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Boundaries, relationships, and incremental change, by Thomas Aston