What prevents us from telling/listening stories about what we do? (Part 2 A)
This blog post is the second of a series about identifying and harnessing the energy to make social accountability’s daily work– the everyday politics of accountability for service delivery – exciting and glamourous. In this post, I identify several opportunities and constraints to start talking about what we are doing and hope to do in the next years, rather than what theoretical frameworks prescribed years ago.
In a recent listening session with more than forty colleagues from 19 countries we identified a series of themes that help or get in the way of shining a light on social accountability practice as practitioners themselves see it (illustrated with cases we discussed outside the meeting – Chatham House Rule, remember?). My key takeaways of the conversation are split in two-parts:
- In practice, service delivery is a “first order” concern for many, even if in some governance discourse, it is presented “second order”. People and communities around the world care about quality service delivery for all – from parents in Mongolian parent-teacher associations to protestors in Chile. In many prevalent critiques of social accountability work, however, service delivery is depicted as second order to “higher ends”. To be sure, accountability is a legitimate end and, for many the first order concern and/or mutually reinforcing entry point to service delivery goals. However, issues of social mobilization and empowerment are not the only relevant aim for everyone in the field all the time – as often portrayed in discourse and theories of change.
In this context, sometimes social accountability practitioners get lost in pursuing ”Accountability” as an end in itself, rather than as a process towards different intended and unexpected ends that matters for their organizations in their contexts. For many groups, “lower-level” issues seem to provide ways to build trust and catalyze collective action and social mobilization for high political aims.
- Pact’s Belarus Reforms and Media Assistance Project (BRAMA) found an opportunity to change attitudes about civil society by taking actions often unrelated to formal politics or advocacy – things like park clean-ups, heritage celebrations, and work in consumer protection (more here).
- In Tunisia and Georgia, Global Integrity found that activities that foster a sense of collective identify and shared purpose, including a month of social actions to meet people in cafes and similar places, can support sustained anticorruption engagement.
- New evaluations in Indonesia and Tanzania show that communities often choose to engage civic actions that we normally do not associate with social accountability as part of their plans.
- In Mozambique, local groups have developed a large bag of tricks to build trust for different citizen groups and government taking small steps together, from prioritizing problems to going to the market to raise awareness about tax collection. In so doing, social accountability practitioners provide incentives and resources for government responsiveness in day to day tasks that matter to the people.
- The building blocks of practice are less “idealized” than the literature that restrict our stories: Practice is pragmatic, more porous than many of the theoretical categories and concepts that box it in the literature. Yet, many times practitioners’ stories about what they do are bound by parameters set by story processes – core activities of grantmaking, implementation, reporting and communications. They are also bound by literature – research and evaluation. Borrowing an expression from Tom Aston, the theoretical and methodological high priests and police pre-define the use of language. The language does not necessarily describe ends, processes or means of our work.
Many times we present, design, and evaluate projects based on what we expect others (funders, peers, bosses, etc.) want to see (see e.g. here and here). In practice “A” may be 20% of what we do, “B” is 80%. Still, how many times have you felt frustrated because you are telling a story about “A” rather than “B”? We normalize the notion that “B” should not matter. We “hide”, leave blind spots for the other “stuff” we know is critical and, sometimes more significant for our work.
In our session, we opened the possibility to challenge the “authorities” of social accountability – without fear of repercussions from the powers that be. A series of specific themes we don’t talk about got traction in the session among participants – again a group we suspected is not comfortable with the bias. These emerged from concrete stories of frustration about issues that are key to our work, but we don’t talk about, nor document. Sneak preview of blog post 3, 4, and 5:
- focus on the bureaucracy and its competences in complex systems, incentives, motivations and capabilities to deliver (e.g. here, here) rather than focus only or primarily on “empowerment” as the root to accountability.
- attention to mid-range relationships (trust), both as a key element to solve problems but also as a mechanism that helps the ideal of collective action become a reality – new research is showing what community organizers have known for a long time: personal relationships are effective ways to encourage individuals’ engagement (here, here, here). The alternative we are more likely to talk about are GRAND changes around social contract.
- work with sectors, where we see different incentives and different types of relationships which require different strategies to achieve change (e.g. here). This is an alternative to providing general macro-level analysis and arguments, broad cross-sector conceptualizations, and, decontextualized interventions with few sector or delivery chain specific guide post to integrate participation into sector’s work (here and here).
An important point is that there are imperative literatures about each one of these themes. Knowledge and narratives are evolving about all these questions. There is little cross-fertilization with social accountability’s own narratives.
- Practice is moving at a fast pace in many places; discussions of research and evidence, and the stories and theories they inform, seem stuck. The gap between theory and practice is growing (see here). We have mixed evidence about the value of social accountability when we ask about the short and long route (here and here). We focus on specific aspects of transparency, accountability and participatory practices, hiding many valuable lessons.
Does talking about pre-defined ideals help us break through barriers (from instrumental to institutional, from small scale to grand scale, from empowerment to accountability?) If so, how? Are we asking questions that help tell stories that matter most for sustaining and growing the practice? Are we focusing on social accountability’s key outcomes and mechanisms? Are the more interesting and useful aspects to link up to cross-sector reforms hiding in plain sight? (e.g. here).
At the 2019 GPSA Forum, a few evaluators using innovative frameworks presented their work. Afterwards, several civil society organizations’ colleagues came over and said that they “now understand what a useful evaluation looks like”. They told me that they want an evaluation that is analytical rather than descriptive. They want an evaluation that helps them think about what they set out to do, are, or will be doing rather than one that provides an unattainable, external ideal or a piece of marketing. When I hear these reactions from rock stars of social accountability, I have to think that the answer to the questions above is no. We are not focusing research and evaluation resources into stuff that matters as often as we should.
I’ll stop here for now. The conversation was so rich that I think it’s good to pause. In Part B, I focus on what we need moving forward to get unstuck. I also provide some initial thoughts on the implications for our work.
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
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