Evidence into policy

Designing social accountability differently

By 24/02/2015

There is a dirty little secret in transparency and accountability circles:

Some percentage of social accountability interventions fail.

We don’t know what that percentage is (which is a different problem for a different post). But anyone working on social accountability can find a few cases – maybe even some from their own work – that just did not do what they were supposed to do.

Citizens did not participate. Advocacy or collaborative engagement did not happen. Services did not improve.

The more positive way to think about this would of course be to say, “some percentage of social accountability programmes succeed.” And, for many social accountability interventions, the difference between success and failure may lie in a few design decisions. Social accountability is hard; with no simple recipe and no easy checklist, design is critical – and really difficult.

So where can civil society organisations go if they want resources for designing better social accountability? It depends on where they are starting.

What if you start with the idea that you want to do a social audit? The good news is that there are more toolkits and guidebooks and resources than you could ever hope to use to design a single programme. But what if a social audit is not the right fit for your objective – or the context in which you are working? Starting with a tool is starting with a set of design choices that may not be right from that start.

So let’s start from a different point: what if you want to empower communities to improve maternal health? Taking it a step further – what if you want to know how other people have worked to address maternal health in communities in your country? Or in neighboring countries? Or how people have dealt with similar issues in primary education? Or family planning? From a design perspective, starting with the problem rather than the tool makes much more sense – we are not restricting the design of the programme before we even start.

But most of the toolkits and guidebooks and resources are not designed around these questions. Instead they focus on the techniques, such as social audits and community scorecards that are more tangible and seemingly replicable. But those approaches to social action were all created to address specific problems in specific contexts – problems and contexts that may or may not be the same as the ones a civil society organisation is working on today.

So how do we start creating resources that focus on the right things – and help civil society organisations design better social accountability? We are testing out a few ideas with the Atlas.

  • First, we are categorising projects by not just approach and tool type, but also problem type. Practitioners can see how peers addressed the same problems they are facing around issues including access to services and leakage of funds, and if indeed they are taking the right approach to addressing the problem they want to solve.
  • Second, the Atlas asks organisations that are profiled to provide any information they can on results and evidence of impact. This is an uphill battle, and one in which we have only started making progress. Many accountability programs do not have concrete results to share. But the ones that do are sharing those results on the Atlas, and those results can provide insight to other practitioners as to what works – and in what context.

And as more initiatives are profiled on the Atlas and more practitioners have real results (both good and bad) to point to, practitioners will be able to see a more comprehensive view of what social accountability efforts are already happening in their country, in their region, and in their field of work. Civil society organisations, donors, and others will start to identify trends of what is working and what is not – and will be able to build that evidence into future initiatives. Further, they will be able to connect with other organisations with whom they can share and learn, improving the quality of social accountability across the wider field.

And the percentage of social accountability initiatives that do not work may start to get smaller.


by Courtney Tolmie, Senior Program Director at the Results for Development Institute (R4D).