When we set up the Global Partnership for Social Accountability and began reaching out to our colleagues in the field - CSOs, donors, academia, international institutions and World Bank colleagues, we started to notice a commonality in our conversations. We detected a strong undercurrent in the discussion: the limited ‘evidence’ about the impact of social accountability work on public sector performance. People alluded to the notion of there being ‘mixed results’. Essentially, support to social accountability was considered by some to be an optimistic endeavor, lacking rigorous evidence.
One way to address this issue was not only to call for new evidence, but to rethink the current evidence. We felt that what was needed was a review of both the evidence from empirical evaluations and the conceptual framework. This included identifying the limitations of the traditional social accountability initiatives that were tool-based, information-led and lacking coordination and collaboration. As much as these traditional initiatives achieved results, we wanted to look beyond, and see if our idea of supporting a collaborative governance approach – giving citizens a voice, supporting public institutions to listen and respond, all the while aligning incentives for collaboration – held any value.
This is what we asked Jonathan Fox, Professor at American University, to do. In doing so, Prof. Fox reviewed 25 of the main social accountability program evaluations that have framed the discourse on evidence, with an emphasis on field work.
His contribution helps to re-think the conceptual framework by distinguishing between tactical approaches (bounded interventions limited to ‘society-side’ efforts, also known as ‘tools’) and strategic approaches (multi-pronged tactics with collective action). He concludes that much of the evidence for tactical approaches are indeed mixed, but the evidence of impact of the strategic approach is more promising.
We are committed to a new strategic social accountability approach supported by evidence. Yet the notion of ‘proof of concept’ is important while we differentiate between validity and potential for generalization. Jonathan’s recommendations - around support for pro-accountability coalitions between state and civil society; the importance of interlocutors in building bridges where there is no invisible hand that will connect demand and supply governance reforms; and the importance of vertical integration of CSO oversight to help squeeze the balloon problem - sit at the center of social accountability approach embodied in the GPSA
We hope this will inform our discussions and with colleagues, GPSA Global Partners, donors and academics, as well as the implementation of GPSA initiatives during the coming years.