The role of social accountability for inclusive governance: Build on the Past, Reflect on the Present, Act for the Future

Florencia Guerzovich and Emilie Fokkelman
Watercolor by Florencia Guerzovich

This year’s GPSA Forum invites the Global Partners of the program to join a thought provoking conversation about the past, present, and future of social accountability efforts to support inclusive governance. The Forum Brief sets out this very broad theme posing three key questions to be answered. In this blog, we unpack some of the thinking behind them a bit further.




Looking back:

First, 2019 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the World Development Report 2004, which for many remains an anchor for their social accountability work. For others however, the core of social accountability practice has evolved beyond the confines of the WDR 2004. For instance, at the World Bank, as we discussed in 2017, the World Development Report 2017 on Governance and the Law is an important backbone to how we think social accountability can contribute to development results and systems.

A host of new evaluations and syntheses of evidence are challenging all of us who work on transparency, accountability, and participation to become better at understanding what our practice looks like today. In the GPSA team we’ve recently been part of many conversations on this challenge. If interested, watch the videos of the 3ie/IEG conference in April, the Bank’s conference on Foundations and Frontiers of Open, Participatory and Accountable Government in May, and look at the ideas shared in a Twitter conversation about the Transparency for Development report.

What are we learning so far about what makes social accountability so diverse, yet uniquely well placed for addressing exclusion and asymmetries of power? There are many ways to answer this question, but in the Forum we wanted to highlight two of them by asking in particular:

  • How do social accountability practitioners engage citizens? How do we tap into social networks and nurture relationships with and among citizens to, then, build bridges with government? How does it build on, and contribute to reinforcing social capital?  Emerging evaluations such as this one from Indonesia find that the investment in including people is addressing asymmetries of power and getting the most vulnerable involved, thus making social accountability effective in strengthening both service delivery outcomes and systems.    
  • How do we embrace our commonalities and diversity? There is no single way of ‘doing’ social accountability. There are many journeys and multiple goals. Many of our colleagues work on social accountability because of its normative value – such as those who follow human rights-based approaches. There are other colleagues who emphasize the instrumental value of social accountability in their work. Still others have concluded that social accountability can be principled and pragmatic at the same time: both a means and an end. If we take each journey on its own terms, how does each one contribute towards addressing inequality? Where do these different types of efforts converge and diverge?


Put into perspective the opportunities and constraints in 2019

The second question at the Forum is about reflecting on the opportunities and constraints for social accountability practice in meeting the challenge of inclusion in public governance and service delivery.


Chigo Mtegha-Gelders' tweet thread


  • Similarly but from another angle, focusing on participatory institutions, Lindsay Mayka, for example, argues that these are more likely to take root when “they are bundled into sweeping policy reforms, which upend the status quo and mobilize unexpected coalitions behind participatory institution building”. For Mayka, “participatory institutions created through reforms focused on deepening democracy are easy for entrenched interests to dismantle and sideline”. This finding is another provocation for social accountability practitioners to tap into the windows that cross sectoral reforms are opening for them – whether focused on quality education or universal health care.   


  • Another issue that we need to discuss is civic space, both in terms of opportunities and constraints for the field. Tom Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher recently provided important nuance, suggesting the issue may be better understood as changing more so than closing civic space. As the trend of closing civic space continues to deepen, it also becomes more multi-dimensional; as does the response. Technological tools for example are used by both autocratic governments and by social movements in the fight over civil society legitimacy. They affect civic action and participation in diverse ways.

At the Forum, let’s discuss what this means for social accountability and how these processes operate in today’s world as they work to support inclusion.


Connect Emerging Trends and Highlight Frontiers of Social Accountability

The third aim at the Forum is to be experience-based and creative, at the same time. The conference offers a unique opportunity to bring together innovations that are emerging around the world. New experiences help us think how we can build on the past but can keep evolving.  There are two sets of experiences that may be worth connecting:

  • For a long time, we have known that civil society on its own cannot take on the weight of delivering inclusive development. As early as 2000, Smulovitz and Peruzzotti argued that linking accountability constituencies inside and outside the state strengthened the workings and legitimacy of accountability systems. Early on, many colleagues focused on the value of individual “champions” or allies in the public sector. Since then, we are experimenting with the value of multi-stakeholder processes of co-creation and co-production, from municipalities to the global level. These newer approaches present different opportunities, for example in terms of sustainability, but also risks, such as conflicts of interests, collusion, and capture. 
  • Relatedly, the efforts to build complementarities between civil society interventions and public sector institutions are growing. Falleti and Cunial identify a phenomenon we are also seeing in GPSA-supported interventions and beyond (in health and education for example): that of programmatic participation for policy -making. That is, institutionally organized and state-sanctioned collective or collaborative behavior that influences or attempts to influence the management or distribution of public goods or social services.

This programmatic participation for policy making, much like co-creation and co-production efforts, often require civil society groups to look beyond “traditional” entry points in the public policy cycle, from consultation and planning to management and delivery. Collaborative participatory processes help set community priorities, plan policies, or design programs, and/or execute (at least in part) the designed policies and programs, often with the financial and/or technical backing of the state bureaucracy. Citizen feedback, in this pathway, is conducive to policy action as well as to the action of watchdogs or advocates and enforcers of accountability (monitoring).


Have ideas of issues and experiences you think should be discussed when thinking about the past, present and future of social accountability to better contribute to inclusion? Submit a proposal for a session or speaker, and join one of the webinars on the GPSA Knowledge Platform as we prepare for the Forum (details will be announced). If you know a great story or resource and can’t wait to share it, send it in for publication on the GPSA KP. If you can, register and join us in Washington DC on November 19-21. We look forward to see you there!


Florencia Guerzovich is an independent consultant and Sr. Advisor in Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning, GPSA.

Emilie Fokkelman is GPSA Knowledge & Learning Coordinator and GPSA Knowledge Platform Co-Manager.