How do you turn a downward circle into a virtuous spiral? Improving local governance and service delivery without shouting at the system

edward.irby Jun 29, 2017

Blog by Beth Turner, Integrity Action

14 years after Integrity Action first introduced the idea of community feedback as a mechanism to improving social accountability, it’s relevance to solving problems is now becoming more pertinent.

Sean Darby and Beth Turner of Integrity Action attended an event hosted by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), entitled, ‘Improving local governance and service delivery: Shouting at the system won’t make it work!’

The event primarily focused on research undertaken by academics from the University of Leeds and Mzumbe University, which had the aim of assessing whether establishing performance indices that would measure the local governance was feasible in Tanzania, i.e. whether there was ‘space’ for such a metric of measuring governance (Mdee et al, 2017). The underpinning (and somewhat debated) theory is that ranking any form of public service, or project delivery, will in turn improve accountability as well as reduce the risk that those ‘goods’ will be provided at a poor standard. Indicators such as incidences of land disputes and effectiveness of ward councillors were suggested as suitable for measuring governance in the political, and livelihoods and resources sectors respectively.

However, is simply knowing the current state of governance across different sectors sufficient to initiate change? Dr Tim Kelsall from the ODI’s Politics and Governance Team asserts that information alone does not initiate change. Improving social accountability and governance requires a combination of mechanisms that help to motivate the better delivery of services and projects. As panel member Ananilea Nkya, a media specialist from Tanzania championed, it is essential that information is proactively shared through as many channels as possible, with media being a critical platform to ensure citizen engagement. However, access to information does not by itself enable citizens negotiate the unique ‘lines of blame’ and ‘political challenges,’ that make traditional technical solutions to the issue of accountability unsuccessful.

Many technical solutions (especially when created by donors) are blind to what happens in reality in terms of how governance operates on the ground. Patricia Tshomba, one of the researchers of the project in Tanzania, explained that village councils are often held responsible for the delivery of public goods - however, they in turn are under the limitations of the resources they receive from the government. Nonetheless, it is the council rather than the government that is wrongly held to the account by citizens. In reality the ‘line of blame’ should extend further up the chain of power. Citizens using information to induce change is also limited by coalitions of blockers for which the system as it exists operates to their benefit.

Kelsall reiterated what we at Integrity Action have always held to our core; in that to encourage virtuous spirals, you cannot blame, but problem solve. Problem solving is only possible through collaboration, to not only overcome a coalition of blockers, but to also create micro-changes in a system that would lead to larger scale and sustainable improvements in public service and project delivery. Although access to information is a core component of problem solving it is essential that mechanisms for citizens to use that information and to motivate positive feedback exist.

Only after citizens get better at forming their own coalitions for collaboration, as well as gain practical experience in solving problems, does the system shift systemically to one that emulates integrity and accountability. Indices by themselves do not lend themselves to collaborative problem solving but instead motivates stakeholders to participate in ‘gaming’ (in which stakeholders try and improve their ranking through corrupt means) or simply dis-incentives participation entirely.

Integrity Action’s Fix-Rate is unique in that it actually measures how governance and accountability within a system improves over time. It is a measure of how this ‘virtuous spiral’ represents the problem solving that occurs at the grass-root level, by the citizens who use the information to initiate productive discussions. Collaboration is exemplified through our Joint Working Groups (JWGs). It captures the strength that information, collaboration and positive feedback combined have in driving improvements in the accountability, integrity and transparency of governance. It is this sort of index that operates not to name and shame but to celebrate a system that consists of stakeholders working together to ensure the best delivery of public services and projects.