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Feedback and appraisal: why both facts and feelings matter when citizens demand their rights

Derek Thorne

Head of Programme Development, Integrity Action

Feedback and appraisal is an important concept behind Integrity Action’s approach to accountability – and it turns out we aren’t the only ones taking this approach

When it comes to accountability – and specifically, citizens demanding it – feedback is a central concept.

Feedback is the way you find out that a service is not meeting with citizens’ satisfaction. Where there is sufficient trust, feedback can tell you what people really think, and help you to improve.

However, at Integrity Action, we have for some time been thinking that feedback by itself is underpowered. Taking service delivery as an example, feedback is primarily about what people think, or how people feel, about that service. It is experiential, and – if gathered in sufficient detail – no two people’s feedback would be quite the same.

For us, the issue is that feedback by itself can too easily become divorced from the concrete commitments that a project or service makes. Put simply, it is too easy for someone to provide positive feedback on what they are receiving if they do not know that more has been promised to them. Likewise, if a citizen expects more than what has been promised it could lead to a level of frustration and distrust that might be avoidable.

So at Integrity Action, we combine feedback with the concept of appraisal. Appraisal refers to an assessment of what is being delivered and whether it matches up to what was promised. Does a school have the promised number of desks or functioning toilets? Does a health facility have the equipment that it should have?

Feedback Appraisal

• Primarily subjective feelings

• Relates to citizens' expectations and satisfaction

• Can be limited without knowledge of what has been promised

• Supports efforts to change what is promised so it better meets citizens’ needs

• Risk of frustration or loss of trust when the expectations of citizens and duty-bearers do not align

• Primarily objective facts

• Compares what is delivered to what was promised

• Requires good knowledge of what has been promised

• Supports efforts to close the gap between what is promised and what is delivered

• Risk of focussing too much on implementation and overlooking whether promises are the right ones

Of course, it is foolhardy to claim something is truly objective in practice, and when you’re dealing with vague promises (“we will consult the community on this new development”) or things that are hard to measure (“we will reduce corruption”) then appraisal can be tough to do in a robust way.While feedback is primarily subjective, appraisal is primarily objective – it is based on evidence. In principle, it doesn’t matter who is doing appraisal; provided they have sufficiently precise information on what was promised (not a given, of course) and are able to monitor to what extent this has been delivered, anyone should reach the same conclusion.

However, we have still found it a useful concept when citizens are demanding accountability for a whole range of things, and it forms an important part of Integrity Action’s theory of change. In situations where there is a stark power imbalance between the people providing a service and the people who should be receiving it, voicing a critical opinion might be a difficult step for someone to take, particularly if they are marginalised. Appraisal gives some “backing” to what they are saying, turning an opinion into an evidence-based statement that is harder to argue with and doesn’t need to come from just one individual.

It’s not just feedback that is underpowered without appraisal; appraisal is likewise underpowered without feedback, because it misses important issues about whether a promise to a community is the right promise. Appraisal also fails to generate more emotionally resonant evidence that could be important in persuading duty-bearers and policy-makers to make needed changes.

Infrastructure provides a good example of how Integrity Action has been applying the combination of feedback and appraisal. Citizens have been monitoring infrastructure in various Integrity Action partnerships, such as this one in Kenya, and this one in Ghana. Through appraisal, citizens can check whether key things have been delivered such as materials in sufficient quantity and quality, or ramps for accessibility. Through feedback, citizens can express their feelings about whether this construction is in fact needed, or is being built in the right place. Our recent data story from the VOICE programme in Kenya provides examples of this kind of data.

From a broader perspective, it is not only Integrity Action that is taking this approach. This World Bank guide to community scorecards features an “input tracking matrix” (the appraisal bit) alongside “community scoring of performance” (the feedback bit). In this approach the input tracking matrix comes first, and this makes sense, because the subsequent feedback would be more informed. (It could also be interesting to get feedback both before and after appraisal is done.)

Meanwhile this guide to World Vision’s Citizen Voice and Action methodology has a similar combination of community scorecards and “monitoring standards” (a more user-friendly name for the input tracking matrix).

Appraisal also sounds a lot like a social audit – and you could say that when citizens are comparing what they are promised with what they are delivered, they are effectively performing an audit. However, the term “audit” suggests a much more involved process, and appraisal can be relatively light-touch, focussing on things that citizens can easily observe (like the opening times of a clinic).

While the combination of feedback and appraisal is a recognisable concept, we have not seen it clarified or highlighted in quite this way. Accountability mechanisms sometimes have a division between feedback and complaints, but we are not aware of a clear and consistently-used distinction between the two. (I would argue that complaints are a form of feedback.)

More to the point, we find it useful. When working with partners to design a mechanism for citizens to hold to account a project or service, we like to ask how citizens will have the opportunity to provide both feedback and appraisal - and how the relevant information will be made available, or generated, to facilitate appraisal.

Please reach out to us if you are aware of any evidence we have missed on this – or if you are using a combination of feedback and appraisal, but calling it something else!

Thanks to Dan Burwood and Sue Cant for comments, links and suggestions.

Photo: citizen monitor checking water infrastructure in Kwale county, Kenya