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Is it accountability without a promise?

Derek Thorne

Head of Programme Development, Integrity Action

Is it accountability without a promise? Knowledge of a precise promise, or commitment, gives strength to demands for accountability from citizens, and the corresponding broad outcomes we are after, such as citizen empowerment or better services.

In late 2018, three Kenyan citizens who were monitoring the construction of a water tank in their village as part of an Integrity Action project made a breakthrough: they secured a piece of paper from the local government.

They were delighted. This document was a “bill of quantities” and included the specifications for the construction, right down to the type of bricks and the depth of the foundations.

This was significant because now they knew exactly what had been promised to them. Beforehand they knew “a water tank” had been promised, but this didn’t get them far. What if it had been the wrong size, or built with cheaper materials? How would they have known?

It seems obvious enough: knowledge of a precise promise, or commitment, gives strength to demands for accountability from citizens, and the corresponding broad outcomes we are after, such as citizen empowerment or better services.

And yet I raise this because I am not convinced that all the work being done under the “transparency and accountability” umbrella quite follows this logic. And I wonder whether this could have implications for whether those interventions actually work – or whether they work in the ways we think they do.

More on that shortly. But this is not to say the promise needs to be a bill of quantities to enable accountability. A precise promise is certainly better – and vague promises, of the “make America great again” sort, are the refuge of many politicians who don’t fancy accountability in practice.

But the promise can take many forms. There are high level promises, such as a country’s constitution or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – these can be a useful basis for accountability. Budgets are promises, though they often lack detail. Then there are implicit promises: because I am a citizen of the UK, I am bound by its laws – in effect, I promise to follow them. That’s my side of the social contract, and I can be held to account if I go on to break one.

The SDGs are a promise of sorts – though in practice, you can’t exactly promise to achieve a set of ambitious outcomes because there is too much beyond your control. Indeed, I would suggest it is easier to hold to account based on promised outputs rather than outcomes.

Sometimes, when no precise promise exists, it can be created and agreed - take ActionAid’s Promoting Rights in Schools approach, which involves communities and school management building on a rights-based charter and agreeing a set of school improvements for the year ahead.

And let’s not forget that sometimes the promise is a bad one – when fulfilled, it might exclude people, or bring no benefit whatsoever. (That promised water tank might have been planned in the wrong place.) When this happens the promise, or policy, needs to change - be it through advocacy, influencing, whatever strategy is appropriate. It seems to me that every accountability effort should allow for actions like this, for when the promise is found wanting, or absent, or when there is reluctance to fulfil it.

Why does this matter? While I’m keen for the nature of accountability interventions to be agreed upon, the most immediate implications are for the transparency side of the equation – what we mean when we talk about “information” in such interventions.

We have known for some time that simply providing information does not lead to citizens successfully demanding accountability, or other outcomes of interest. But I am interested in what kinds of information can at least contribute to such outcomes.

I suggest that a precise promise of things to be done or delivered is particularly useful. Combine that with information on whether a promise has been met – which in many cases can be established through simple observation, rather than formal “information” – and that makes some decent evidence to help citizens push for accountability. Yet when we see interventions without this focus on promises, and which are labelled as “accountability”, I question whether this is the right way to describe them.

Let’s take a look at the Transparency for Development programme (T4D) (T4D), which last year published published results from a randomised controlled trial showing a null result. (I know I am just singling out one study, but there is lots to learn from it and co-author Courtney Tolmie kindly fed into this piece). In the study’s treatment arm, community groups in Indonesia and Tanzania were provided with information on maternal health in their area and then a facilitator would help them plan subsequent actions.

What information was provided? There were figures on (to name a few) maternal healthcare (such as institutional births and aspects of antenatal care), the low level of demand for services, the number of drug stock-outs, the number of staff on duty, and the results of a survey of community members.

This information tells people how things are – and such information can have value. But there was less on actual, precise promises – though, for example, they did provide information on the government’s commitment to have a maternal health centre within a certain number of miles of a citizen.

In light of this, it’s interesting that of the 1139 actions planned by community groups in the study, and triggered partly by this information, only 26% were categorised under “social accountability”. Double that proportion were categorised as “community self-help”. Courtney Tolmie of Results for Development told me about a phase two study within T4D which is learning lessons from the above and is incorporating more information relating to promises.

After reading a draft of this piece, Courtney Tolmie commented, “We in the social accountability field have spent a lot of time talking about transparency being necessary but not sufficient, but maybe it is time we start unpacking what we mean by transparency – and necessary for what. The T4D work really highlights that the type of information shared and discussed help lead to citizen action, but not all ‘accountability’ action. Maybe citizen action – whatever it is – is enough, but maybe the type of information matters if we are hoping to see a certain type of action. And this feels like it is worth testing further.”

Due to its labelling, this study’s null result will feed into debates on the failure of transparency to lead to accountability, and might lead some to question whether a focus on accountability leads to anything useful at all. If it does, that would be a shame, because the intervention wasn’t triggering demands for accountability first and foremost.

But this isn’t just about labelling – it’s about understanding what works, how and why. Our experience at Integrity Action, which now comprises thousands of citizens taking part in monitoring activities, indicates to us that information on what has been promised is particularly helpful to those citizens as they push for better quality of services and stronger accountability of the institutions that serve them.

And to me the very concept of accountability seems inseparable from the concept of a promise. For if we are not holding someone to account for a promise they made – be it precise, vague, implicit, or otherwise – what exactly are we holding them to account for?
Derek Thorne is Head of Programme Development at Integrity Action and is always happy to discuss these issues – Tweet him @dfthorne1 or reach out via