Sustainability: an age-old question, and we’re looking for answers

Derek Thorne

Head of Programme Development, Integrity Action

Anyone who works in the field of international development or social change will have confronted the issue of sustainability.

How do you sustain the impact of a funded initiative (if it has any in the first place) well beyond the closure of that initiative?

In our particular field we feel this question is even more acute. Our goal is to support citizens in holding to account the institutions they rely on, which roughly puts us in the field of social accountability. Here, initiatives often involve improving or “setting up” systems of accountability that produce a more equal power relationship between citizens and the people who serve them.

Such systems can involve the introduction of tried-and-tested tools like community score cards, social audits, or mobile technology-enabled approaches like Integrity Action’s. Alongside this, organisations often establish a more constructive dialogue between citizens and duty bearers – perhaps through regular meetings.

But if you are introducing some kind of new accountability system through a funded project, does that make it likely that the system will stop working when the funding does? Should such systems be kept going? If so, how and by whom?

These are some of the questions we are looking to explore at Integrity Action over the coming year, as part of a learning initiative titled “Sustaining systems for citizen-led accountability”. We will be doing this primarily through conversations with others in the field, including social accountability practitioners, researchers, donors, duty bearers, and citizens themselves. In this way we hope to learn about existing practice and approaches to this issue and gain a wide variety of perspectives on what could work, and the trade-offs that might need to be made.

Our plan is not only to present our findings at the end of the process, but also to share what we are hearing along the way through blogs and potentially other media too. (If this is something you’d like to feature on your platform, please get in touch.)

The key questions

We are currently structuring this initiative around a few key questions – though we don’t doubt these could evolve as we learn more! The overarching question is:

How can systems of citizen-led accountability be designed, so that they
(a) have the most impact, particularly for people who are excluded; and
(b) have the greatest chance of being sustained?

And beneath this there are four more specific questions we are particularly interested in:

  • How do you keep key stakeholders motivated to use the system? Ensuring the motivation and buy-in of both citizens and duty bearers is an essential consideration even during a funded project, let alone afterwards. But after funding stops, certain motivating factors may be lost.
  • Does the system need to last indefinitely? Should such systems merely exist as a demonstration of what is possible, and to inspire other organisations or institutions to take them up? Or do they only need to exist until power is rebalanced between citizens and duty bearers?
  • Who owns (and pays for) the system? And does it matter? Is government (in one form or another) the entity that will sustain such systems? What are the implications of government adopting a system that has, in many cases, been set up by civil society? On the other hand, can civil society (or even companies) develop a model to keep such systems going?
  • How important is the technology? For approaches that involve technology, like Integrity Action’s, the technology aspect can be a key barrier to sustainability. So what are the benefits it brings, and how can those be sustained?

Please drop a message to derek.thorne@integrityaction.org if you would like to learn more about the initiative or have something to contribute – and watch this space for interesting learning as we get it.