What difference do accountability and transparency initiatives really make?

The advice to ‘beware the common sense of the time’ is just as true of today’s developmental buzzwords as it is of the transparencydiscredited versions of yesteryear. And what could be more commonsensical than ‘transparency and accountability are a Good Thing’? But does supporting them with aid money actually make a difference? Researchers at the UK’s Institute of Development Studies (a bit of personal transparency – I recently became a visiting fellow there), have pulled together all the evidence to try and answer the question, and seem pretty underwhelmed by what they’ve found. Here are some extracts from the synthesis report. Full 128 page report here, with lots of case studies etc to flesh out the arguments.

First, a handy typology:

“The field of transparency and accountability is alive with rapidly emerging citizen-led and multi-stakeholder initiatives.

In the area of service delivery, an array of strategies, often grouped together under the label ‘social accountability’, include complaints mechanisms, public information/transparency campaigns, citizen report cards and score cards, community monitoring and social audits.

Budget transparency and accountability strategies include the now well-known ‘participatory budget approach’, as well as public expenditure monitoring (including, for instance, gender budgeting), participatory auditing, the Open Budget Index, and other forms of budget advocacy.

Many of these initiatives are underpinned by initiatives to secure freedom of information and transparency, including right to know campaigns, strengthening the media, new legislative frameworks and voluntary disclosure mechanisms.

obama-idea-of-transparencyIn the area of natural resources, initiatives such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the Publish What you Pay campaign among others have focused on making revenues from natural resources more transparent, often through multi-stakeholder agreements and review.

Similar strategies are now being adopted in the area of aid transparency, through such initiatives as the International Aid Transparency Initiative, Publish What You Fund, and the longer-standing World Bank Inspection Panel and various downward accountability mechanisms applied within large non-governmental organizations (NGOs).”

Next, their conclusion:

“In some conditions, the initiatives can contribute to a range of positive outcomes including, for instance,

· increased state or institutional responsiveness 
· lowering of corruption 
· building new democratic spaces for citizen engagement 
· empowering local voices 
· better budget utilization and
· better delivery of services.”

But besides the fragmented nature of the evidence, the study finds “three significant limits of the existing evidence base: 

a) untested assumptions and theories of change: A common assumption is that greater transparency  generates greater accountability, yet growing evidence exists that transparency alone is insufficient,  and only leads to greater accountability in interaction with other factors. Another common assumption is that making information available will stimulate action on the part of a broad range of stakeholders, when in fact little may be known about the incentives and constraints of collective action to use this information. And finally, many assumptions often assume homogeneous or monolithic categories of actors, such as ‘states’, ‘citizens’, ‘media’, ‘civil society’, without looking at critical differences of position, power, behaviours and incentives within them.

b) The methodological  challenges of assessing what are often highly complex initiatives

c) The complexity of factors that contribute to their success: understanding accountability and transparency not only as formal mechanisms or instruments, but also as relationships involving power dynamics across state and society, and as patterns of attitudes and behaviours affecting all actors.

On the citizen voice (or demand) side of the equation, key factors include:

a) the capabilities of  citizens and civil society organizations to access and use information made transparent/accessible  and to mobilize for greater accountability;

b) the extent to which TAIs are linked to broader forms of  collective action and mobilization; and

c) the degree to which accountability, transparency and  participation initiatives are embedded throughout all stages of the policy cycle, from how decisions  are made to whether and how they are implemented.

On the state (or supply) side of the relationship, key factors include:

a) the level of democratization  or space for accountability demands to be made;

b) the degree of ‘political will’ or support from the  inside for accountability and transparency demands and initiatives;

c) the broader political economy,  including enabling legal frameworks, incentives and sanctions which affect the behaviours of public  officials.

However, while this traditional demand and supply side framework is analytically helpful, the more interesting work

the best antiseptic? Depends...
the best antiseptic? Depends...

in the field looks closely at the interaction of these two sides, and at how accountability relations are mutually constructed through cross-cutting coalitions of actors, as well as changing norms, expectations and ‘cultures’ of accountability on all sides.”

My take-away from this? Don’t just throw money at transparency and accountability initiatives and expect a revolution. Unless the domestic politics is right, especially linking state and civil society actors into accountability coalitions, it may not make that much difference.

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4 Responses to “What difference do accountability and transparency initiatives really make?”
  1. I take away a slightly different point. It’s not whether “the domestic politics is right” so much as whether a specific initiative takes the context of domestic politics into account. Transparency and accountability initiatives can be made to work in a range of different domestic political contexts, but the nature of such initiatives will need to be tailored to fit the context.

    In a more open society or where civil society and media capacity is higher, information that’s made public is more likely to get used. In a less open context, creating new sources of information and forging new roles for citizens in monitoring in order to open up new spaces and challenge entrenched power relations is likely to be important. Both are transparency and/or accountability initiatives.

  2. Thanks for the post Duncan. It’s interesting that your interpretation of the IDS research was to be cautious about spending aid on transp/acc. I know that others have interpreted in slightly different ways …

    To push you further on your conclusion/takeaway, what role can/should external actors such as DFID, or Oxfam, play in making the domestic politics “right”?

    Do such organisations have the skills, expertise, knowledge and legitimacy to do that and to play a role in building the accountability coalitions that you mention?

    Or is helping to nurture an environment of transparency and accountability out of which locally-led solutions to development challenges might emerge, the furthest that external actors can/should go?

    Disclaimer: Currently working for DFID, but this is written in a personal capacity.

  3. Abraham

    The conclusions that the report draws might be extremely accurate wrt reality.

    What makes it a difficult to appreciate its value, however, is the insights that it offers: “Intervention X (acc/transp. in this case) is unlikely to work unless it takes into account local politics,” Does not add much value to current wisdom.

  4. Thank you for writing this post. It is important to give more depth to the transparency discussion.

    Internal governance (documented procedures for analysing interventions and indicators for selecting them e.g.) are extremely important for the predictability of aid. However, the bandwagon on aid transparency seems to focus only publishing the results of these procedures.

    Publishing the data is an important external sign of the confidence about the internal procedures, but I still have to meet the first journalist who is ready to sift through the data when he has not been tipped about a scandal.

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