When do Transparency and Accountability Initiatives have impact?

September 4, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

So having berated ODI about opening up access to its recent issue of the Development Policy Review on Transparency and Accountability Initiativestransparency 2 (TAIs), I really ought to review the overview piece by John Gaventa and Rosemary McGee, which they’ve made freely available until December.

The essay is well worth reading. It unpicks the fuzzy concept of TAIs and then looks at the evidence for what works and when. First a useful typology of TAIs:

‘Service delivery is perhaps the field in which TAIs have been longest applied, including Expenditure Tracking Surveys, citizen report cards, score cards, community monitoring and social audits.

By the late 1990s, moves to improve public finance management the world over led to the development of budget accountability and transparency as a sector in its own right…. An array of citizen-led budget TAIs has developed, including participatory budgeting; sector-specific budget monitoring (for example, gender budgeting, children’s budgets); public-expenditure monitoring through social audits, participatory audits and tracking surveys; and advocacy for budget transparency (for example, the International Budget Partnership (IBP)’s Open Budget Index). Many of these initiatives focus ‘downstream’ on how public funds are spent; less work focuses on T and A in revenue-generation, although this is growing with recent work on tax justice.

Elements of social accountability in service delivery therefore overlapped from the start with developments in the Freedom of Information (FOI) sector. The number of countries with legislation in place has exploded from 12 in 1990 to around 80 today.

One application of FOI legislation is to the governance of natural resources such as land, water, forests, fish stocks and minerals. These include the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which seeks to secure verification and publication of company payments and government revenues from oil, gas and mining. Other groups such as the Revenue Watch Institute also campaign for disclosure (for example, through the Publish What You Pay campaign), monitor the implementation of the EITI and seek to extend these approaches into new areas such as forestry.

A strand of aid accountability and transparency has also evolved, sharing many of the same principles, approaches and methods as TAIs in the service-delivery, FOI and budget sectors. Attempts are under way to develop suitable climate-change TAIs.’

Girl protester in PakistanThen an initial critique:

‘TAIs in aid and development are increasingly being used within an efficiency paradigm, with scant attention to underlying issues of power and politics. Many TAIs focus on the delivery of development outcomes, neglecting or articulating only superficially the potential for deepening democracy or empowering citizens.’

As for what works:

‘On the state or ‘supply’ side, three important explanatory variables emerge:

  • Our review revealed little evidence of impact of TAIs in non-democratic settings, but did show some impacts in emerging democracies and fragile settings. Essential freedoms of association, voice or media enhance the prospects of impact.
  • A political environment that favours a balanced supply- and demand-side approach to accountability is critical to TAIs’ success. Where the state is willing to adopt accountability provisions, the utility of these depends on their being fully institutionalised and having ‘teeth’. Champions inside the system can help citizen-led TAIs succeed, but may find themselves constrained by systemic and institutional factors. Citizen participation and pressure are needed to get from political won’t to political will – but ‘political will’, an oft-used and insufficiently explicit term, needs further unpacking.
  • Democratic space and committed state actors or political leadership may not be enough to bring about the desired changes. Also relevant are the broader political economy and prevailing legal frameworks and incentive structures within which political representatives and state functionaries operate.

On the citizen side, three further factors emerge:

  • increased transparency to have an impact, citizens must be able to process, analyse or use the newly available information. Their capabilities can be strengthened by active media; prior social-mobilisation experience; coalitions; and intermediaries who can ‘translate’ and communicate information.
  • TAIs appear to gain traction from being linked to other mobilisation strategies like litigation, electoral pressure or protest movements, andaccountability-savage-chickensthrough invoking collective rather than, or besides, individual action. Paradoxically, a multi-stranded or collective approach also makes it harder to isolate the impact of any one factor or actor alone.
  • Many TAIs focus on citizens’ ‘downstream’ role in implementing policies that were formulated without their involvement. Citizens who were engaged further ‘upstream’ in formulating the policies are more likely to engage in monitoring them; and engagement in policy formulation can arguably increase accountability more than ex-post monitoring.’

All in all a very useful intro, shame the rest of the journal articles are still behind the paywall.