Lofty terms and noble ideals emerged from the 2019 Sixth Global Forum of the GPSA (Global Partners for Social Accountability) on the role of social accountability in meeting the challenge of inclusion in public governance, hosted by the World Bank last month. In this atmosphere of greater engagement by governments, calls have emerged from participants for strengthening accountability through more open collaboration between civil society, governments and public service providers. But how do we achieve this, and what are the implications of sharing information and decision-making power?
Social accountability relationships constantly evolve as citizen voices move from village councils to conference tables and advocacy scorecards make their way from committee meetings to accessible public platforms. However, many of these accountability mechanisms continue to focus on ‘vertical accountability’ where citizens hold government to account through direct channels, which has created a dynamic of ‘us’ (civil society) against ‘them’ (government). In response, decision-makers have often taken steps to reduce transparency by limiting information-sharing and raising walls of suspicion rather than bridges of trust.
During the GPSA Forum, few examples were provided of diagonal accountability mechanisms that seek to engage citizens directly by bringing them to the table with government leaders and service providers. Moving excluded civil society voices to the center of decision-making processes can augment the limited effectiveness of civil society’s watch dog function by breaking the government’s monopoly over responsibility for official executive oversight. However, many questions emerged around what such platforms for engagement would look like and how this impacts collaboration, trust and shifts responsibilities.
Collaboration. During our session at the GPSA Forum, we shared examples of enhancing inclusiveness through mechanisms that facilitate collaboration between different stakeholders groups, such as the State Led Accountability Mechanisms (SLAM) - a diagonal model for accountability that was introduced by Options under the Evidence for Action (E4A) project in Nigeria. SLAMs are multi-stakeholder coalitions comprised of government, health professional associations, the media, civil society organizations and traditional institutions with a remit to monitor, review and use evidence to act to improve the maternal, newborn and child health outcomes in the state. One of the SLAM’s core features has been its ability to bring previously opposed sides together to work towards a common goal, which has strengthened relationships and trust between government and civil society, enhancing accountability.
Responsibility. When we bring together decision-makers and civil society, we open doors to influence, enabling civil society to hold the dual role of being both a rights holder and duty bearer. In this, civil society representatives will be expected to have ‘done its homework’; having solid knowledge of the issues at hand and providing unbiased solutions that may solve them. Is civil society ready to take that step and walk in the shoes of those responsible for managing budgets, resolve conflict and maneuver conflicting agendas? And are duty bearers ready to share power by giving civil society a seat at the table and providing them with the access to the information they need for influencing and joint decision making?
But even within accountability mechanisms, inequities persist that obstruct those that most need to be heard. A good example of how to respond to these power imbalances is provided by the women-owned small business WI-HER’s, which specializes in gender analysis and integration and focuses on advancing human rights and strengthening the agency of rights-holders that are most often marginalized. WI-HER’s holistic approach facilitates the institutionalization of practices that enable these groups to not only voice concerns but contribute to problem solving.
For example, WI-HER recently supported the USAID DREAMS initiative in Uganda and brought women together with male community members, as well as representatives from civil society groups, the private sector, government representatives and public service providers. The group discussed resource distribution gaps that limited girls’ access to school (where boys were being supported to attend school) and that keep women from accessing health facilities. Participation of these traditionally marginalized groups as part of the social accountability movement led to a solution that not only resulted in a more equitable distribution of resources, but also initiated a long-term solution that enabled both girls and boys to attend and stay in school, and provide women and men with access to services without hardship.
Trust. As champions of social accountability, it is important that we work towards the graduation from the vertical ‘us versus them’ approach which reinforces otherness. Instead we move to a collective ‘us’, which emphasizes the partnership between civil society and government in working to achieve shared objectives. This process of building trust and relationships opens a pathway towards more transparency and therefore accountability.
If the role of civil society groups moves beyond the lodging of grievances to collaborating with government and service providers to find solutions, it will likely change power dynamics as they become part of the decision-making process and are no longer only ‘right holders’ but also duty bearers. In this, it is important that they continue to answerable to the communities that they represent so that these know and understand their rights, and are able to monitor those who represent them to identify gaps before they turn into chasms.
 Mechkova V, Bernhard M, Luhrumann A. Diagonal Accountability and Development Outcomes. V-Dem Institute. Open Government Partnership (2019)
 Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI). How do we define key terms? Transparency and accountability glossary. 12th April 2017. https://www.transparency-initiative.org/blog/1179/tai-definitions/
 E4A project learning brief: ‘State-let Accountability Mechanisms (SLAMs): trust and multi-sectoral Action’ https://mamaye.org/resources/toolkits/state-let-accountability-mechanism...