Social Accountability: What Does the Evidence Really Say?

Date: September 2014
Authors: Jonathan Fox
Publication type: Working Paper
Published by: Global Partnership for Social Accountability

Policy discussion of social accountability initiatives has increasingly focused on questions about their tangible development impacts. The empirical evidence is mixed. This meta-analysis rethinks some of the most influential evaluations through a new lens: the distinction between tactical and strategic approaches to the promotion of citizen voice to contribute to improved public sector performance. Field experiments tend to study bounded, tactical interventions that rely on optimistic assumptions about the power of information alone both to motivate collective action and to influence public sector performance. More promising results emerge from studies of multi-pronged strategies that encourage enabling environments for collective action and bolster state capacity to actually respond to citizen voice. This reinterpretation of the empirical evidence leads to a proposed new series of grounded propositions that focus on state-society synergy and sandwich strategies through which ‘voice’ and ‘teeth’ can become mutually empowering.

“To sum up, the challenge facing social accountability strategies is how to break low- accountability traps by triggering virtuous circles in which enabling environments embolden citizens to exercise voice, which in turn can trigger and empower reforms, which can then encourage more voice. That is, voice needs teeth to have bite – but teeth may not bite without voice.”

Jonathan Fox

Jonathan Fox is a professor in the School of International Service at American University. He studies the relationships between accountability, transparency and citizen participation. He directs the new AU Accountability Research Center, an action-research incubator. His most recent publications include articles in World Development and the IDS Bulletin, and reports published by Making All Voices Count, U4: Anti-Corruption Resource Center and the Transparency and Accountability Initiative. His books include Accountability Politics: Power and Voice in Rural Mexico (Oxford 2007) and Mexico’s Right-to-Know Reforms: Civil Society Perspectives (co-editor, Fundar/Wilson Center 2007). He was a founding member of the International Expert Panel of the Independent Reporting Mechanism of the Open Government Partnership and currently serves on the boards of directors of Fundar (Mexico) and the Bank Information Center (DC). For online publications, see http://jonathan-fox.org/.

Social accountability: What does the evidence really say?

October 2014
Jonathan Fox

Jonathan Fox, director of ARC and Professor in the School of International Service at American University delivered this presentation at the World Bank in Washington, DC in October 2014.