Accountability Ecosystems: The Evolution of a Keyword
Efforts to strengthen the accountability of the governing to the governed go back millennia. However, in the past decade there has been a renewed debate about how to advance public accountability. One domain where this conversation has taken place is that of efforts funded by donors (government development agencies and private philanthropies), primarily in the Global South and implemented by a set of national and international actors, including NGOs, private sector project implementors, and international institutions.
Unfortunately, much donor-funded work has been underpinned by an understanding of accountability grounded in optimistic assumptions, particularly around the role of transparency and information technology. Early efforts by Rosie McGee and John Gaventa to take stock of this work highlighted the lack of theories of change grounded in a more nuanced, holistic and politically-informed understanding of accountability. Others began questioning the dominant ‘transparency + participation = accountability’ formulation that underpinned many projects; and most of them were just that, projects: start date, end date, work plan, logical framework, funding proposal, budget, etc.
It was at the beginning of this discussion about what it takes to achieve real accountability that the term ‘Accountability Ecosystem’ started being used by a few individuals and organizations. The organization I worked for at the time, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI), had picked up the term, potentially from the organization I work for now, the International Budget Partnership (IBP).[i] I saw the term as a way to advance a more holistic and dynamic way to talk about the interaction of accountability actors, mechanisms and efforts in a given context, and a deliberate step away from more simplistic, linear formulations.
Accountability Ecosystems Framework
The core idea of the accountability ecosystem framing was that accountability was about relationships. Relationships between citizens and governing authorities, but also a set of other important actors, including media, private sector, diverse organized citizen groups, and various actors within the state itself, including some with formal oversight roles. These accountability relationships had been thought of in terms of vertical, horizontal and even diagonal directions. However, more important than the direction of the connections were the power dynamics that permeated these relationships. This meant that terms like citizens or civil society ‘holding government to account’ had to answer a simple but challenging question: how?
Too often, external efforts to strengthen accountability sought what effectively constituted short cuts. Transparency and open data were touted in the early 2000s as the ‘disinfectant’ that would reshape government accountability to citizens. This hypothesis turned out to be inadequate, and different kinds of transparency had different implications for accountability. Moreover, information rarely leads to the kind of citizen action envisioned by early champions. Accountability is a political process, involving contesting power asymmetries that undermine accountability to the broad public, instead coopting government priorities or resources towards a narrower set of interests. Even embedded accountability efforts, such as media coverage or street protests against corruption, may fail to ‘connect the dots’ for meaningful change. They might instead result in superficial actions by government meant to placate rather than address the root causes of impunity or poor services. More strategic connections among accountability reformers could lead to more effective shifts towards accountability.
In addition to being about relationships, the ecosystems model was about non-linearity. There was no accountability ‘project’. Rather, it was about navigating and collectively reshaping accountability relationships to shift power towards those seeking to demand, enable and enforce public accountability.
In addition to being about relationships, the ecosystems model was about non-linearity. There was no accountability ‘project’. Rather, it was about navigating and collectively reshaping accountability relationships to shift power towards those seeking to demand, enable and enforce public accountability. However, the ecosystems idea also suggested something organic and contextual. A healthy accountability ecosystem might look quite different in different contexts, and a similar set of actors and mechanisms that ensures accountability in one context could fail to do so in another. Unfortunately, the importation of globally accepted formal accountability institutions into diverse contexts is commonplace, leading many countries to have the form of an accountability ecosystem without the function. This suggests a final element of the ecosystem idea: that the enabling environment for accountability is as important as the specific accountability campaigns or mechanisms themselves. This points to less tangible elements of expectations, norms, ideas, and power dynamics.
Thus, relationships, power, context, enabling environment and non-linear change pathways were all core features of the accountability ecosystems idea. These were features that were seldom fully realized in many donor-funded projects, but also in more organic, domestic accountability efforts, both citizen demands and formal oversight actors.
Evolving Dialogue on Accountability Ecosystems
A central element in the ecosystem were accountability actors, including formal state accountability institutions. This helped connect to an accountability systems conversation also happening around the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA), focused on Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs), Ombudsman, and other formal accountability actors. As mentioned, IBP was also exploring accountability mechanisms for budgets. However, I was worried that the accountability would become reduced to Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) + SAIs = ecosystem. So I use the term more loosely, to refer to both the idea of the interconnections that could enable accountability (or the gaps in which could undermine accountability) and to a set of principles that would enable pro-accountability actors, particularly donor-funded CSOs, to engage the accountability ecosystem more effectively. My primary inspirations were the conversations around Thinking and Working Politically, the synthesis by McGee and Gaventa, and Jonathan Fox’s work on vertical integration and accountability ‘sandwich strategies’, which became an important input into the GPSA and wider accountability discourse after his seminal paper on ‘strategic accountability’.
One key group that engaged with the ideas that informed the accountability ecosystem framing was the TALEARN community of practice. This was a group of funders, researchers and practitioners convened by TAI, and focused on collective learning for more effective accountability. The accountability ecosystem idea evolved in conversation with members of this learning community. Thus, a significant moment in the development of the accountability ecosystem idea was a workshop I co-convened with Joy Aceron (Gov Watch Philippines), Albert van Zyl (IBP) and Jonathan Fox, key members of the TALEARN community, on accountability strategies. A simple but powerful idea emerged in that workshop that work in this space could be more effective by “connecting the dots”. Essentially, instead of the siloed, projectized, NGOized efforts that were so common, those strategies that connected actors, spaces, tools and mechanisms had a greater chance to realize accountability and strengthen it over time.
Soon after that, I put my thoughts on the accountability ecosystem and strategic principles for navigating and strengthening it into a think piece. This was prompted by my then boss telling me to take my critiques and challenges to prevailing practice (for example, on the proliferation of transparency-focused multi-stakeholder initiatives) and turn them into propositions and ideas that could be put into practice. In the piece, I highlighted five principles for effective efforts to navigate and strengthen the accountability ecosystem:
- Analysis and mapping of accountability systems, including formal and informal actors, institutions, mechanisms and processes, and their underlying power dynamics
- Strategies that emphasize integrated approaches, both vertically across scales and horizontally across accountability mechanisms and processes
- Strategic use of varied and complementary tactics, such as litigation, media coverage, citizen monitoring, freedom of information requests, etc.
- Embedding learning and adaptation in organizational approaches
- Politically informed practice that focuses on addressing and shifting power relations that underpin accountability
Around that time, TAI was also thinking about its next steps as a donor collaborative, and they asked Tom Carothers, from the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, to curate a set of ideas for the next generation of efforts to strengthen accountability. The resulting proposals, further elaborated as Accountability 2.0, were consistent with the principles underpinning the accountability ecosystems framework.
Ecosystems go Mainstream
Around that time, I transitioned from TAI to IBP, but I continued to explore the accountability ecosystems concept. Other organizations were also finding the idea, and the principles that were associated with it, useful. IBP was in the early stages of developing an ambitious new initiative called SPARK. In early conversations the core team agreed on key principles that aligned with the accountability ecosystems framework, both the broader strategic principles and the more specific idea of engaging with and leveraging accountability actors (formal and informal) to bolster civic accountability efforts.
SPARK marked a pivot for me in the value of the accountability ecosystems term. Since many of the broader lessons and insights about how to make accountability efforts more effective (which I had been lumping under the accountability ecosystem umbrella term) were embedded in SPARK, I no longer needed a short-hand for these elements. Instead, I could point to something more concrete (SPARK is a work in progress, and while achieving promising early gains, it will take time to fully realize its potential).
Thus, in and beyond SPARK, I began to return to the core idea of the accountability ecosystem term, as the interrelations among accountability actors, particularly (but not exclusively) formal accountability institutions. IBP was exploring the role of auditors as accountability actors, and the evidence we had gathered reinforced the dynamic relationships between the role of auditors other actors and factors, notably media and civic action, in ensuring that audits were actually used to drive accountability, not gather dust on a shelf. I was particularly interested in how auditors could be more strategic in both undertaking audits and their approach to leveraging audits in collaboration with other actors. This was an interesting test, in that this narrower understanding of accountability ecosystems did resonate with accountability actors themselves, one of the relatively few forays I had made with the term beyond donors and civil society.
As a final note, things have come full circle in some ways, with IBP collaborating with TAI and Tom Carothers on an influential conversation called Fiscal Futures. The questions raised and key ideas proposed through that process again are consistent with those that informed the accountability ecosystem term and the conversations it has generated over time. Thus, my reflection is that the arc of thinking, discourse and practice around the accountability ecosystem frame tracks with that of the donor-funded accountability efforts more broadly.
It started as an exploration – what do we know and not know? What insights are emerging from research and practice?
It evolved into a critique – why are so many efforts not aligned with what we know about what is more likely to be effective?
It continued as a set of principles and practices – what should an organization (or set of actors) do to navigate and strengthen accountability most effectively?
And it has settled into a narrower question, appropriate for a more mature global conversation on accountability – how do we strengthen and leverage the relationships among accountability actors, particularly state oversight institutions, particularly to contribute to inclusive government responsiveness?
Clearly knowledge and practice around strengthening public accountability are still evolving. In some important ways, thinking has advanced such that the principles I have been articulating as the Accountability Ecosystems ‘approach’, which aligned with the proposals coming from others as well (from Jonathan Fox’s ‘strategic accountability’ to latest insights on approaches to natural resources governance), are now generally accepted. However, if you look at practices on the ground, we are likely to find examples of both further innovation as well as efforts that lag behind. Thus, the conversation continues.
[i] There is some debate about where the term originated. The idea is not new, but in its current iteration it seems to have been used by a few individuals and organizations somewhat independently, though working in similar circles. For an early example on donor-led efforts to strengthen domestic accountability systems, see: http://www.oecd.org/officialdocuments/publicdisplaydocumentpdf/?cote=DCD/DAC/GOVNET(2010)1&docLanguage=En.