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.
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.