This report distils findings from reviews of transparency and accountability initiatives (TAIs) in the areas of public service delivery, budget processes, freedom of information, natural resource governance and aid transparency. The evidence base on these initiatives’ effectiveness is weak, uneven, and sometimes contradictory. While few meta-level studies exist, micro-level studies suggest that in some conditions, TAIs can contribute to positive outcomes. Success factors seem to include coalitions of both state actors and citizens that bridge the demand and supply sides of accountability. It is important to understand accountability and transparency not only as formal mechanisms, but as relationships involving power dynamics across state and society.
Citizen-led and multi-stakeholder TAIs are emerging rapidly. In the area of service delivery, for example, ‘social accountability’ strategies include complaints mechanisms, public information/transparency campaigns, citizen report cards and score cards, community monitoring and social audits. Budget transparency and accountability strategies include the ‘participatory budget approach’, as well as public expenditure monitoring, participatory auditing, the Open Budget Index, and other forms of budget advocacy. Many of these initiatives are underpinned by initiatives to secure freedom of information and transparency, including right to know campaigns, strengthening the media, new legislative frameworks and voluntary disclosure mechanisms. In the area of natural resources, initiatives such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the Publish What you Pay campaign among others have focused on making revenues from natural resources more transparent, often through multi-stakeholder agreements and review. Similar strategies are now being adopted in the area of aid transparency.
The existing evidence base is weak, because of: a) untested assumptions and inadequate theories of change; b) the methodological challenges of assessing highly complex initiatives; and c) the complexity of factors which contribute to their success. Few comprehensive, comparative or meta-level studies exist of whether desired impacts have been achieved and if so how. However, micro level studies suggest that in some conditions, TAIs can contribute to: increased state or institutional responsiveness; reduced corruption; the development of new democratic spaces for citizen engagement; empowered local voices; and better budget use and service delivery.
Some common factors seem to shape the impact of transparency and accountability initiatives. These involve understanding accountability and transparency not only as formal mechanisms, but also as relationships involving power dynamics across state and society, and as patterns of attitudes and behaviours affecting all actors. Key factors relate to the following:
- The demand side: a) The capabilities of citizens and civil society organizations to access and use information made transparent/accessible and to mobilise for greater accountability; b) the extent to which TAIs are linked to broader forms of collective action; and c) the degree to which accountability, transparency and participation initiatives are embedded throughout all stages of the policy cycle, from how decisions are made to whether and how they are implemented.
- The supply side: a) the level of democratisation or space for accountability demands to be made; b) the degree of ‘political will’ or support from the inside for accountability and transparency initiatives; c) the broader political economy, including enabling legal frameworks, incentives and sanctions which affect the behaviours of public officials.
- The interaction of the two sides: accountability relations are mutually constructed through cross-cutting coalitions of actors, and through changing norms, expectations and ‘cultures’ of accountability on all sides.
When designing TAIs, it is important to ask a series of questions early on. These include:
- Does the intervention/initiative itself articulate a clear theory of change? Does it disentangle common assumptions about the links between transparency, accountability and participation?
- Does it have sufficient understanding of the reasons for the success of one set of tools or approaches in one context before adapting, replicating or scaling to other settings? Has it considered issues of timing, sequencing and durability?
- Does its strategy take into account complex contextual factors, including the capacities and incentives on both the citizen and state side of the equation, and the linking mechanisms between the two?
- Does the evaluation plan use methods of analysis which are appropriate to the purpose of the impact assessment, taking into account its audience and the level of complexity involved?
- Does it include methods for tracking change over time, including reference to a clear baseline, or for learning by comparison with other, comparable, initiatives?