Social Accountability in Public Governance: A Brief Overview

Guest post by Arun Sivaramakrishnan

There has been a push for infusing public governance through social accountability, which is 'voice oriented' civic engagement over government policies and programs for effective governance. This post attempts to make sense of this novel approach in the field of development practice. Accountability in public governance has been traditionally understood through three ways: (i) bureaucratic accountability, (ii) political accountability and (iii) legal accountability. There is another churning to introduce ‘choice oriented’, market like principles in public governance. These, however, are not the focus of this blog post. Social accountability refers to the “institutionalisation of ‘durable societal controls over policies, including over their implementation or uptake by providers’ (Joshi, 2008), or ‘civic engagement, encompassing actions by citizens, communities, the media and NGOs…’ (Ackerman, 2005) for local participation and monitoring of government programs. These actions involve, among many others, budget analysis, public expenditure tracking, participatory impact evaluation, monitoring of public service delivery, etc. The idea of social accountability is attractive because it is assumed that collective action may (a) inform better choices and improve policy design, (b) effective implementation due to social mobilisation, and (c) better monitoring and faster responsiveness to grievances.

For a social accountability initiative to be successful, there needs to be (a) access to ‘regular, reliable and relevant’ information to enable citizens to hold public authorities accountable (Pritchett 2006). In this regard, initiatives like Pratham’s ASER may be a good model to follow; (b) social mobilisation by the local community which is politically heterogeneous with power relations among its members. In the urban context, we have some evidence of resident welfare association’s exclusive and predominantly middle class character (Kamath and Vijayabaskar, 2009). Thus the design of a social accountability initiative needs to be thought through in the extent of institutionalisation of citizen participation and how it could be made inclusive, and what would be the role of the local government in this regard- a facilitative one if at all? (c) advocating and negotiating change by the people for holding public officials accountable through recourse to sanctions, benefits, and rights. This would mean whether the citizens can use “the vote effectively to reward and punish the general or specific performance of local public officials and/or the parties they represent, generate response to their collective needs from local governments and ensure fair and equitable treatment from public agencies at local levels” (Grindle, 2010).

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