Over the last few days an old blog post by David Sasaki has been circulating on Twitter. In the post he argues that fiscal transparency portals are not enough to bring about government accountability for public spending. To him, the “problem with fiscal transparency portals is that there is no mechanism to oblige government agencies to defend the purchases they make, much less sanction them when they misspend public funds.” After dismissing the media and civil society organizations, such as Fundar in Mexico and Openspending.org, as agents of applying such sanction, Sasaki argues that the solution to the accountability problem lies in the direction of creating new accountability institutions and promoting individual citizen activism via new technologies like Twitter and blogs.

What Sasaki got wrong

Sasaki misses two important points. First, the sleuthing of individual citizens like @AleUrbina that he refers to depends on the fiscal transparency portals, such as the one that Fundar created. Before their agriculture subsidy database was created, none of this information was in the public domain. And even once Fundar had liberated the information, it was released in unhelpful PDF files that had to be manually converted into usable formats, analyzed, and presented in a more accessible manner. It was this database that enabled @AleUrbina and others to start putting pressure on the government. Accessing, analyzing, and disseminating data in timely and accessible formats is the role that “infomediaries” like Fundar play. Budgets and other policy documents are technical, complex, and boring. This is why we need institutions that can bridge the gap between these documents and accountability processes. The more than 11 million people who have accessed the Fundar database to date seem to agree.

The second important point that Sasaki misses is that the accountability efforts of both formal oversight institutions and individual citizens are facilitated and amplified by the intermediaries that he so glibly dismisses. The IBP has documented 22 accountability campaigns in 11 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to South Africa, and, yes, even Mexico. These case studies show that intermediaries like Fundar do not only play the role of accessing and digesting budget information — they also mobilize citizens, support the media to report on budget issues, and make common cause with legislatures and other accountability players to force government to be accountable for public spending. The work that Fundar did with the media and others triggered a range of accountability processes in the Ministry of Agriculture, Congress, and the supreme audit institution. While many of these processes are incomplete, and in some cases stalled, they did result in the dismissal of the agriculture minister and establishment of new regulations to limit misuse of the subsidy scheme (read the rest of the Fundar story here).

The Fundar case is not unique. In India the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) worked with opposition MPs and media to force a debate in the legislature on funds earmarked for Dalits that had been diverted to pay for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The pressure applied by MPs finally forced the government to return the money. True, the influence of the NCDHR did depend on the masses of citizens that they mobilized (some of whom may even have had Twitter accounts), but the final push for victory depended as much on the debate in parliament and the media buzz. Even more important, the coordination of the campaign and the production of the research that made it possible, depended on civil society intermediaries like NCDHR (read the rest of the NCDHR story here).

Why his post worries me

While his arguments are easy enough to criticize, Sasaki’s blog post worries me for two reasons. First, many people misinterpret arguments that fiscal transparency is not enough to mean that fiscal transparency is not important. Every single one of the 22 campaigns documented in the IBP case study series depended very heavily on access to information on public spending. This stands to reason. If you are trying to hold government to account for public spending, it is hard to see how this could be done without access to information. The important thing about fiscal transparency is not that it is not enough. The important point is that even while it is not sufficient, fiscal transparency is always necessary. It is a “gateway issue” that allows citizens, CSOs, and all other accountability institutions to advocate for their own issues.

The second reason Sasaki’s post worries me is that it yields to a common temptation to try and find one magic bullet to solve the accountability challenge. The complex reality of accountability politics is too messy for one solution to be of much use, even if it is a sexy one involving a peasant farmer with an iPhone5 or the teams of citizen ambassadors that Sasaki proposes. Actual accountability campaigns reveal a rich reality that involves citizens, the media, legislatures, auditors, CSOs, donors, and government insiders in a wide variety of interesting configurations. Efforts to fix the accountability puzzle with a widget like new technologies risk retarding our understanding and replication of real world accountability processes even further. This is not to argue that citizens and new technologies are not an important part of the accountability equation, just that they should not be framed as solutions that can crack the code on their own.

What is to be done?

If there are no magic bullets, then where should we start, you ask? The IBP case studies show that CSOs have played an important role in amplifying the voices of individual citizens and enhancing formal accountability processes. They are particularly important in contexts where formal accountability institutions are weak. The way they carry out their work is complementary and necessary for more robust engagement of citizens and oversight institutions.

In the last analysis CSOs are not sufficient and neither are citizens or new technologies or anything else. We should be careful of framing the debate as a choice between citizens or CSOs or legislatures. The accountability ecosystem is complex — technology has great promise to help the process work, but we should be spending much more time understanding the interactions between these actors and institutions, not pitting them against one another.