The Art of Citizen-Led Accountability: Five Take Aways from the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability Forum

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I recently attended the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) partners’ forum. The forum was a space for discussing how civil society can influence government accountability, and a chance to reflect on our evolving understanding of relationships between citizens and the state. I’ll focus on five key points that draw from the discussions at the GPSA forum and the International Budget Partnership’s (IBP’s) experience with citizen-led accountability.

1. Accountability is a Powerful Political Idea

Tom Carothers from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace used his opening keynote address to highlight the power of accountability as a political idea. In fact, he argued that accountability is the one clear idea in 21st century politics that has meaning for citizens and inspires action for change. Yet, citizen demands for accountability are occurring against a backdrop of closing civic space and declining credibility of democratic mechanisms.

Carother’s address was a timely reminder that accountability is inherently about politics. American University’s Professor Jonathan Fox defines Accountability Politics as formal and informal processes and spaces, infused with power dynamics and relationships, in which a diverse array of actors seek to hold those in power responsible for their actions. Over the years we have seen this definition play out on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, in Tahrir Square, around villages across Rajasthan, and a thousand other places.


Credit: Twitter / @GPSA_org

2. An Ecosystems Framework Reflects the Dynamic and Relational Nature of Accountability Politics

IBP contributed to two sessions at the forum, both exploring the accountability ecosystem. In one session we unpacked different accountability actors and pathways and explored how civil society organizations (CSOs) navigate these. Panelists noted that democratic elections have become the norm all around the world and that many states are also adopting formal checks and balances, including establishing public accountability agencies, to promote “horizontal accountability” through oversight, auditing, or other functions. But elections are often undermined by opaque financing and patronage-based politics, while horizontal accountability mechanisms often lack the teeth needed to combat impunity and corruption. How can CSOs or broader citizen campaigns understand and engage with formal political and horizontal accountability mechanisms?

CSOs often try to leverage state accountability institutions, with varying degrees of success. To understand the room public accountability actors have to maneuver, it is important to look at the broader context of government accountability. This includes the formal and informal political dynamics and power relationships that influence whether and how accountability has teeth. Understanding the political bargaining involved in establishing accountability mechanisms, and how they fit vis-à-vis other elements of the political system, sheds light on both what we can expect from these institutions and how to best leverage them to contribute to accountability.

3. Constructive Engagement Fails to Capture the Diversity of Citizen Experiences with the State

The GPSA’s approach to citizen-led accountability emphasizes constructive engagement between the CSOs it funds and government actors. This is a product of the GPSA’s position as a World Bank initiative, with all the limitations that entails. And, while citizens would almost always prefer positive collaboration with the state, the experiences of IBP’s civil society partners demonstrates that citizen-state relationships are often much more complicated.

For all intents and purposes, the GPSA defines social accountability as monitoring of service delivery that is “outsourced” to citizens and CSOs. This approach still relies inherently on the political will of decision makers to act on the information provided by citizens. This usefully pushes us to think about the incentives and capacities of different government actors, and work “with the grain” of those factors. But it doesn’t recognize or shift the political and power relationships that influence how willing governments are to lend teeth to citizen voice. We are left dependent on “insider champions” who may or may not exist or be able to take meaningful action. On the other side of the coin, Oxfam’s Duncan Green has pointed out that a framing of rights holders (citizens) making claims on duty bearers (government) is often an equally simplistic and inadequate approach to accountability.

IBP’s recent synthesis of nearly 30 case studies of citizen-led accountability demonstrates that there are diverse pathways to achieving accountability gains, with both cooperation and contestation having a role, sometimes in the same campaign.

4. Civil Society Working Politically…But Not

In our other session, panelists and participants agreed that CSOs need to “think and work politically,” but questioned how this should play out in practice. Many CSOs frame their work as explicitly non-political to maintain working relationships with government actors who are often quick to label civil society as partisan and biased. In other contexts civil society has openly allied with more progressive political forces and parties, as is clearly the case in Brazil and the Philippines. Where to draw the line depends on many factors, but there is probably no single right answer: striking the right balance requires political analysis, negotiation, and navigation (i.e., CSO shifts in tactics, tools, and framing in response to which actors they are engaging and changes in the political environment) that is constantly refined and adjusted.

The discussion added nuance to our broader exploration of what it takes to connect citizen and state pro-accountability processes and efforts to have real impacts. While it’s clear that civil society often needs to work through coalitions and alliances to “connect the dots” across the accountability ecosystem, building and maintaining working relationships between different CSOs can be complicated by how different groups approach government actors and institutions. Challenging as it is, our discussion suggested that CSOs may need to work toward synergies between these different approaches.

5. Development Actors and Support for Accountability

Tom Carothers reminded forum attendees that, although accountability is an important idea today, the evolutionary path of development thinking is littered with similar concepts that became popular but were eventually discarded. These include social capital, participatory development, and empowerment, to name a few. Will accountability suffer the same fate?

Carothers noted that that in a recent collection of essays written for the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, some 20 experts (including IBP’s Paolo de Renzio) charted what could be considered a move from 1st generation to 2nd generation of work on accountability. They defined 2nd generation work as efforts that:

  • integrate transparency and information as part of a more sophisticated strategy, not as the strategy itself;
  • adapt flexible and contextually relevant approaches to complex challenges, rather than just applying “cookie cutter” tools and best practices;
  • treat “scaling up” not as “doing more” but rather in connecting and integrating actors, mechanisms, and processes in a systematic manner; and
  • work with “accountability politics” rather than pursuing apolitical, technocratic approaches

Carothers remarked that this shift in accountability work paralleled a broader evolution in development thinking and practice (see Doing Development Differently and Thinking and Working Politically), and that the development industry would only remain relevant to the extent that it could meaningfully contribute to real accountability on the ground. IBP’s evolving work reflects many of these positive shifts toward more holistic and strategic accountability. Together with our CSO partners, we will continue to learn about how to most effectively navigate and strengthen the accountability ecosystem.


Brendan Halloran

Manager, SALT,

Brendan Halloran is International Budget Partnership’s Head of Strategy and Learning. In this role, Brendan facilitates strategy and learning processes at IBP – both the internal production of learning insights and drawing on evidence and ideas from broader research and practice in the governance space. He’s particularly interested in complex change dynamics, and how to support organizations to both navigate and strengthen their accountability ecosystems.

Prior to joining IBP in 2016, Brendan lead the learning work of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, where he played a role in shaping and interpreting evidence about what works, as well as supporting collective learning spaces, such as the TALEARN network. Before that, Brendan spent five years living, researching and working in Guatemala, most recently as a Governance Advisor for USAID.  Brendan has a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech, and has published work in a variety of journals, think pieces, and blogs, including his own — Politics, Governance, and Development.

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