Place Your Bets: How Can Publicity and Political Agency Take us from Transparency to Accountability?

This post was written by Albert van Zyl, Research Manager at the International Budget Partnership.

In a recent response to an article by Yu and Robinson, the World Bank’s Tiago Peixoto repeats the now common refrain that transparency of government information is a necessary but insufficient condition for accountability. The real value of his contribution lies in his effort to name the additional conditions that are required for transparency to drive accountability. He argues that these conditions include “publicity” and “political agency.” In this post we will reflect on how these apply to accountability for government finances.

What does publicity mean?

By publicity Peixoto means “the extent to which disclosed information actually reaches and resonates with its intended audiences.” For this to happen, he argues that:

  • data must be widely accessible, adaptable, and machine readable;
  • there must be organizations or individuals with the necessary technical skills to figure out what the data mean (what Peixoto calls “technomediators”); and
  • there must be a free press and Internet to disseminate information to a wider public.

The IBP’s work highlights these conditions but shows that even when these conditions are present, the publication of government budget information does not lead to as much use of the information by citizens as might be expected – even in such countries as South Africa or India where all of Peixoto’s publicity conditions are in place.

What is the IBP placing its bets on in the publicity stakes?

So what else is needed? The truth is that this is a new field of inquiry. In the words of American philosopher Richard Rorty, we are learning by “casting around.” At the IBP we are placing our publicity bets on two further conditions.

Our first bet relates to the availability of budget analysis skills. As Peixoto already points out, government information is technically demanding, even when it is publicly available, adaptable, and machine readable. However, the presence of these skills is not sufficient; their location also matters. In many countries we see that these skills are present in the private sector and universities, but they are not being used to bring about accountability. For this to happen, these technical skills need to either exist in or be immediately accessible to accountability actors like civil society organizations, legislatures, media, and auditors. So our first bet is to build budget analysis skills in civil society and other accountability actors.

Our second bet is on stimulating demand for information. Again, the mere availability of information seldom stimulates the demand for it, in terms of accountability actors using the information to identify such problems as poor service delivery or misplaced priorities in public spending. This has been the case even where Peixoto’s publicity conditions are met. It is only where coalitions, campaigns, and networks of accountability actors (CSOs, legislators, media, auditors, etc.) mobilize around specific governance or service delivery issues that budget information is used and accountability is demanded. So our second bet is to stimulate and support these formations of accountability actors.

What does political agency consist of?

By political agency Peixoto means “mechanisms through which citizens can sanction or reward public officials.” For this to happen, he argues, the country must have:

  • free, fair, and periodic elections; and
  • participatory mechanisms in addition to elections.

Peixoto’s political agency conditions fall into the motherhood and apple pie category, but are they enough in the public finance world? It is not very hard to name countries with free and fair elections and additional participatory mechanisms that are plagued by corruption and other accountability problems such as spending not being aligned to policy priorities.

What is the IBP placing its bets on in the political agency stakes?

Political agency is not just the result of elections and participatory mechanisms, but also of the social capital that knits accountability actors together. As Robert Putnam stated in his 1995 article, Bowling Alone: “The norms and networks of civic engagement powerfully affect the performance of representative government.” The IBP’s impact case studies show that accountability often occurs when a number of actors in the accountability ecosystem find common cause. We are busy learning about these systems and how they work, but some of the important ingredients seem to be:

  • Civil society organizations, including those with budget analysis skills and advocacy experience;
  • Functional accountability institutions like legislatures, audit institutions, and the judiciary;
  • Effective media, including new media, print, and national and community radio;
  • The formal and informal relationships between these actors and institutions; and
  • The ‘repertoire‘ of advocacy tools and actions that exist in the skill sets and collective memory of these networks.

Our evidence suggests that accountability results from successful formations of these actors in the ecosystem. For this reason we are placing our “political agency bet” on supporting CSOs to participate more fully in these networks and on working with other agencies to strengthen the rest of the accountability ecosystem.

Our bonus ball: international norms for budget transparency and participation

Just like in any lottery, we are giving ourselves a bonus ball, in the form of global norms for fiscal transparency, participation, and accountability! In a globalized world, international actors and norms can create powerful incentives (such as credit ratings, peer pressure, and aid) that domestic accountability actors can draw on. Our hope is therefore that the establishment of such norms will support the work of national-level accountability actors by giving them a benchmark to call on. For this reason we are working with GIFT, the United Nations, and others toward the establishment of such norms.

Have we cracked the accountability code?

No, not yet. But the above paragraphs describe the broad orientation of a number of country-level experiments that the IBP will be conducting over the next five years. A team of independent researchers will track what happens, so we will be able to update you regularly. Watch this space!

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