Our Strengthening Public Accountability for Results and Knowledge (SPARK) program works with grassroots civic movements who represent people directly affected by service delivery failures. We support them in uncovering the fiscal governance causes of – and solutions to – those problems. In a three-part learning series, we explore how SPARK has built the capabilities of grassroots groups to collectively engage with fiscal governance systems – the politics, institutions, policies, and processes that govern the use of public funds and how they are utilized and implemented accountably to provide services.
In this note, we consider the ways in which collective agency — the ability of grassroots groups to organize, mobilize, and represent their constituents to take strategic and focused action — can be leveraged to open up spaces where fiscal decisions are made, strengthen public accountability, and contribute to more inclusive service delivery.
Lesson 1: Grassroots groups must be able to demonstrate their strong connection to and representation of constituents, as this is critical in eliciting responses from government
SPARK partners can harness collective agency to prompt government responses when groups demonstrate a strong and valid connection to grassroots constituents. The strength of this connection is not solely about the grassroots groups’ scale in terms of numbers, but also about representation and whether groups can demonstrate that constituents connect to the issues they raise.
Government actors respond to grassroots groups because there are potential political gains and costs. The number of voters the groups represent holds political currency. Public officials may expect that responding to the group’s concerns will persuade their constituents to vote for them or improve their image with other voters. Public officials also respond because they perceive the grassroots groups to have credible representation and valid evidence.
Identity-based structures, a large membership base, and geographic coverage of service locations are all effective means of demonstrating representation. In most SPARK countries, our programs selected identity-based groups that had formal membership-based connections to large numbers of constituents. It is unlikely that smaller or newer identity groups would have had impact on the same scale. Many of these groups also had specific entitlements targeting their demographic on which they could claim to have legitimate views. For example, in Senegal our partner representing people with disabilities can credibly claim to represent people nationwide who are having trouble accessing equity cards meant to expand services for people with disabilities.
Some of our location-based groups had to expand their geographic representation to show that they had direct connections to a significant number of people in enough communities impacted by the service in question. Once they did, their political leverage has been significant. For example, as our South African partner’s campaign to improve water and sanitation services grew to include more informal settlements across more metros, decision-makers began to take note.
Grassroots groups must demonstrate representation relative to the level of government in which they seek change. For instance, groups that connect to far fewer members in total, such as our partner in Indonesia that represents poor urban women, has secured better services and even system improvements, but the changes they sought were at the subnational level where they had significant numbers of direct constituents.
Conversely, programs hesitate to engage at levels of government where the grassroots group’s membership or connections may not be sufficiently representative. For instance, in Kenya our program has identified that the decentralization of financing, reporting, and oversight of water services is incomplete and unclear, but they have not been able to engage on these concerns with national-level authorities, as their partners do not have a broad enough, nationwide constituency with which they can collect representative data and mobilize around this issue.
It has also been important to show decision-makers that the grassroots groups’ constituents stand behind the issues they raise. This bolsters groups’ claims of representation and allows space for authentic testimony, which can persuade officials to act. Mass-based groups can mobilize their members at rallies to show public support for their campaign asks. Many groups also give voice to their constituents by bringing them into closed-door consultations with government or featuring their testimonies in traditional and social media. National identity-based groups, which have advocacy capacity concentrated centrally, must make a concerted effort to activate constituents in lower-level branches when they are seeking changes at the sub-national level.
SPARK programs have been able to drive change so long as grassroots partners have a constituency that is willing to mobilize around a priority service and government decision-makers perceive the service and/or the grassroots group as important. In some instances, however, SPARK supported non-membership based civil society organizations to engage more deeply with members of a specific constituency (i.e. Dalit students in India or informal residents). For example, in South Africa, our program first targeted informal settlement residents and their access to water and sanitation, and incrementally added community leaders, volunteers and other organizations to their campaign that could organize and mobilize residents around this issue across many different metro areas.
Lesson 2: Grassroots groups gain collective budget agency when campaigns focus on specific budget issues, present credible evidence, and target specific government actors
Generally, the service delivery and system improvements that SPARK has secured were linked to the quality and extent to which technical work was done, and whether it was targeted at specific actors, moments, and issues in the budget process. Government officials have been responsive when SPARK partners present new evidence on service delivery gaps and the bottlenecks that prevented the services from being delivered, thereby turning generalized collective actions into focused collective agency.
Data collection on whether constituents receive adequate services, such as through social audits, provided government with key data it lacked and through concerted advocacy contributed to service improvements. For example, in Indonesia, our partner presented data on how fisherfolks’ livelihoods were impacted by the COVID pandemic, which led the government to purchase their catch. When officials were presented with technical analysis about what prevented services from being delivered, they were also able to push for systemic reforms. Robust budget analysis – such as in Nigeria where our partners were able to show how cuts in agricultural subsidies would impact food security – allowed some programs to shift budget allocations. Quality budget analysis also opened doors for grassroots partners to have a seat at the table in spaces where fiscal decisions are made – such as in South Africa, where our partners gained formal access to municipal processes to manage COVID relief.
SPARK programs have been most effective when they targeted the right officials who could resolve specific problems in the institutions that govern a particular service. This includes mapping how public resources are assigned, monitored, and implemented in the delivery of services across levels and offices of government and identifying bottlenecks. Once a bottleneck is identified, we and our partners use our combined numbers and relationships for advocacy. For instance, in Indonesia, analysis of the fiscal governance system underlying fuel subsidies for fisherfolk pinpointed two bottlenecks that prevented access to these subsidies. National rules for accessing the subsidies involved procedural requirements that were hard for small-scale fishers to fulfil. In addition, fuel stations where fishers could pump subsidized fuel were often inaccessible. Our partner leveraged members at the national and local level to engage with relevant national and local officials to improve accessibility of fuel stations.
Lesson 3: Collective budget agency develops incrementally from tackling issues closer to constituents’ daily lives first
It is easier for grassroots partners to mobilize constituents on budget issues that clearly affect their access to adequate services, compared to more removed problems around public finance management. SPARK has addressed problems in service delivery that are recognizable to constituents, such as providing more fuel stations, relaxing stringent requirements to register for services, and enabling their inclusion in cash transfer lists. These are important wins for SPARK because they show grassroots groups how targeted budget advocacy can lead to tangible improvements in everyday services.
Leveraging grassroots groups’ collective agency to address systemic challenges behind poor service delivery, such as poorly structured budgets, weak accounting systems, or poor cash management systems, is harder. Nevertheless, SPARK programs are starting to find ways to do so. In South Africa for example, we are beginning to work with grassroots partners to address the underlying issues driving poor access to reliable sanitation, such as reforming budget allocation practices that finance the maintenance of water infrastructure in informal settlements. In Nigeria, our grassroots partner, which focuses on improving investments to primary health care facilities, has begun to leverage its constituencies and technical expertise to address bottlenecks throughout the budget pipeline that keep money that is budgeted and allocated at the national, state and local level from reaching facilities.
Lesson 4: To leverage collective budget agency, SPARK grassroots groups must build budget capacities throughout their membership
In SPARK programs, training has been supplemented by ongoing mentoring. IBP and its budget partners have worked continuously with grassroots groups to collect service delivery data and to broker, prepare, and join with them for meetings with state actors. We have also facilitated their participation and accompanied them in government-led budget forums. There are green shoots from these efforts – in Kenya and South Africa community representatives are independently engaging governments using their budget knowledge.
For grassroots constituents to drive their budget advocacy and authentically participate, both the leadership of the grassroots partner and their constituents should understand the budget reason why services were not delivered, who is responsible and what changes they seek. SPARK can only directly build the capacity of a core group, so grassroots groups must secure buy-in and ownership among well-placed “budget champions” for this capacity to permeate across their ranks. In smaller groups, SPARK teams have been able to reach more members directly, whereas well-organized groups are able to create more champions on their own. Hierarchical groups can be at a disadvantage because information is slow to filter down and champions can be blocked by gatekeepers. In some countries, SPARK has supported grassroots groups to develop participatory data collection methodologies that ensure constituents know how their data is used to improve a service. Other important ways of developing and transferring budget capacities include bringing constituents into meetings with government officers, politicians, or legislature committees; public advocacy processes like rallies; and media engagements. As grassroots groups see results, other parts of their networks or new partners may opt to join in and scale up budget capacities. This is an ongoing process especially for our partners with a larger membership base. IBP and its budget partners use learning sessions and constant monitoring to ensure budget knowledge continues to filter down to constituents.
When building budget capacity, different approaches are required based on which level of government a campaign is targeting. Identity-based groups tend to have capacities concentrated in national secretariats, but our work with these groups has often required building the budget capacities of local members to target bottlenecks and related advocacy at the sub-national level. For instance, for the smallholder women farmers association in Nigeria, mentoring state coordinators has been key in delivering credible budget advocacy around state budgets. Similarly in Indonesia, we have mentored branch-level leaders of the national fisherfolk union to engage local officials on improving access to fuel stations. For national groups, SPARK teams primarily build capacities in the national secretariats who then make sure capacities flow down to their members at the subnational level. When our teams work with many grassroots groups across many locations, however, they need to build budget capacity across many more groups. In South Africa, for instance, our team is working with nine grassroots partners with diverse reach and organizational structures to develop their budget capacities.
Lesson 5: SPARK strengthens the collectiveness of grassroots groups, in turn strengthening their collective budget agency
SPARK programs have strengthened the collectiveness of its grassroots partners by energizing their constituents to work together toward concrete solutions to the service gaps they face. Our teams work closely with grassroots partners to help them design and implement mass action in ways that build and leverage their collective base. Our model shifts these groups’ organizational capacities, messaging, and advocacy targets to focus on specific budget issues and to use data to drive improvements in a particular service. These efforts have emboldened grassroots groups by demystifying for their constituents what they previously saw as opaque government practices – the “black box” of government.
SPARK programs also increase the cohesiveness of grassroots groups by building their credibility among and connections to their own constituents. These efforts have strengthened constituents’ willingness to participate in the collective action of grassroots groups in three ways. First, the program has triggered some efforts by groups to strengthen their organizational practices and internal communications for improved cohesion between their leadership and constituents. Second, SPARK has facilitated groups’ access to fiscal governance spaces, which demonstrates to constituents that they can produce results. Third, SPARK has organized constituents to solve problems they had previously tried to solve on their own. It is empowering for constituents when they are brought together to collect evidence, participate in rallies or budget forums, or hear how information they provide is used, and can link these collective actions to results.
Grassroots groups and their constituents are central to the achievements of SPARK because of the large and potentially powerful interest groups they represent. However, not all SPARK partners have significant power to mobilize large numbers nationally. While the majority of our partners are mass-based, some partner organizations are local, are not organized by membership, or serve as intermediaries between grassroots constituents and community representatives and leaders. Nevertheless both mass-based and smaller organizations have been able to effectively leverage collective budget agency to elicit government responses thanks to several factors.
These groups were recognized as valid budget actors when they demonstrated that they represented grassroots constituents who connected to the issues they raised and put those constituents out front in their advocacy. Groups did not necessarily need to have scale in terms of members; location-based groups had to demonstrate that their constituent base was geographically representative and could be mobilized on the service in question. Groups had to show they represented significant numbers of constituents at the level of government in which they sought changes.
When they were able to show credible representation, decision-makers recognized these groups as legitimate budget actors, which opened doors for them to bring valid evidence about services into government spaces where budget decisions are made. It was also crucial for grassroots groups to focus on specific budgets issues – and present credible data, evidence and persuasive advocacy messages – to government officials who could address the bottlenecks causing these issues. The groups’ data proved useful to government actors and was taken seriously because it concerned a majority of their constituents.
This brief is based on a Learning Note produced by Alta Folscher.