Learning Brief 3: Engaging government to secure fiscal governance change



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 examine why government officials are motivated to respond, what prevents them from responding, and how the SPARK program has found the right entry points to leverage or create incentives to respond.


Lesson 1: Leveraging political incentives and power


Both elected officials and bureaucrats are influenced by political incentives, even if elected officials are more overtly so. The SPARK program has leveraged these incentives and mobilized the implied political power of large grassroots groups to influence government responses.


Our partners have strategically taken the political and electoral incentives of decision-makers and institutions into account to engage and secure responses from political actors. SPARK partners have been savvy in targeting individual politicians at opportune times when alignment with a large grassroots group would help advance their political prospects. In Indonesia, our program aimed its advocacy at a governor at a time when he was expected to run for President and being seen as responsive to the demands of poorer residents was important for his campaign. In Ghana, our partners used the COVID pandemic and elections to put pressure on the government to act on smallholder farmers’ demands for more assistance. In Nigeria, our partners targeted members of parliament (MPs) who were facing re-election to use their budget amendment powers to stem the federal government’s proposed cut to the agriculture budget.


Astou Mbengue (R), lead data collector for the Senegalese Federation of Inhabitants, signs an attendance register with a representative of the National Sanitation Office of Senegal (L) during a site visit in Pikine, Dakar

Astou Mbengue (R), lead data collector for the Senegalese Federation of Inhabitants, signs an attendance register with a representative of the National Sanitation Office of Senegal (L) during a site visit in Pikine, Dakar


SPARK programs, however, do not rely exclusively on targeting politicians directly for their support even when politicians may have powerful incentives to respond. One risk is that support is likely to be shallow, in that promises would be made but not kept, and short-lived in that access to the political actor may disappear as soon as the politician has realized a political gain (i.e., being re/elected). A second concern is that groups run the risk of their claims being dismissed as partisan when they become associated with specific politicians, or any advances made being overturned when political power changes hands. A third risk is that relying on politicians for access and influence could be met with stonewalling by bureaucrats.


Our programs often rely on the power of diverse political institutions, such as the offices of mayors, political heads of relevant sector institutions, or legislature committees, to influence government responses. In Senegal, we found that while decision-making on urban sanitation infrastructure is national, the impacts are felt locally. Having mayors’ support to engage the national ministries has been important. In Indonesia, the Anti-Corruption Commission issued instructions on COVID-19 relief packages, but evidence from our grassroots partner led them to switch the packages from in-kind food parcels to cash relief to address corruption. Our partner then advocated to the President’s Office to put pressure on ministries that were slow to respond and implement the revised instructions. In Ghana, it was important to target the national government on budget allocations to subsidized fertilizer as well as local government, including agricultural extension officers, to ensure that the subsidized fertilizer reached farmers equitably.


Lesson 2: Leveraging technical incentives with evidence and informed engagement


The SPARK program has found that government response also depends on the quality and validity of the data that partners present on service delivery issues. If the data is presented in ways that feed into existing government processes (rather than generic advocacy asks) and if it is presented to the right officials who can act on it, even if they are not as visible or high-ranking in government, then partners were more likely to see response.


Our grassroots partners have gained traction when they have been able to prove that they represent broader constituency groups, beyond a particular geography (community or district) or affiliation, with legitimate needs that government has often already committed to addressing. Through social audits, member surveys or other data collection, our grassroots partners have been able to bring credible evidence to the table on the significance and scale of the service delivery failure they were experiencing, and to bring persuasive data that decision-makers lacked. For instance, our partner in Senegal, the Federation of Associations of Persons with Disabilities, has a nationwide membership base that allows them to credibly claim to represent all people who need Equal Opportunity Cards that grant people with disabilities access to social services. As a result, the data they collected on the difficulties people with disabilities were having accessing these cards was difficult for officials to dismiss. Conversely, in South Africa, our Asivikelane campaign initially had social audit data on service delivery questioned by some city governments because it only included some communities. Eventually, as they grew their network to gather data from more informal settlements, they were able to overcome initial skepticism.


Officials from the National Sanitation Office of Senegal conduct a site inspection in Pekine, Dakar

Officials from the National Sanitation Office of Senegal conduct a site inspection in Pekine, Dakar


Our partners often raised awareness by having community members present evidence of service gaps or sharing photos through the press and social media. Authentic testimonies put a human face in front of decision-makers, who are often far removed from the problems. It has brought unique knowledge to the policy table about the needs, priorities, and circumstances of communities who rely on these services. In some cases, officials may have felt incentivized to respond as the testimonies were perceived or feared to influence public views on the government institution or actor.


SPARK has also garnered government responses thanks to the credibility of its diagnostic work. SPARK partners have provided precise evidence about how bottlenecks in service delivery have led to shortfalls in people receiving reliable services – whether it is that registration criteria for services is too burdensome, the money allocated for a service does not reach the agency charged with delivering, etc. SPARK has brought new insights to actors in different parts of the service delivery chain about why their policies are not working.


Bringing evidence into advocacy can help shift the credibility of grassroots groups as budget actors. These efforts have been powerful because traditionally governments did not readily expect or allow civil society organizations to ask questions about budgets and technical issues. In Senegal, the program found that bringing in women from urban groups they worked with made government uncomfortable. When the women started speaking and presented clear, technical evidence, the conversation shifted.


SPARK programs have also used comparisons to demonstrate the extent of the problems. Examples are the use of traffic lights in reporting on the state of shared sanitation facilities in different cities in South Africa, or photographic evidence that compared actual food packages against what they should be in Indonesia.


Lesson 3: The importance of public policy priorities and reputational benefits and risks


Even when presented with credible evidence from groups that are representative, officials did not always respond. We have found that government actors are most likely to respond when they perceive the service as important for their personal, institutional, or government performance, reputation, or priorities. For example, in Senegal, local officials have an incentive to deliver services reliably, because they live in local communities and must answer questions personally when services are not delivered.


When SPARK must engage officials to deliver services that they have not demonstrated interest in delivering, the programs look for a policy hook that does interest them. For instance, in Nigeria our grassroots partner made the case to protect the agriculture budget and subsidies for women farmers by arguing these investments were critical to ensuring food security during the pandemic. Creating incentive alignment through mass mobilization or media campaigns, or seeking out like-minded officials to work with, are alternative strategies when government is uninterested. Sometimes there can be financial incentives at play – politicians or officials may be concerned that service delivery could impact their ability to grow (or lose) budgets they control.


When there are clear policies in place that entitle grassroots constituents to services, officials are also more obliged and freer to respond. When specific policies are linked to specific budget allocations to provide a target service to a grassroots constituency, SPARK campaigns have an even strong lever to push officials for delivery. The reverse is also true: it is difficult to get officials to respond in the absence of clear policy and budgetary commitments.


Some officials respond because their personal value systems may be compatible with ensuring that grassroots constituents access services. These officials are important allies and if they are in powerful positions that can influence decisions about services, they are often the first port of call in our government engagements.


Lesson 4: Selecting advocacy strategies and government entry points


Governments are not homogenous – we and our partners look to find the right institution, person, advocacy approach, and windows to engage. SPARK programs take care in sequencing public versus closed-door advocacy to officials and balancing confrontational versus collaborative approaches. As explored in our learning note on coalitions, our partners often leverage the media or public rallies to raise awareness and support for their issues. But other times they may choose to not jump the gun going public with information or becoming more confrontational if a government actor is not responding. In Ghana, for example, the program has avoided publicizing information without first sharing it with officials as they have found this can be counterproductive, even if it gets a lot of attention.


Beatrice Ditshego, a resident of Lindelani informal settlement in South Africa and a community volunteer with Planact, collects tin cans and bottles to sell

Beatrice Ditshego, a resident of Lindelani informal settlement in South Africa and a community volunteer with Planact, collects tin cans and bottles to sell


Grassroots groups may also avoid more public or confrontational approaches to mitigate risks for their members. For instance, when our partners in India tried to publicize information about the persistence of manual scavenging, despite it being illegal, they were threatened by the police. They have since turned to sharing their data with legislators and providing information to the media on-background, which has garnered government responses at district and state levels.


SPARK programs often invest in building ‘insider’ relationships with specific government actors. Our programs often need to get technical messages on technical systems to specific persons that can influence technical and political decision-makers to make a change that can improve service delivery. These messages can be difficult to communicate efficiently through public, mass action. Our partners must access the inner offices of bureaucracies armed with good knowledge of who sits there, what motivates them and what powers they have, and what relationships and political factors they might exploit to get the technical changes they seek. SPARK has often seen success when partners seized windows of opportunity where government actors’ incentives matched their aims, and they tailored their advocacy messages to align. On the other hand, entry points that have worked well in the past may cease when key interlocutors move on or are replaced.


Given political circumstances shift, SPARK partners have sought to sustain engagement by institutionalizing their “seat the table.” For example, in Nigeria, we helped our partner secure a space on Anambra state’s budget forum. In South Africa, our partners gained access to city government structures that monitor the effective delivery of COVID relief.




Our findings show that governments are persuaded to respond because our programs combine representation with quality evidence and persuasive presentation tailored to different actors. As explored in the first learning brief on collective agency, mobilizing large, representative grassroots constituencies is the starting point to create incentives for governments to respond. The political leverage brought by large numbers, the visibility of communities directly affected, and the technical evidence of why the situation has come about, together with specific technical proposals, make it more difficult for government actors to dismiss these campaigns.


Engaging governments successfully is highly context driven. What will work to trigger a response differs across countries, levels of government, services and time. We continuously scan the environment for opportunities to engage. This requires knowing individual government actors, the web of institutions in which they operate, their reasons to act (and how these change over time), and their reach on the levers of change. SPARK campaigns rarely rely on one entry point to government, or rarely use only direct advocacy to officials, or only public advocacy. We and our coalition partners have found that we must work with multiple government partners at the same time and can use power dynamics between institutions to get the responses we seek.


We have also found government actors respond more easily when the service is relevant to their personal, institutional or government performance in the prevailing political context. Our programs have faced hurdles when neither the service in question, nor the grassroots group, has political currency. In these instances, leveraging media advocacy, and seeking out powerful allies (as discussed in our second learning brief on coalitions) are critical to improve services or at least deter backsliding.


This brief is based on a Learning Note produced by Alta Folscher.

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