‘We’re Still Open:’ Balancing government transparency and accountability with effective crisis response

July 2, 2020
The Kiev skyline in Ukraine, where Pact and its partners have worked for nearly a decade to build democracy and government accountability. (Photo: Brian Clark/Pact)

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought new meaning to the phrase "all politics is local." Though the virus does not discriminate, affecting 188 countries as of writing, its severity can depend on how local communities respond. As national governments rush to react through public spending, fiscal support and social protection measures, concerns have been raised about how to ensure these investments meaningfully mitigate the pandemic's economic and social consequences on citizens.

First, there are concerns that rapid disbursement to meet the urgent needs of frontline workers will outweigh transparency efforts, increasing the risk of corruption or fraud. Second, the staggering scale of these top-down investments, along with the need for bottom-up solutions because of the localized nature of the pandemic, raises questions about how to structure citizen feedback, a process known as social accountability. Citizen-state dialogue underpinned by transparency around how and why funds are programmed, what goods procured, and who is delivering these is essential to bolster trust – an invaluable public good during a health crisis in which citizens rely on information from their government to remain safe.

In practice, balancing responsiveness with transparency and accountability has been difficult. Many governments take a measured approach, sometimes offering lip service to these principles while noting they can also be an impediment to swift action. However, the consequences of rapid response without appropriate checks and balances can be staggering – the United States, in its haste to get stimulus checks to citizens, erroneously sent $1.4 billion to more than 1 million deceased people.

Amid Covid-19, civil society on the sidelines

Where Pact works, our staff have observed how the pandemic has led some governments to drop pretenses, exposing the de facto ways goods and services are procured – for better and worse. Although pandemics demand a strong state response, civil society's important role in holding officials accountable has been minimized. For example, in Zimbabwe, the crisis has exacerbated a longstanding trend of procurement secrecy. The Pact team, which has been exploring the risks of illicit and corrupt finance, found that the government has designated one government agency to respond to Covid-19, using sole-source contracts. Despite the increase in public spending, authorities continue flouting laws that require the publication of contract data, heightening the risk of abuse and further limiting the ability of civil society organizations (CSOs) to monitor public spending. Already, the health minister has been arrested for pushing for $60 million worth of medical supplies from a questionable Swiss company.

Similarly, in Nepal, Covid-19 has highlighted the challenges the government faces in fully devolving power in the federalization process. Citing learning from the 2015 earthquake response efforts, the government adopted a “one door” policy to coordinate and prevent duplication of efforts, prohibiting the private sector, NGOs or any other actors from engaging in relief activities without express government permission. To procure goods quickly in this environment, district jurisdictions have bypassed public procurement protocol using sole-source contracts above the max threshold, assuming this would be retroactively allowed. Coupled with travel restrictions, these decisions have reduced civil society’s ability to be a government watchdog and inform response efforts.

Citizens gather in rural Nepal before the pandemic to learn about local public improvement projects, including project budgets. (Photo: Brian Clark/Pact)

Balancing responsiveness and accountability

Rapid emergency response need not come at the expense of transparency and accountability, and leaders across the sector are weighing in on how to adapt. Representatives of Transparency International and Global Financial Integrity recently suggested this isn’t a zero-sum tradeoff: Safeguards could instead be sequenced differently. For example, contracts can be reviewed retroactively to ensure compliance with public procurement and beneficial ownership disclosure regulations. This would allow for lifesaving supplies to be delivered without abandoning hard-earned accountability principles – something the Nepali government could consider. Other leaders in this space have shared clear recommendations along these lines, including the Open Contracting Partnership, the IMF and the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which has outlined a series of recommendations in their Open Response + Open Recovery campaign.

On the accountability side, the challenge is identifying which mechanisms can be used amid social distancing. Some organizations are getting creative to remain connected to citizens. The Bond Network highlighted how its members are engaging local partners, for example. OGP has been cataloging ongoing efforts by CSOs and governments alike, and Integrity Action posted a roundup of project examples, including leveraging mobile technology, phone surveys and rapid research.

At Pact, we have conducted a series of rapid political economy analyses to understand how the pandemic is affecting our programs and citizen voice broadly. In Nepal, we found that longstanding social accountability practices have unfortunately ground to a halt, and citizen input has been further crowded out by the government's "one door" policy. However, we also found that the media, especially social media, continued to play a critical oversight and monitoring role, facilitating information sharing and aggregating citizen feedback.   

As we shift from response to recovery, there is an opportunity to re-examine how we approach transparency and social accountability in times of crisis. Innovations in the tech and ICT space have the potential to capture a wide swath of voices with minimal health risks and provide visibility on government response efforts. However, as these platforms race to adapt to Covid-19, they will also continue to struggle with growing pains, such as how to remove misinformation and ethical data usage. Now seems like a good time to revisit the lessons of Making All Voices Count, a four-year program that sought to understand how innovation can amplify citizen voices and improve accountability efforts. This includes understanding civic tech’s inability to express all voices, how it can be better applied to improve service delivery, and its limits in building public trust.

While ideas born from this disruptive moment are worthy of celebration, we should also consider how to better support local actors not just to adapt but also to thrive in this new normal. "Traditional" social accountability efforts – supporting CSOs, journalists and citizen activists – remain critically important in their own right and already are proving useful for strengthening response efforts. A Pact partner in Ukraine, for example, has adapted its edu-tainment TV show to address Covid-19 issues, covering topics ranging from social distancing to potential democratic backsliding. So far, it has been viewed more than eight million times through social media.

History has shown that disasters often trigger increased citizen demand for accountability and new forms of participatory and accountability politics (consider Nepal after the 2015 earthquake). Our community should seize the moment to learn from these examples and make the most of this opportunity to support more responsive citizen-state relationships around the world.