Systems-aware social accountability: Learning from emergent practice

December 20, 2023
A blue box that reads, "Systems-aware social accountability: Harnessing practitioner insights for more responsive governance" appears over a larger aubergine box.

By Florencia Guerzovich and Lauren Keevill

Pact and its peers have increasingly used social accountability as an important approach to increase citizen voice and agency. Social accountability seeks to strengthen dialogue and engagement between citizens and powerholders (often government officials or service providers) in order to make public services more responsive to citizen needs. While improving social service quality is an important and admirable goal, the way social accountability delivers that — fostering ongoing engagement between public actors and citizens in the hopes of forging a stronger relationship between them — also offers a pathway to rework the “social contract,” which is at the heart of every democracy.

In practice, people often experience and understand social accountability as a tool with clearly defined steps that guide how stakeholders communicate their needs, monitor change and engage in continuous dialogue around these, such as a community scorecard, social audit or participatory budgeting. Pact has used and benefited from these tools in a diversity of contexts over the last two decades. Recently, we realized that in order to deepen our organizational learning on social accountability we needed to understand how our approach evolved beyond customizing and applying tools. In particular, we wanted to understand what Pact practitioners delivering the work believe are the most valuable and effective elements of our approach.

In an effort to understand not just what our social accountability practitioners are doing, but how they are doing it and how it contributes to tangible outcomes, Pact conducted a strategic review of our social accountability practice globally. Conversations with practitioners revealed the value of the day-to-day work, such as bringing the right people into a room, assessing which community leader has the most influence with a decision maker, or seizing on windows of opportunity, is evident to them and the communities they serve. Interestingly, multiple practitioners admitted they often didn’t think these important elements would be interesting to others. Instead, they assumed external actors preferred to hear about the canonical ways by which academics and donors characterize the work, rather than what they were actually doing and learning in practice, making it difficult for them to describe what they are doing and why in clear, simple language. What emerged was a consensus around the importance of applying a holistic lens, clearly defining where within a system a project can have impact, a focus on connecting actors within a system and managing adaptively and adjusting approaches. 

These reflections, along with insights from the latest literature and insights from peer organizations, laid the groundwork for an emergent framework on systems-aware social accountability (SASA), an approach to programming that operationalizes how, and the conditions under which, a social accountability intervention works with and through a system to catalyze more responsive and accountable governance at a point in time and over time. We are pleased to release the full report here.

This framework is built through praxis, drawing lessons from Pact’s work in Ukraine, Cambodia, Nepal, Zimbabwe and Myanmar. While each team shared a goal of more responsive governance, they pursued very different social accountability interventions, from conducting focused Applied Political Economy Analyses (APEAs) to improve social audits in Nepal to leveraging the work of past projects to explore new paths for grassroots accountability in Myanmar. The framework’s four principles, described below, are not exclusive to social accountability interventions; for example, Pact has published tools on how to use political economy analysis or integrate adaptive management principles into programming. Rather, the principles highlight how – by including the right combination of mindsets, management approaches, analytic approaches and tools – practitioners can develop and apply a deep understanding of a system to improve relationships within it, in support of greater accountability and improved service delivery. 

Use a Holistic Lens Recognize that there is always a system; understand and engage with it​: Developing a strong understanding of the system in which a project works and effectively integrating this knowledge into implementation increases the chances that local actors will sustain the interventions.

Right Fit the Approach​Equipped with a holistic understanding of the context, teams identify where they have a comparative advantage in a specific system. In other words, they identify where their resources, expertise and partners have the greatest potential for impact, then set realistic targets that they revise periodically. 

Orchestrate Across The System -​ Practitioners take a networked, rather than a top-down, approach to capitalize on their convening power and maximize opportunity to facilitate the most-promising alignments across and within their projects, portfolios and systemsOrchestrators use their individual power, relationships and insight into the local system to enable, not impose, promising interactions and mitigate the risks of damaging ones.

Manage Adaptively - Monitor, evaluate and reflect on emerging patterns of data, evidence and learning to inform decision-making within and, equally importantly, across project cycles. Where possible, practitioners should consider how to use short-term projects to play a long-term game by linking new projects to the lessons and results of their predecessors and ensuring that they are responsive to the evolving context, particularly opportunities, limits and risks.

The four inter-related principles of the Systems-Aware Social Accountability Framework.

At Pact, we will use this framework to guide and orient our social accountability work, including decisions around when and how to deploy specific tools, inform individual project’s adaptive management approaches and how to build networks and relationships that foster accountability throughout a system. 

Beyond expressing Pact’s own approach to social accountability, we hope that this framework signals to local teams that their work and results matter. The principles and broad guidance articulated within the framework is meant to spark conversations between like-minded peers, and better position practitioners to describe how social accountability interventions enable locally led solutions to acute problems while pushing systems to become more accountable. Pact held one such conversation earlier this year, presenting the framework and hearing from a distinguished group of social accountability practitioners. A few of the key takeaways included:

  1. Giving greater attention and value to “softer” outcomes such asrelationships, moreequitable power dynamics andtrustenables projects to deeply think about the sustainability of their outcomes.
  2. Collaboration is not the only valuable outcome of building relationships between diverse stakeholders. Improving information sharing, facilitating negotiation and creating spaces where stakeholders can better understand their differences all help stakeholders identify concrete ways to advance common goals.
  3. Managing across project cycles is challenging, requiring practitioners to embrace a longer time-horizon when practicing adaptive management and learning activities to identify where the project (and future donor-funded programs) could support greater accountability.
  4. SASA is one way to navigate the paradigm shift created by locally led development by supporting practitioners to cultivate deeper understandings of the contexts we work in, inviting them to understand not just how a system is organized, but their own role, power and relationships within it. Equipped with that knowledge, practitioners can more clearly identify how they can enable citizens to lead social accountability in their own contexts.
  5. SASA links social accountability work to the essence of what democracy is: the constant renegotiation of the social contract and the relationships associated with it, including at the grassroots level. In so doing, it helps demonstrate how social accountability contributes toward collective priorities in the governance sector, such as renewing democracy

These connections open up significant space for learning within Pact and across the broader field and we hope to continue engaging colleagues in this learning conversation.