31 August 2011

Making social accountability happen

By Dr. Antonio G.M. La Viña

This is the third of six columns on social accountability. In the first column, I wrote about why social accountability was an imperative of good governance while last week, in the second column of the series, I discussed its mainstreaming in governance processes such as the peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. In this third column, I write more in-depth about social accountability—what it really means and how to make it happen.

As with all things new, social accountability requires the aging of practical experience and studious analysis to produce the proverbial finest wine: governance that is to the people’s taste and liking. In the past four to five years that the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability has been in existence, beginning with Africa in 2007, the network, through its regional affiliates, has continued to refine the social accountability concept with each workshop and pilot project.

The Affiliated Network for Social Accountability—East Asia Pacific (ANSA-EAP), for example, believes that the quality of good governance is a result of the transparency, accountability, and public participation in government policy-making and implementation, held against the bad practices of corruption, waste, inefficiencies, ineffectiveness and government apathy. Transparency, accountability, and participation are necessary for responsive governance, and they have to overcome bad government practices. In developing-world countries, bad governance may be the norm rather than the exception, and people will find a lot of opposition from entrenched interests and uninterested public officials in ensuring good governance. Here in the Philippines, we have obstruction, lack of cooperation, and delays in the investigation of anomalies and crimes, inhibiting accountability; the Freedom of Information Act still has yet to be given priority, leaving people in the “governance dark”, inhibiting transparency; and many fear reprisal for exposing corruption and crime, while others feel powerless in the face of bad governance, and simply remain apathetic, inhibiting participation.

This is where social accountability comes in, which potentially can radically magnify all efforts in ensuring transparency, accountability, and participation in governance. Social accountability networks government and the governed with lines of access and communication. It provides tools for citizens to monitor performance in the delivery of public goods and services, prudently inform the authorities of problems, and even develop constructive solutions. Instead of fearing reprisal and feeling powerless, people can step forward to offer mutually-beneficial solutions that advance the common good and social interests as well as the careers of officials that deliver positive results, advancing these people through the government hierarchy. Through social accountability’s productive relationships and alliances between government champions and citizen groups, good governance can hold enough weight to counteract entrenched special interests and a history of bad government practices.

Social accountability itself requires four components (or “enabling pillars”) to work: organized and capable citizens groups; government champions who are willing to engage; cultural appropriateness; and broad public access to information. It is either through luck or fate that the history of modern democracy and society has provided all four pillars for social accountability. Countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, for example, have flourishing civil societies with active NGOs. In addition, even with distrust towards government, there is still a reservoir of trust that social accountability can tap. We trust each other as families and neighbors; we can trust government champions and paragons of good governance.

Francis Fukuyama, in his work Trust: The Social Values and the Creation of Prosperity, noted that constructively expanding trust within and between communities can lower transaction costs, improve governance, and enable good economies as well as societies. These can be the consequences of social accountability, too, as we build governments and governance that we can trust, though productive working relationships. Yet trust is local; it is a ground-level attribute. Social accountability adapts to communities and culture. Social accountability is a bottom-up approach, empowering citizens and communities that are unique to a given country and culture. Cultural respect is a hallmark of ANSA’s work: respecting local sensibilities localizes concepts of good governance. It helps local communities internalize the values of good governance and responsibilities of social accountability, and thus generate trust among stakeholders.

As a Russian proverb goes, however, “Trust, but verify.” For ANSA, good working relationships and local sensibilities are tempered by—and aim for—assertive advocacy. Access to information is critical to transparency. ANSA-EAP can—and has—leveraged information and communications technologies like the Internet to open up access to information for citizens in both directions. Through ICT, people can share relevant information with each other and with government, such as the state of infrastructure like roads or school buildings, or if the budget was well and truly spent on deliverable public goods and services like health care. This creates awareness for public policy, especially in its outcomes, and helps policy stakeholders measure actual results against the expectations and standards set by policy-makers.

Because of action-oriented learning, participants in a citizen monitoring project have the opportunity to build networks and reservoirs of trust among each other and with government champions, enhancing both community trust and trust in government. They also apply what they learn about how to hold policies and policy-makers accountable through all stages of the policy process—planning, advocacy, and implementation. Their participation in policy implementation also makes them agents of information, publicizing and disseminating to stakeholders their needs and concerns regarding the effects of policy. As all this happens, citizens gain a better appreciation for policy and governance by being part of it—and thus become better advocates for good governance. Through constructive engagement, social accountability magnifies transparency, accountability, and participation through the formal channels of government, building up a culture of good, responsive, and effective governance. Through greater social accountability, transformation happens—in communities and countries, within citizen organizations and governments, one good citizen or official at a time.

The writer is Dean of the Ateneo School of Government (ASoG)  and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific (ANSA-EAP).  This essay was first published in the 30 August 2011 online and print edition of the Manila Standard Today. It is featured in VOICES with the writer's permission. Dean La Viña can be reached through e-mail at tonylavs (at) gmail.com and twitter: tonylavs

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