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Social Accountability in the Public Sector. A Conceptual Discussion and Learning Module (Banco Mundial)

A growing number of authors and practitioners have offered civic engagement as a way to improve the accountability of public institutions and office holders to their constituencies. This paper and learning module attempt to clarify one aspect of the growing literature on civic engagement: society’s role in improving government accountability—a process increasingly being termed as “social accountability.”
The paper presents accountability as “a proactive process by which public officials inform about and justify their plans of action, their behavior and results and are sanctioned accordingly.” It then explores the various ways in which civil society can participate in strengthening accountability in the public sector. According this definition, a social accountability approach relies on civic engagement, in which ordinary citizens or civil society organizations participate directly or indirectly to exact accountability. Initiatives such as participatory budgeting, social audits, citizen report cards, and community score cards all involve citizens in the oversight of government and can therefore be considered social accountability initiatives.
Evidence suggests that social accountability can contribute to improved governance, increased development effectiveness through better service delivery, and empowerment. These improvements cannot be achieved however without understanding and perhaps enhancing the capacities—including skills, attitudes and behaviors—of government and civil society actors.
The paper also highlights two areas in which the World Bank can apply social accountability approaches:(a) public sector reform and (b) decentralization. When considering the practical application of social accountability mechanisms, a careful understanding of the political, administrative, historical, and social context is essential. It is also important to take into account the appropriate entry points, possibilities for synergy between state and society, and the right mix of social accountability tools. It is equally important to analyze how social accountability practices link with existing formal accountability mechanisms, institutional arrangements, and incentive structures for public servants. When designing a social accountability initiative it is useful to think about six parameters:
1. Incentive structure—punishment vs. reward-based approaches.
2. Accountability for what?—rule following versus performance orientation.
3. Level of institutionalization—the extent to which the participation of citizens is institutionalized in the law or by other formal means.
4. Depth of involvement—the degree to which citizens are permitted to observe and participate in areas of government normally kept secret or out of reach of society.
5. Inclusiveness of participation—the extent to which participation is limited to only “well behaved” or socially acceptable groups from civil society or opened up to a wider variety of actors.
6. Branches of government—whether target of effort is executive, legislature, or judiciary.
Developing capacities and providing training to various constituencies is an integral part of implementing and institutionalizing social accountability. The learning module provides a starting point for trainers of diverse backgrounds to work through how they can present this material in a workshop setting. Of course, for effective learning, the module will need to be adapted to the particular audience, context, and objectives. Based on several years of training across geographical regions, the module has served as the foundation for learning events in diverse settings such as Serbia and India and will be put to use in
Tanzania and Sri Lanka in the coming months. We encourage you to apply and disseminate these products and welcome your feedback on their relevance and effectiveness.