Social Accountability: What does the evidence really say?

Fox, J.A.
Publication language
Date published
01 Aug 2015
World Development
Research, reports and studies
Accountability to affected populations (AAP)

Social accountability strategies try to improve institutional performance by bolstering both citizen engagement and the public responsiveness of states and corporations. In practice, the concept includes a wide range of institutional innovations that both encourage and project voice. Insofar as social accountability builds citizen power vis-à-vis the state, it is a political process – yet it is distinct from political accountability of elected officials, where citizen voice is usually delegated to representatives in between elections. This distinction makes social accountability an especially relevant approach for societies in which representative government is weak, unresponsive, or non-existent.

The diverse mix of institutional change initiatives that fall under the rubric of social accountability complicates efforts to draw broader lessons. Those who seek answers in terms of one-size-fits-all, easily replicable tools quickly confront the empirical reality that social accountability processes and outcomes are very context-dependent. Calling for an evidence-based approach is not enough. Rethinking the growing body of evidence can advance the way we understand SAcc, which can help to inform realistic strategies.

This study reinterprets both the empirical evaluation evidence and the analytical concepts involved in SAcc, in order to help to address the “what next?” question. First, the paper identifies limits to the conceptual frameworks usually applied to SAcc. Second, a meta-analysis assesses the SAcc impact evaluation literature through new conceptual lenses. This exercise draws primarily on 25 quantitative evaluations, with an emphasis on field experiments that are widely considered to be influential in the field, based on their uptake by mainstream practitioners. Third, the study proposes a series of grounded conceptual propositions to analyze the dynamics of SAcc strategies, informed by the “state–society synergy” approach to institutional analysis. The article concludes with an emphasis on pro-accountability coalitions that bridge the state–society divide.