We Need Politicians for Social Accountability Mechanisms to Function

Peer reviews have been in existence for a very long time. The field of science has long used peer reviews to keep bad science in check and promote good science. On their own, peer reviews allow people at the same general socio-academic level to speak into each others work. They rarely, if at all, give the beneficiaries of the work a voice in the affair.

Social accountability, on the other hand, makes it possible for citizens to speak into their own governance or in the case of the private sector the way services / products are provided. It assumes that those in a position of power are willing to subject themselves to input from those they serve.

National governments around the world use peer review mechanisms to keep each other accountable. The OECD has used a peer review mechanism for a long time and NEPAD’s African Peer Review Mechanism is a tried and tested example now celebrating 10 years of existence. Despite deliberate inclusion of citizen participation in the review process, citizens don’t normally have a voice in the intervening period between review missions. Social accountability mechanisms make it possible for citizens to constantly speak into matters that concern them. Both are important and both should be done.

There are numerous examples of successful, and in some cases, very innovative implementations of peer review mechanisms. Not so much with social accountability. I have yet to see many examples of deliberate government effort in building social accountability mechanisms in African countries. It is likely that African governments are simply poor at communicating the efforts they are making in this respect to citizens and the media. Nonetheless, without robust mechanisms for social accountability in addition to other efforts that work in concert to drive open government forward, all the efforts being made towards civic engagement and participation at the grassroots will merely remain at the activism level and never go beyond.

One reason, in my view, that contributes a great deal to the absence of deliberate social accountability mechanisms at the grassroots supported and funded by the state (national or local) is the absence of local politicians in the open government discourse. Dominated by the few who champion open government in the national government and members of civil society, local and national legislators have barely any space at the table. Unfortunately, politics and development are intrinsically linked. There can be little development without a conducive political atmosphere as is echoed by Harris et al in their 2011 paperPolitical Economy Of Social Accountability In Tanzania“. One of their conclusions is that;

“To achieve change, it is necessary to work politically, leveraging potential buy-in across the range of local, national and international stakeholders whose interests are affected by new governance institutions and accountability strategies.”

The concept of responsive service delivery postulates the existence of an open government, a strong civil society and an engaged citizenry. However, an open government capable of the responsiveness expected requires both political and institutional capacity to do so. Focussing purely on the executive when exploring open government leaves a gap big enough to neuter the potential of open government at the grassroots and by extension at the national level.

Many things can be done, I’m sure, in the broader open government space at the national level to make it possible for social accountability mechanisms to deliver real results. I have four in mind.

  1. For a start, I’d like to see more legislators at the next OGP Africa meeting, especially those not representing executive offices of government. It all starts with an understanding of what open government is all about and the commitments government is making towards openness.
  2. I’d also like to see explicit attempts in the country action plans to bring legislators on board at the national and sub-national level.
  3. Identifying open government champions in the national and county assemblies and empowering them to drive progress can deliver great benefit to other efforts by non-state actors.
  4. Taking deliberate steps to institutionalize the efforts of open government champions helps to entrench them so they survive the temporal nature of political office.

The Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Information, Fred Matiang’i speaking at the first OGP Africa meeting held in Kenya echoed the feelings of many in government around the continent;

“What we want as government is substantive engagement but not political activism that comes dressed in cloak of civil activism,”

Political activism has played a big part around Africa in creating the space for development to happen and the cloak of civil activism can be critical in getting important political activism through the door. But it can’t be all about activism. For development to happen at the grassroots inter-stakeholder engagement has to also include collaboration. There’s room for everybody to play their part.