Synthesis report on social accountability tools: Taking Stock and Looking Forward: Social Accountability Research and Practice

Given the proliferation of empirical syntheses on social accountability that have been produced over the last few years, this stock-take seeks to add value by taking a meta approach. It distils the main insights from the evidence reviews already in existence, maps areas of agreement, identifies promising opportunities for further practical experiments and offers a commentary on how the social accountability funding, design and research landscape is evolving.
The term ‘social accountability’ has a long and distinguished history and has been deployed in many different contexts, though its current rise to popularity was ushered in most prominently by the 2004 World Development Report (published in 2003). Since then a vast number of definitions, typologies and conceptual frameworks have been proposed, and this stock-take embraces a pragmatic, flexible working definition that understands social accountability as all those things other than voting that people can do to hold their leaders and service providers to account and make their work more responsive to an inclusive set of stakeholders.
Most overviews coalesce around a set of central insights, including the following five key messages, which this meta-stock-take subjects to a critical appraisal.
A mixed evidence base and difficulty in attributing definitive impact, yet a solid proof of concept to encourage further activity in this space
Many studies initially focused on some direct outcomes, such as reductions in leakage rates, bribery or staff absenteeism, but there is also a lively, largely unresolved debate about what should count as impact, or as ‘It works’, with more recent studies suggesting the need to take a broader view on possible impacts. Overall, the empirical evidence is extremely mixed. Some overviews strike an optimistic tone and highlight social accountability cases with demonstrable impact, but they are counterbalanced by others that paint a rather negative picture of high failure rates, while yet others come down squarely in the middle. Given this equivocal evidence landscape, pursuing the quest for a definitive verdict on what works and what does not may seem quixotic, but there is a critical mass of sufficiently solid indications of a significant positive impact for, essentially, all types of social accountability mechanisms, which can be interpreted as a solid proof of concept warranting further embracing and refining of social accountability efforts.

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