There has been lots of interesting discussion recently about how to evaluate social media initiatives in governance and political development, such as Patrick Meier’s new post on crowdsourcing election monitoring. Some of the most exciting and important new social media initiatives aim to improve political transparency and accountability, in the both the developed and developing world.
Scholars and practitioners have really just begun to ask how can we think about evaluating such initiatives. How can we learn “what works” in transparency and accountability initiatives (TAIs)? The first step is to arrive at a clear and concise understanding of what transparency and accountability are. Scholars have taken important steps towards articulating key features of both, for example here and here.
We can distill down the large academic literature.
Transparency is access to information about what the government is saying and doing that allows citizens and institutions to hold governments to account.
Accountability, at least between citizens and governments, is a three step process:
1) Transparency allows citizens or institutions to observe what governments are saying and doing.
2) Citizens or institutions apply some standards of acceptability to those actions (for example: laws, codes of conduct, standards of quality for service delivery); these standards must have some general legitimacy within society in which they are applied.
3) If government actions fail to meet standards and there is some abuse or misuse of power, citizens or institutions effectively leverage formal or informal sanctions against the government.
Most importantly, transparency is a necessary although insufficient condition for accountability. Most TAIs start with transparency, under the assumption that it will lead to accountability—which it doesn’t necessarily. One key question to ask is under what conditions is it more likely to?
Transparency is most likely to have an effect when it is linked to some accountability mechanism. Pathways to action can be formal or informal. Elections are a great example of formal accountability mechanisms (of course often imperfect in practice). A J-PAL study found that exposing politicians’ corrupt behavior before an election made them less likely to get elected. Transparency, in this case publicly releasing audits of politicians, had an effect when it was linked to an enforceable mechanism for citizens to sanction those corrupt officials, the election. Moreover, the effect was greater where transparency had a more public platform to spread the message, in this case local radio stations.