Transparency, citizen engagement and accountability are inherently political processes, involving power relationships between and among actors in the state and society. There are increasing calls for more politically-informed and savvy approaches to addressing accountability issues, moving away from tool-driven projects towards more flexible and adaptive approaches to navigating the complex governance landscape. This shift to thinking and working politically requires actors engaged in this arena to understand the ‘accountability politics’ in the context of the challenge they are seeking to address.
This kind of political analysis entails seeking to understand key elements of the context of pro-accountability efforts, and to go beyond monolithic labels and clear divisions implied by ‘state’ and ‘society’, understanding that pro-accountability actors (and accountability resistors) can be found across this spectrum. It also involves unpacking state actors and systems, and the ‘calculus’ of government decision-making, to provide insights into the motivations, capacities, possibilities, and constraints inherent in challenging governance situations to inform citizen-led accountability efforts. Increasingly, there is an interest in exploring ‘accountability ecosystems’ (see thinking from the International Budget Partnership here and here) that incorporate the interaction between actors, institutions, and mechanisms (formal and informal) that are relevant to accountability around a given set of issues across different levels of governance (broader guide to systems thinking from Oxfam here).
Political analysis of this kind is not new, and forms of political economy analysis (PEA) and power analysis have been developed and used by donor agencies for many years. PEA has proliferated recently, and has evolved during that time, but still has limitations in being translated into politically-informed practices. Increasingly, there are calls to move beyond PEA:
“existing approaches and tools suffer from a lack of politics and political analysis. They rely too much on economic assumptions and they have failed to take power seriously. They have not sufficiently addressed the necessary political work behind and within institutions that makes them function, or not. And they have failed to see that interests and ideas are part of the same story, and that self-interest is not the obvious and consistent force it is always assumed to be.” (Hudson and Leftwich, p. 109)
We are developing increasingly sophisticated tools and maps of the contexts and systems of accountability. Yet this does not replace the need for locally-embedded political analysis. Indeed, organizations and movements need the analytical capacities to understand the political and power dimensions of the work they are engaged in, and to use this evolving knowledge to shape their tactics and approaches (rather than replicating tools or best practices, as a substitute for analysis). But are external actors supporting the development of capacities for political analysis and political navigation, or technical skills in project management, report writing and number crunching?
Political analysis does entail ‘deep dives’ into power relations, institutional dynamics, and social networks, but it also requires more continuous ‘scanning’ of the shifting political landscape, as it relates to a particular priority area or challenge (i.e. learning). One approach to strengthening the capacities and opportunities for organizations to benefit from deeper and continuous political analysis is to build relationships with researchers who accompany practitioners and bring in political analysis through action research. Helping to strengthen the political ‘navigational’ capacities of activists and strategists could be one way for external actors to support people’s organizations and movements struggling for real accountability around the world.