The Politics of Accountability and Inclusive Development: Implications for Open Governance

I’ve been on a bit of a blog hiatus as I made a move from London to DC, and got acclimated in my new position at the International Budget Partnership.  But been doing lots of thinking so eager to share some of those ideas.  Thoughts and feedback very welcome!

There has been some important work done in recent years on the politics of inclusive development, and much of this has direct implications for those of us working on open governance.  In essence the question is whether open governance is contributing to inclusive development.  The answer may intuitively seem to be a yes, but I will argue that this isn’t necessarily the case.  I’ll then suggest some ways the links between openness and inclusion can be strengthened.

The Politics of Inclusive Development: What do we know?

The central thesis of the book Why Nations Fail by Deron Acemoglu and James Robinson (which is not without its detractors) is that inclusive political institutions and governance lead to more inclusive economies, and thus shared prosperity.  If you understand the root causes of poverty to be based in inequitable social, political and economic structures that concentrate wealth and privilege and exclude the poor and other marginalized groups, then the idea that we need challenge these systems by moving towards more inclusive governance is intuitive.  The question, of course, is: how?

I’m a big fan of both the Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) and the Developmental Leadership Programme (DLP) research initiatives, and both of these are gathering evidence about the politics of development.  And research from both programs strongly emphasizes that inclusive development is an inherently political process.  Thus, what we are really talking about is inclusive politics.

Both of these research efforts have produced important insights and both seek to provide guidance for development practitioners and funders.  An example is an exploration of rural cooperatives in Uganda that are, incrementally and in an unfavorable context, building democracy from below.  This study challenges many of the tenets of mainstream social accountability approaches, and suggests a need to be much more mindful of context (a repeated refrain, but often our contextual analysis doesn’t ask the right questions), look at existing forms of organization rather than creating new ones, and think about social transformation rather than just instrumental improvements to specific services.

In terms of understanding the politics of development, a seminal DLP paper challenges the prevailing practices of political economy analysis.  Instead of a narrower focus on interests and institutions, Hudson and Leftwich propose a more nuanced political analysis that incorporates an understanding of ideas, agency, multi-dimensional power, and navigating systems.

This wealth of evidence and insight has not yielded a silver bullet for inclusive politics, governance and development.  I hope that doesn’t come as a surprise.  It has instead raised more questions, and pointed back to the need for more nuanced, savvy, flexible, and above all, politically-aware approaches to supporting the long-term and multi-faceted processes and institutions of inclusion.  And coming back to Acemoglu and Johnson, the road to more inclusive institutions is that of politics:

Making institutions more inclusive is about changing the politics of a society to empower the poor — the empowerment of those disenfranchised, excluded and often repressed by those monopolising power.

So we have a what (inclusive institutions), and a how (politics).  But the order matters too – it’s not necessarily about changing politics to empower the poor, but often the need to strengthen the collective agency of the excluded in order to change politics.  Of course, this is not linear, and there are multiple entry points for both empowerment, politics, and shaping institutions.  But what do these insights suggest in the realm of transparency, participation and accountability?

What does this mean for open governance?

The core message about the need for inclusive institutions should be good news for open governance advocates.  However, two big problems quickly emerge.  First, inclusiveness is not really an explicit element of the open governance agenda.  A second and closely related issue is that the open governance sector has an uncomfortable relationship with politics, which as noted above is at the heart of inclusive governance and development.

For a number of years, work on open governance was called ‘transparency and accountability’ (see for example, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, where I used to work).  The role of citizens has often been implicit, rather than at the heart of the agenda.  And questions of who can and does participate are still underemphasized, despite a wealth of evidence that marginalized groups face many barriers for meaningful engagement.  And where citizen participation is a focus, such as in the realm of social accountability, it is often narrow and instrumentalized as citizen feedback to decision makers or service providers – with the assumption that those actors can and will take action based on new information.

Technical tools and approaches have predominated in the open governance space, particularly the focus on open data and ICTs.  Recently, there has been a growing acceptance of the political dimensions of open governance, particularly of meaningful accountability.  One example is, new research on the flagship open governance initiative, the Open Government Partnership (OGP).  Looking across five OGP countries, the researchers found that there was often a disconnect between OGP processes and inputs, on the one hand, and national political and institutional reform dynamics on the other.  Thus, if open governance reformers want to more effectively leverage OGP, they need to “plot, understand, and act collectively to navigate and shape the political reform landscape in their country”.  So, just as ESID and DLP evidence strongly suggests, they need to be thinking and working politically.

Interesting new research from the World Bank looking at the politics of development helps bring politics back into open governance discussions (why do we keep having to bring politics back in every couple of years? Who keeps kicking it out?  See here, here and here).  The essential insight is that transparency is not enough (we knew that), and it is really inclusive and meaningful political engagement by citizens leveraging transparency that leads to improved governance.  Effective political engagement must entail organizing together and exercising collective agency – no simple proposition for individuals and groups in situations of marginalization – both in existing spaces and processes, and those created and shaped by popular mobilization.

Ok, you win. It’s all about the politics. But we should we do, and please be specific.

Or so a reader might justifiably respond to what I’ve outlined so far.  I’ll give it a try:

  • For one thing, it means understanding political and institutional dynamics. And not just commissioning political economy analyses, but building up capacities for political analysis among front line civil society organizations and other governance actors.  I outline this more fully here.
  • Supporting and strengthening citizen-centric organizations and that enable collective action by excluded individuals and groups and thus constitute a ‘countervailing power’ in both formal political engagement and creating their own forms of political expression. Although supporting grassroots organizations and movements without distorting or instrumentalizing them requires careful thought, this would lead to a more balanced civil society ecosystem.
  • Relatedly, we need to take seriously the distortions and inequalities among civil society actors in the global north and south, much as Danny Sriskandarajah of Civicus and others have argued, so that more effective partnerships and coalitions can emerge. If we are to effectively connect the dots to form more effective campaigns and movements, that will require a more balanced and coherent civil society ecosystem.  Too often external organizations monopolize resources and strategizing, outsourcing short-term and linear projects to local civil society rather than prioritizing and supporting local actors’ priorities and approaches.
  • Where citizen organizations and movements exist, helping them to access and engage in decision making spaces, like the budget process or reviewing service performance, in order to push their priorities and needs, and reshape these mechanisms to be more inclusive – not just open. However, for this to be effective, engagement in formal spaces needs to be balanced with mobilization outside of those channels, sometimes of an unruly nature , as well as connecting the dots from local to national (and international) levels.
  • Take inclusion much more seriously in our efforts to promote open governance. Openness in itself may yield most benefits to those who are educated, for example, and can thus file information requests and engage in spaces for public participation.  Often times, the interests of the middle class conflict with those of marginalized citizens.  How do we level the playing field so that excluded groups benefit from more transparency and accountability?  First step is to acknowledge barriers.  Second is to channel resources to address these, not assume them away.  A third might be to make a positive case for openness and inclusion in our engagements with government actors.

Think I’m on to something? Disagree completely?  Please let me know!  Special thanks to Albert, Micol and Blair for thoughts on early draft, but all errors and omissions are my own.

7 thoughts on “The Politics of Accountability and Inclusive Development: Implications for Open Governance

  1. . . .

    “… look at existing forms of organization rather than creating new ones…”

    Exactly this.

    As a journalist (mostly) since 1982, I have spent countless hours (days, weeks, months, probably more than a few years) listening to the need for greater transparency, accountability, tighter rules, new laws, new countries – get rid of the Queen! Let’s become a Republic!!

    What seems to happen, to my mind, is that citizens are sucked into a vortex of agitation, eventually leading to referenda, if they’re lucky and/or are well organised.

    Once greater transparencies, accountabilities, rules, laws and republic are achieved, everyone falls over exhausted – and it’s back to pretty much business as usual.


    Is there, for example, any evidence that republics perform better than monarchical constitutions, written or unwritten? Yes, Google is my friend, but I’m not an academic, so I only write first drafts of history.

    As pointed out above, what seems to work best, as in the case of Uganda, is bottom-up citizen initiatives that ‘leverage’ open data and government initiatives.

    Openness, I agree, is not enough on it’s own.


    For one thing, most citizens are now too busy, too exhausted and too cynical to waste time interpreting data for the benefit of womankind, or their brethren.

    For another, what happens once all that data is opened? In post-truth political processes, even the most rigorous analysis is simply sped past on the open road to ever greater inequality.

    So, joining the race, what are solutions? Shall I, if I’m lucky, spend another quarter-plus century writing headlines about law change, and die an unhappy man?


    It was precisely that scenario that led me, a decade or so ago, to start wondering – if political processes and governance systems worked properly, what would they look like?

    How would any system cope with the myriad and ever evolving permutations of mismanagement, misappropriation and outright fraud and corruption? Let’s say we get rid of all the corrupt. Yay! But what happens when we find completely honest people hold completely honest differences of opinion on how best to proceed? Back to square one?

    Obviously, with $32 trillion hiding in tax havens, we can’t answer that question. Let’s cross that bridge after we’ve built it. So, yes, about those solutions, then.


    “Technical tools and approaches have predominated in the open governance space, particularly the focus on open data and ICTs.”

    Let’s start there. Leaving on my journalist hat, my suggestion would be that we dial back the contemporary fetish with “innovation” This just creates another digital divide between a low-tech public and a high-tech elite that holds sway, in all nations. A notable example from my region, Oceania, is that of Samoa, where a 2008 Household Income and Expenditure Survey found that the advent of mobile phones had actually sucked money out of the economy – via exorbitant data plans and an unholy inhouse dalliance with telco gambling schemes.

    Instead of improving economic efficiencies, the long-undelivered promise of corporatisation, privatisation and globalisation, high-tech mobile softwares are making people less efficient.


    So, instead of top-down open data, let’s refocus on bottom-up, low-tech governance.

    One approach might be weaponising transparency. Even the most advanced accounting softwares still mostly run to 15th century rythyms. Monthly accounts, annual audits. Often hopelessly overdue, especially in civil society organisations.

    What if we equip our CSO bank and communications accounts with a full aresenal of SMS text and email alerts? So that all transactions instantly update all stakeholders, including the public? Might social constructs of shame prevent many instances of fraud and corruption before they occur? Samoa, for example, enjoys a 90%+ penetration rate for mobile phones, and an enviably ‘flat’ but still very powerful traditional hierarchy – thieving from the collective can, and has, seen people not just publicly shamed, but also permanently banned from their home village.

    Low-tech approaches might also give real power to consumer protection laws. An illicit purchase caught, as it is made, rather than weeks, months or years later, or never, could more easily be rescinded within legislated timeframes.


    Opening transactions to instant public scrutiny could, if applied widely enough, lead to significant reduction in the ‘opportunity’ costs of corruption.

    Using these low-tech transparency tools could assure donor partners that they, too, will have instant access to all transactions, and move some of their burden of enforcing accountability. From foreign overlords to local underdogs – sounds good to me.

    As well as rewarding weaponised transparency, accountability could further be monetised by creating avenues for transparency accreditation and enforcement. Perhaps, independent evaluation, monitoring and enforcement agencies could become a third-way force within the third sector. Certainly accountants and auditors I know would also welcome not having to be the only bad cop in town.


    The point of all this would not be to ‘replace’ existing transparency and accountability systems – age old accounting and audits, or newer open data systems – but adding to them.

    Borrowing from our high-tech security mates, additional layers of governance add depth to defences against corruption.

    In effect, we would be creating a gateway to good governance.


    Eventually, with low-tech resources freeing us from the clutches of the high-tech greedy, we could turn the weaknesses of zero-sum game theory into strengths.

    An example. One story I did while deputy editor of the daily paper in Samoa was a back-of-a-beer-coaster calculation on the costs of spam, a gateway for malware. The costs were at least 10 million, a collosal amount in a society where most still live in an economy of subsistence.

    But what about if, instead of gambling to answer selfish self-interest, mobile users played games that fought spam. An anonymised Star Wars app that attacks spam, with multiple hits identifying weak points? With ‘players’ gaining rewards for strengthening digital defences of fellow players?


    Scaling up gamification several levels, similar approaches could be applied to other existing inefficiencies, such as high velocity trading.

    Instead of hiding assets of the greedy and corrupt, tax havens could target HVT that rewards eco-economies, creating jobs and real value.

    Rather than poaching from humanity, tax havens could reward it.


    I could of course become a newspreneur (gag) and put all these great ideas into action myself, but I am too busy fulfilling all the cliches of penniless writing. Or a professor? Instead of doing anything, I could just talk about it!

    I dunno. As a burnt-out old hack with chronic and sometimes severe tinnitus, I am ill-suited to the high-rigour world of academia and it’s co-opted endeavours towards ever more lunatic “business models”, let alone business itself.

    As a tshirt I once read said: “Take my advice, I’m not using it”. Meantime, thanks for the thought-provoking article!


    Those interested in more examples of how transparency tools might work can take a look at an old blog I started back in 2008:

    TTT for the win!

    . . .

    • Wow, lot’s of good ideas here, several of which echo some of the conversations we’ve been having about the next generation of open and inclusive governance work. This could be a blog post in its own right!

      • Thanks Prof!

        Great to hear that the ideas are on the right track, or at least a similar one to governance discourse.

        Your post inspired me to put some thoughts down on paper (apologies for the spelling mistakes and rib-digs) rather than having them swirling around my head half the time.

        Thanks for writing with sufficient clarity and brevity that even a non-academic first drafter like myself could make sense of it.

        Look forward to reading more.

        Meantime, are there any governance labs you know of where something along these system lines could be linked, in terms of monitoring and evaluation?

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