SPARKing Change: Citizen action, public services, and accountable fiscal governance

I wrote this blog a while back, but didn’t get around to posting it.  I’m sharing it (and a follow up) now as one part of a response to the recent results of the Transparency for Development (T4D) research project, which showed no results on health outcomes due to the community intervention.  What follows is a different approach to accountability for social change.  Not a silver bullet, but how we have incorporated the lessons learned in the field over the past decade. 

International Budget Partnership (IBP) launched a new initiative last year called SPARK.  SPARK is an acronym, but what the letters stand for is not that important.  What’s more important is the new direction that it represents for IBP, and to a certain extent, for the wider transparency and accountability sector.  I want to briefly reflect on what makes SPARK different, how we got to SPARK, and what it means for IBP and the field.

In some ways, SPARK might looks like programs run by many other INGOs: it will include 7 countries, it involves a core IBP team giving grants and technical assistance to local civic actors, it will work on improving service delivery issues for poor and marginalized communities, etc. etc.

But in other ways, SPARK is different.  Rather than work with local NGOs, community groups or unorganized citizens, SPARK will seek to identify and engage with citizen-led organizations and movements, particularly those that represent marginalized groups.  Why this focus?  SPARK is based on the idea that it is the lack of collective political agency – the ability of individuals to take collective action to influence public decision makers – that leads to budgets and services not reflecting the priorities of marginalized groups.  The obvious challenge is that most groups of poor and marginalized individuals are not represented by organizations or movements that they themselves lead.  This will be part of the filter IBP will apply to find the right partners and entry points for SPARK.

SPARK will seek to address other (along with a lack of agency) structural factors that lead to inequitable budgets and service delivery.  In much of our work, we have found that the accountability ecosystem (AES) around key public services or programs (or the budget more broadly) are weak.  Thus, SPARK will work to strengthen the AES where possible, or at least leverage what accountability does exist to bolster citizen efforts.  That means engaging with media, auditors, courts, and other actors or mechanisms that can add ‘teeth’ to the collective ‘voice’ expressed by citizen collective action.  There are further nuances about SPARK that I could share – including a component on ideas and discourses underpinning marginalization – but those are two key aspects of the program.  It means that SPARK will be engaged at local levels, but also link to national arenas and institutions; and will work on both citizen-demand and state mechanisms and processes.  Much of this responds to lessons from Jonathan Fox, Rosie McGee, Alta Folscher, Anu Joshi (all four are part of Learning with SPARK, which will provide action research accompaniment in each country and to the program as a whole), and others.

SPARK is both a logical next step for IBP’s work and a significant departure.  We had to take a hard look at the work we had supported over the past decade and tease out the lessons that would guide our work going forward, as well as the questions and challenges for the fiscal governance field more broadly.  One of those was that much of the budget analysis and advocacy done by NGOs IBP had trained and supported did not sufficiently grapple with the systemic drivers of inequity.  Meaningful and sustainable change in how governments use public resources require systemic shifts in power, agency and accountability.  These will, of course, be small and fragile shifts, but they can add up to more systemic change over time.  Where civil society efforts fail to take these elements into account, and have tried to push for more equitable budget outcomes directly – they have often fallen short, or seen their wins reversed or undermined.

What are the implications of SPARK for IBP and the broader field?  SPARK is built around three hypotheses and two big questions.  I think these are broadly applicable, and hopefully can represent a starting point for wider conversations in the field.

Hypothesis 1: Public resources do not address the needs of marginalized groups because they lack political agency – the have little formal or informal influence over decision making around resource distribution – and are therefore often overlooked.  So strengthening the influence of marginalized groups is important to realizing equitable resource distribution and services.

Hypothesis 2: Budgets and other fiscal processes and institutions often exclude citizens, operate in opaque manner, and lack meaningful accountability.  This allows more powerful groups to influence processes and outcomes in their favor.  Fiscal governance spaces must be more open, more inclusive and more accountable in order to ensure the citizens’ voices will be heard.

Hypothesis 3: There is no short cut to equitable outcomes in terms of public resources and services.  Fair policies are necessary, but not sufficient.  We need to work not only on the visible manifestations of inequitable policies and services, but the systems that drive these outcomes.

And two key sets of questions:

Learning question 1: How do we understand the root causes of exclusion in fiscal governance, and orient our approaches accordingly?  SPARK cannot address most of the root causes directly, but how can our efforts make incremental progress towards more structural and systemic change?

Learning question 2: How can collective citizen agency and action best be leveraged to democratize fiscal spaces, bolster accountability and contribute to more inclusive service delivery? How can we bring together professional NGOs (including IBP) and more grassroots actors in ways that don’t ‘NGOize’ collective civic efforts, but instead find synergies?

In testing these hypotheses and learning more about answers to these questions, SPARK will build our collective knowledge about social action for more equitable and democratic governance of public resources and services.  It will do this in ways that acknowledge the structural drivers of exclusion and seek to leverage the ways in which citizens are mobilizing for fairness and inclusivity, while also bringing IBP’s expertise and partnerships around public finance systems.  As we think about the future of efforts in the fiscal arena, as well as transparency, participation, accountability and inclusive service delivery more broadly, these insights will be valuable inputs into what hopefully will continue to be a vibrant conversation.


5 thoughts on “SPARKing Change: Citizen action, public services, and accountable fiscal governance

  1. Pingback: Lessons and Insights for Citizen-led Accountability | Politics, Governance and Development

  2. Hi Brendan
    Subsidiarity principle matters as always. Even here. So, I agree that there is a need to empower those who are directly impacted by dramatic consequences of ”non accountable and non participatory fiscal governance processes”. In the current trend for decentralization with various types of transferts to local authorities, don’t you think using this local formal space (local governments) would be a learning field for these grassroots community, especially in contexte where the relationship with traditionnal state actors/processes is very weak, not to say inexistant ? Or where local democracy is still captured by the elites ?

    • HI Charlie, thanks for your response. Definitely, local governments/formal spaces must continue to be a principal arena for engagement, to strengthen local democracy and service delivery. But learning from Jonathan Fox and others, we must also think about how to leverage collective action ‘higher up’ the governance chain. Maybe this is through federations or movements that represent the grassroots, maybe it is through digital spaces, maybe it is even through mass ‘protests’ or other collective actions. Glad for your further insights from your work!

  3. Pingback: Emerging lessons on working with grassroots actors to democratize budgets and services | Politics, Governance and Development

  4. Pingback: Lessons and Insights for Citizen-led Accountability

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