Response, Responsiveness and Accountability: Understanding Citizen-State Engagements

Civic actors face a perennial question about their engagement with government: are their actions leading only to a one-off response by government that resolves an immediate issue, or are they contributing to changing the nature of citizen-state relations, promoting consistent responsiveness on the part of government?  To further complicate matters, it is important to question whether government responses are discretionary or reflect robust accountability.  How do civic actors know the difference and what are the implications for their work towards responsiveness and accountability? 

Many CSOs, state oversight actors and external supporters (funders, INGOs like the one I work for – the International Budget Partnership/IBP) seek to promote more responsiveness and accountability from government actors and processes.  Yet pro-accountability actors are confronted with the challenge of understanding whether they are contributing to incremental progress towards responsiveness and accountability, or one-off responses by governments that are not sustained or built upon.  Conversely, where efforts are successful in advancing reforms around openness or participation, we are not always clear whether and how they have made decision making more responsive, or if they are responsive whether this relies exclusively on the discretion of aligned actors (and could – and will – shift).    

At IBP, we have had the privilege of a learning partnership with the Institute of Development Studies and the Accountability Research Center, and in engaging with experts like Rosemary McGee, Colin Anderson and Jonathan Fox, we brought in a fairly simple framework to explore issues of response, responsiveness and accountability to help us distinguish between temporary, one-off concessions and deeper shifts in power, incentives and institutions that are essential for longer-term systemic change.  It also suggests elements that civic actors and other reformers must engage to contribute to meaningful incremental progress towards responsiveness and accountability.    

The framework proposes three broad categories of government reactions to civic action:


Specific government actors’ responses to citizen priorities, demands or engagement.  Some responses may be ambiguous or even negative, such as making commitments that are only partially followed through or providing material resources as a clientelist bargain.  Many responses are positive, significant even, like a policy change, but entail a relatively one-off, isolated action.  Given the complexities of reform and service delivery, single responses, no matter how positive and significant, are generally insufficient in themselves to bring about meaningful and sustained impacts over time, but may be important milestones in longer-term change trajectories. 


Responsiveness refers to sustained and reliable patterns of positive response by governments to citizens, as opposed to one-off actions.  These patterns suggest that governments have incentives and/or institutionalized mechanisms to engage regularly with citizens and to take their views and priorities into account in their decision-making and implementation of policy.  However, we need to distinguish between responsiveness that depends on the discretion of decision makers versus responsiveness underpinned by more robust accountability.  Similarly, we can identify both informal responsiveness, a pattern of making and fulfilling commitments by a government actor, and institutionalized responsiveness, for example through inclusive budget planning processes.       

Accountable Responsiveness

Responsiveness underpinned by accountability dynamics – what we will refer to as Accountable Responsiveness – is distinguished from discretionary responsiveness.   Accountability refers to the drivers of government response and responsiveness, beyond the motivations of individual authorities.  Accountable responsiveness will often entail relatively more institutionalized participation and accountability processes and mechanisms, including those in which authorities must publicly explain or justify their actions.  However, formal responsiveness or accountability institutions do not necessarily generate responsiveness or accountability in practice, and informal power dynamics, collective mobilizing power of citizens and effective approaches by coalitions of pro-accountability actors are often needed to ensure accountable responsiveness in practice. 

Response, responsiveness and accountability, or RRA, is an invitation to ask questions and seek to make sense of what we are seeing from government when we support civic actors to engage in participatory spaces or oversight actors to follow up on government commitments.  Are responses consistent or one-off?  Are we only relying on the discretion of decision makers, or strengthening accountability dynamics around citizen priorities?  The fundamental question, given that this is the goal of many organizations is what does it take to move incrementally towards accountable responsiveness, and sustain these shifts?  I’ll share thoughts on this in a future blog, but these questions are an important place to start. 


One thought on “Response, Responsiveness and Accountability: Understanding Citizen-State Engagements

  1. Pingback: Understanding, Navigating and Strengthening the Accountability Ecosystem: Emerging Lessons from a Learning Exchange | Politics, Governance and Development

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