Citizen Participation and Accountability

In the development field in recent years, increasing attention has been given to understanding and promoting methods which enable relatively powerless people to hold more powerful people, organisations and institutions to account. Many development practitioners see efforts towards this kind of accountability as having the potential to transform power relations in favour of the less powerful.

For those who look at issues of governance and development from the perspective of citizens, it is both the right and the responsibility of citizens to participate in accounting for themselves and in holding other actors to account. If social exclusion and discrimination are to be reversed, it is particularly important for governments and aid agencies to be accountable to marginalised and excluded citizens. Involving such citizens in accountability initiatives calls for particularly innovative and far-reaching participatory processes.

The Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS is involved in designing, implementing, supporting and evaluating initiatives that work towards different aspects of accountability, including accountable governance and accountable aid.

We work not only to facilitate participation in such initiatives and strengthen citizens’ voices, but also to understand and address the underlying power relations in our accountability work. In the words of a well-known scholar of accountability, Jonathan Fox, “if voice is about capacity for self-representation and self-expression, then power is about who listens.” (Accountability Politics: Power and voice in rural Mexico, 2008)

What is accountability and why is it important?

In their Policy Briefing on Making Accountability Count, IDS researchers Joanna Wheeler and Peter Newell ask why accountability matters for different actors, and under what conditions it operates. They tell us that “the concept of accountability describes the rights and responsibilities that exist between people and the institutions that affect their lives, including governments, civil society and market actors.”

They say that accountability takes many different forms, but go on to describe the two key components of most accountability relationships:

  • Answerability – the right to get a response, and the obligation to provide one
  • Enforceability – the capacity to ensure that an action is taken, and access to mechanisms for redress.

They also argue that when accountability works, citizens are able to make demands on powerful institutions and ensure that those demands are met. This can enable them to realise their rights, and to gain access to resources.

How do citizens participate in claiming accountability?

Many methods for citizens to participate in claiming accountability have evolved since the 1990s. In their 2013 paper on The Impact of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives (TAIs), IDS researchers John Gaventa and Rosemary McGee look at TAIs from five different sectors. They report on a range of approaches for citizen participation in TAIs from different parts of the world, including

What are the outcomes of citizen engagement?

In their Working Paper So What Difference Does it Make?, John Gaventa and Greg Barrett map the outcomes of citizen engagement from an analysis of one hundred case studies drawn from research carried out by the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability.

They cluster the positive outcomes of citizen engagement into four main categories.

  • Construction of citizenship. Increased civic and political knowledge; a greater sense of empowerment and agency.
  • Practices of citizen participation. Increased capacities for collective action; new forms of participation; deepening of networks and solidarities.
  • Responsive and accountable states. Greater access to state services and resources; greater realisation of rights; enhanced state responsiveness and accountability
  • Inclusive and cohesive societies. Inclusion of new actors and issues in public spaces; greater cohesion across social groups.

They found that three quarters of the examples of citizen engagement reported in their case studies had a positive outcome which was included in one of these categories.