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From transparency to accountability? Assessing how international multi-stakeholder initiatives are contributing to public governance

02/10/2015

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By Jonathan Fox

Advocates of open government have created a growing number of public governance-oriented multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs).The idea behind these initiatives is to bring reformers together across sectors and national borders, to set goals and standards for voluntary information disclosure and public participation in order to create new opportunities to fight corruption and promote development effectiveness. Some stakeholders also emphasize the trust-building that can emerge from collaboration between business, government and civil society. Governance MSIs also try to build empowered pro-reform coalitions that are capable of using open government reforms to demand greater public accountability.

Governance MSIs were inspired by the prior wave of private sector MSIs, which bring together business and public interest groups to set voluntary social and environmental standards. Yet there is an important difference: while private sector-oriented MSIs try to compensate for weak government capacity to enforce basic environmental and social standards, public sector-oriented MSIs ultimately seek to bolster public governance.

Over the past decade, stakeholders have invested years of intensive work in launching and consolidating governance-oriented MSIs. Now, observers and participants seek to take stock of their progress so far. In this context, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (T/AI) commissioned a new review of the evidence available on five of these MSIs: the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), the Open Government Partnership (OGP), the Constructive Sector Transparency Initiative (CoST), the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency (GIFT), and the Open Contracting Partnership (OCP). Though the breadth and depth of available research on each of these MSIs varies widely, with much more documentation on EITI, Brockmyer and Fox’s report reviews each of them in terms of: 1) their structures, process and participants, 2) their respective result frameworks (a.k.a., theories of change) and 3) the available evidence on their effectiveness and impact.

Among the review’s many findings, one stands out as especially relevant for the broader field of transparency, accountability and participation:

The links in the chain that connect information disclosure to public accountability are still uncertain. 

This report finds that in many countries, governance-oriented MSIs have indeed managed to get traction with their promotion of public information disclosure reforms—in other words, more information is often available to the public, in part thanks to these initiatives. But there is little evidence as yet that these transparency outputs lead to accountability outcomes – at least so far. It turns out that the theories of change that connect transparency to accountability in governance MSIs  involve many more links in the chain than were originally envisioned.

The available research documents both the progress and limits of MSI-driven information disclosure, but more studies are needed to explain whether and how this progress drives tangible improvements in accountability. Several bottlenecks seem to be especially relevant:

  1. In practice, government commitment to these MSIs is often weak or inconsistent. Governmental sign-on to MSIs may or may not indicate that commitment to open governance is shared across the state apparatus. Indeed, insider governmental advocates of openness often lack leverage over the rest of their governments – which is precisely why they might need (inter)national coalitions to give them a boost (as spelled out in OGP’s strategic plan, for example). Yet the closing of civic space in some MSI countries raises questions about the “net accountability effect” of their affiliation. In those difficult contexts, when does implicit MSI ‘certification’ bolster beleaguered reformists and keep doors open a crack, and when does it serve more to provide cover for fundamentally undemocratic regimes (i.e. openwashing)?
  2. Governmental accountability institutions may be too weak or captured to act based on relevant information disclosures. After all, nation-states are composed of many moving parts, and the branches in charge of dealing with information disclosure often have little to do with those responsible for the rule of law. Consider the recent 2015 Open Budget Index: the Mexican government was given high marks for its now well-established information disclosure institutions, yet at the same time, even when high-level conflicts of interest (such as transactions between the president’s family and government contractors) are revealed to the public, the state’s accountability institutions turn out to have their own conflicts of interest and decline to act.
  3. It’s hard to translate open data into actionable information. While more open data holds great promise, “infomediaries” (civic information processors) are still learning how to transform data that is often technical, aggregate, and/or abstract into information that is actionable for allies who have the civic muscle necessary to influence the powers that be.
  4. MSIs are bargaining processes where CSO technical sophistication is key, but expertise is no substitute for political clout. CSOs engaged with MSIs tend to be specialized, technical organizations rather than broad-based organizations with reach outside professional classes in the national capital. In some countries, moreover, CSOs engaged with MSIs are seen as lacking autonomy from their governments. These issues limit CSO participants’ political clout and their claim to represent civil society more broadly. For MSIs to sustain reform momentum, they need to “broaden their base” within national civil societies.

These bottlenecks between transparency and accountability are not specific to MSIs. Stepping back to the big picture, this review of the evidence underscores the fact that we still don’t know much about when and how transparency leverages accountability more generally. Realistic expectations are in order. Open government reforms at national and local levels face similar challenges as well. As a recent review of the evidence on mainly local social accountability initiatives concluded: “voice without teeth lacks bite.”

So how do we open up these bottlenecks? One key place to look for the coalitions and strategies necessary to do so is at the national level. Some MSIs seek to build national-level multi-sectoral coalitions that can exercise the civic muscle needed to really embed new norms and standards into national institutions. This process of forming national multi-stakeholder groups has gone the furthest in EITI and OGP, though only a minority function well. For example, in EITI, while some countries that are not certified have functioning MSGs, other countries that are certified have weak or unrepresentative MSGs.  In OGP, according to civil society liaison coordinator Paul Maassen, “How solid the coordination within civil society is at country level is more difficult to understand. There seems to be some sort of coordination in at least 2/3 of participating countries, with active coalitions in about 15-25% of the countries.” Another promising approach to broadening and deepening the constituencies for MSIs involves the involvement of subnational governments, as EITI is doing in Peru and the Philippines.

This issue of how to strengthen the capacity of national actors to really embed MSI norms into national institutions raises the question of how the MSI approach relates to other, quite different approaches to accountability-building that sometimes unfold at the same time. Over the past couple of months— while this report was being prepped for release—global headlines were filled with mass citizen action calling for accountability in societies as diverse as Guatemala, Brazil, Lebanon and Malaysia. In each national context, mass civic protest has gained unprecedented traction and legitimacy in the fight against deeply entrenched corruption. Once one starts looking for such “people power” initiatives, including at the subnational level, more start to emerge. In this context, T/AI is encouraging more discussion of the role of social movements in the transparency and accountability context.

For those of us engaged in the long-term, detail-oriented, often rather technical process of building multi-stakeholder initiatives, these waves of mass citizen action for accountability raise the question – how can MSIs find synergy with emboldened citizen action? Insofar as MSIs are bargaining process, when can outsider action bolster insider reformists? What can the CSOs involved do to expand MSI agendas to address broad citizen concerns? What can MSIs do to use their sophisticated technical tools to shed spotlights to expose vested interests that oppose good governance?

To help to consolidate institutional reform agendas once mass protest makes them possible, how can MSIs inform the policy reforms that will make the greatest difference? If and when citizen action has put serious good governance reforms on the agenda, technically savvy MSI participants have a great deal to offer. After all, the laws that get written after protestors go home are often at risk of leaving key loopholes open. When it comes to transparency and accountability reforms, the devil is often in the details. MSI participants have a great deal to offer here, because of their potential capacity to check the fine print to see whether or not governments actually “walk the walk.” Here the OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism sets a precedent, with its progress reports on whether governments actually do what they promise in their Action Plans.

Public governance MSIs seek to provide a variety of new tools, spaces and allies for reformers in both government and civil society. Yet assessing their relative contribution to broader accountability agendas is complicated by the fact that they have so many moving parts, they operate on multiple levels – and they often play out in arenas where other transparency and accountability strategies are being pursued at the same time. The MSI strategy is an experiment — though its precise impact cannot be “isolated” with the experimental method.  That said, this review of the evidence finds that in many countries MSI are contributing to a series of reforms and coalitions that will take years to unfold.  Whether this result should be read as “it’s too soon to tell” or “don’t hold your breath” is up to the reader…

In the meantime, this report provides a basis for stakeholders to make informed decisions about how to bolster and leverage MSIs by reviewing the evidence to date on their strengths and limitations. The authors look forward to your comments and feedback…

The full report can be found here.

An accompanying think piece raising questions that informed this study can be found here.

Jonathan Fox is a professor in the School of International Service at American University. He is a member of the International Expert Panel of the Independent Reporting Mechanism of the Open Government Partnership and serves on the boards of Oxfam America and Fundar (Mexico).

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