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Taxation without representation? Do international norms matter?
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Diving into the shallow end – two evidence briefs explore learning questions with relatively scarce evidence

The U.S. revolutionary slogan of, “no taxation without representation,” rings true to residents of Washington, D.C. to this day. Just as U.S. colonists were made to pay taxes but had no representation in British Parliament, D.C. residents must pay federal taxes, but our elected Congress members cannot vote on legislative matters. This phrase is ubiquitous in D.C, from t-shirts to car license plates, but what does the evidence say about the relationship between taxation, participation, and accountability?

Through its Learning from Evidence series, TAI and research partners at MIT’s Governance Lab and Twaweza produced evidence briefs to explore the relationship between government accountability and two key areas of strategic interest and investment for TAI funder members: taxation and international norms and standards.

For both briefs, the research team helped to refine the learning questions to be more specific and answerable, a practice discussed in the first Learning from Evidence blog. And in the context of a limited evidence base, these evidence briefs take an expansive look at “evidence,” including studies that had a clear and relevant hypothesis (whether experimental or not), and unpublished, or grey literature sources.

What did we learn about taxpayer demands for government accountability?

Much tax policy or research work starts from the premise that those who pay taxes expect accountable and democratic governments, and that where this taxpayer-government relationship (often referred to as a social contract) can be created or strengthened more tax revenue can be mobilized for public goods. There are few studies available overall, and among those, little evidence to suggest a clear global relationship between taxation and differences in citizen accountability attitudes or behavior towards the government. Though there is evidence in some country contexts suggesting that taxpayers may have different attitudes towards politics than non-taxpayers or that taxpayers are more likely to sanction politicians where the taxpayer has a low level of political engagement or information.

Looking to the government side of this relationship, there is very little direct evidence that government provision of public goods leads to the development of a stronger social contract. The research team also explored evidence around what governments can do to increase tax revenue and decrease tax evasion.

How might your work help to deepen the evidence base and test the commonly held social contract assumptions? Read more in the evidence brief, “Taxation and accountability in developing countries.”

What did we learn about the effect of international norms and standards on demands for government accountability?

This initiative encountered an even more dire state of evidence, with no studies of methodological rigor found to explore whether efforts to promote international norms and standards have an impact on the behavior of accountability actors. Instead, the evidence brief synthesizes views and analysis from the studies considered to explore the learning question.  

Overall, the studies echo the transparency and accountability field’s recognition that transparency reforms do not inevitably yield participation and accountability. Many authors agreed that expectations of civil society actors may be unreasonably high relative to the various internal and external obstacles faced by these actors. Among these obstacles are weak civil society capacity; government exclusion of civil society; the voluntary nature of these initiatives and lack of enforcement mechanisms; and lack of local ownership and legitimacy.

The potential learning contribution is great for future research in the field. Read the evidence brief, “Effect of international standards on accountability behaviors,” for recommendations on a future research agenda to build the evidence base on the effect of international norms and standards on accountability behaviors.

What to do when evidence waters are shallow?

Do not despair! Consider these approaches to minimize the potential frustration with, and maximize potential insights from, posing learning questions in these conditions.

  1. Ask good questions. Refine your learning question to focus on specific actors and outcomes relative to the theme of interest. The evidence you find (or don’t find) can help to further refine the learning question or theory of change to be explored. 
  2. Dive into unusual evidence waters. When you expect the evidence base to be limited, consider expanding the types, sources, or publication language of the evidence you consider – and budget resources accordingly to find such sources.
  3. Form strategic learning partnerships. For many of us, interpreting evidence may require skills or time that we do not have. Working with partners who are familiar with the field but work outside of your organizational context can offer great value in navigating the evidence base and bringing a fresh perspective to your work.
  4. Help to build the evidence base. The gaps in the evidence base can help to inform your policy or program and the evaluation or research conducted around this work. Consider how your current or future learning or evaluation work can contribute to the evidence base.

The Learning from Evidence series documents a learning process undertaken by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative to engage with and utilize the evolving evidence base in support of our members’ transparency and accountable governance goals. We are pleased to have partnered with MIT’s Governance Lab and Twaweza on this initiative. This series comprises a variety of practice- and policy-relevant learning products for funders and practitioners alike, from evidence briefs, to more detailed evidence syntheses, to tools to support the navigation of evidence in context.