Improving government transparency, responsiveness and accountability in countries in both the global north and south is a significant priority for citizens, government reformers and external donors and supporters. ‘Open Government’ and ‘social accountability’ are currently two of the most popular frameworks for understanding and pursuing such aims. Both the concept of open government and much current thinking about social accountability are underpinned by a strong emphasis on government transparency and mechanisms of citizen consultation and participation, which combine to improve accountable governance.
The now standard ‘transparency + participation = accountability’ formulation often fails to grapple with the complexities of each of these elements and their interaction, instead relying on simplifying assumptions that often do not reflect contextual realities. More broadly, there is a growing body of evidence about the failures of many governance reform efforts, often due to inaccurate and simplistic assumptions about the nature of change. New insights suggest the importance of understanding and working ‘with the grain’ of important contextual features and their complex interfaces, addressing the political and power dimensions of accountable governance, and the need for holistic and integrated strategies to activate and strengthen accountability systems.
This paper is an attempt to draw on current literature, both academic and practice-oriented, to bring together several strands of current thinking towards a framework of an ‘accountability ecosystems’ approach. Given that this is new territory, this paper is meant to be a springboard for discussion, rather than the final word or a polished model. We hope that the propositions put forward in this paper will have relevance to both funders and practitioners in the transparency and accountability space.