Over a decade ago, the Accountability Initiative (AI) research group at the Centre for Policy Research in India was created to strengthen accountability and transparency in governance that is responsive to citizen need. They do this by conducting large-scale public expenditure tracking surveys on plans, budgets, and fund flows; analyzing macro-level budget trends in social sector programs; and studying the implementation capabilities of government at the frontlines of service delivery in education, health, and nutrition, and sanitation.
We spoke with Avani Kapur (Director of AI) and Avantika Shrivastava (Assistant Director Communications at AI) to explain how AI is driving evidence-based research on state capabilities and public service delivery and insights along the way.
Tell us about yourself, your interests, and why you work in the transparency, participation, and accountability (TPA) field? Can you remember what first motivated you to work on TPA issues?
Avani: My foray into the TPA field happened partly by chance. I started my career getting introduced to the concept of the right to development as a core inalienable human right. The idea that all people are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural, and political development and a system in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized. When I moved to CPR and tried to get deeper into the factors that work against people having their rights or even why welfare services don’t get delivered, it became clear that TPA was often a big binding constraint. Trying to figure out how to resolve some of these challenges continues to motivate and interest me.
Avantika: I have spent almost the entirety of my career in the nonprofit sector in India. I previously worked with international NGOs responsible for large-scale humanitarian and development interventions across the world. As a result, I have realized that social transformation is both complex and incremental. There is hardly any right or wrong answers, but a major lever for change is the existence of an accountable system. To me, this system is inclusive and empathetic to the needs of the people it claims to serve. Being able to work to realize such a system is a motivating factor for me!
The Accountability Initiative has worked for over a decade to strengthen accountability and transparency in governance. What challenges persist in achieving this, and what are potential solutions?
Avantika: In India, people might not always understand the government’s immense role in their lives. For many, their interactions with the government system would be at public service delivery touchpoints – such as filing electricity bills and paying taxes to use public infrastructure. It is thought that the citizen’s role ends after that, and the government will take care of the rest. For others who are economically and socially precarious, not being able to navigate the government system and access their entitlements – which is still the case after 75 years of the Indian state coming into existence – comes at a significant human cost. The lack of understanding of the government system is thus a huge challenge, in my opinion, and our efforts at the Accountability Initiative are towards addressing this challenge.
Avani: I’ll add that the same is also true for the government. Evidence suggests that citizen’s voice is most effective when it is backed by strong responsive governments. Yet, while every policy document in India speaks about the need for participation and bottom-up planning systems, one finds that the governance system remains hierarchical, opaque, and riddled with administrative hurdles. It is what Lant Pritchett refers to as isomorphic mimicry – where the state may look like its functioning well but fails to provide sustainable change. Both incentives and capabilities contribute to this, and thus working with or supporting the government to help strengthen TPA for efficiency gains can go a long way.
How do you (your organization) build citizen and government capacity towards responsive governance – especially in India? Are there lessons that can be applied in other countries?
Avani and Avantika: In the 12 years of the Accountability Initiative’s existence, the concept of accountability has been shaped and reshaped in our work. For instance, we started out viewing accountability as more citizen-centric of demanding rights and entitlements with the view that information equals power. Now the focus is on helping create a government system that is responsive to citizens’ needs. We arrived at the Responsive Governance vision and mission after careful deliberation of the major trends that emerged from our body of research work spanning, among other aspects, health, nutrition, education, government fund flows, decentralization, and local governance.
We realized that there is a need to understand the nuances of government functioning, the decision-making processes, and the role of the people that make up the government system. In other words, we have attempted to understand who is responsible for service delivery in the country and how public services are being delivered at the national and sub-national levels. Also, through our research work, we have seen the valuable role that non-governmental stakeholders can play in the social change process. This is where we think we are truly different from many other research groups – most importantly, we want to put citizens at the heart of all that we do and not solely focus on government processes. For this, we augment evidence through our research work and deepen the public understanding of these complex issues using the power of communications to develop the abilities of current and future policy leaders with our learning and development programs.
In all of this, the major lesson for us has been the incredible potential of striking collaborations and finding synergies with other organizations to achieve common goals! This is what we would say, can be applied to other countries.
Given your years of practice, what key things have you learned in building evidence for policy advocacy to strengthen transparency and accountability?
Avani: One thing that surprised me the most when we started was how there are questions on how public services are delivered even within the government. Questions like: What are the bottlenecks in funding? What are the constraints of spending at the last mile? Once we recognize that, we can move the conversation to trying to find those institutional and informal spaces to work a little more collaboratively while maintaining our independence.
Another key learning is that citizens, civil society organizations, or anyone studying the policy world need to do their homework well! Spend some time trying to understand governance systems, especially since they are complex. But don’t forget to understand the people behind it – who they are, what motivates them, and their own constraints. The ability to navigate the system and its people — including the language and style of communication comes very handy in exercising voice (for change) and finding those windows of opportunity.
Finally, I think persistence and patience is key, but even then, there is a long journey between building evidence, sharing that evidence, and actual change. That’s where I think donors also need to recognize that the focus on impact and measurable change is unrealistic. Even the act of regularly engaging and pushing for a conversation on TPA can go a long way, and it may be years before measurable results can be seen. That doesn’t mean the program wasn’t successful. It just means that we need to continue the journey.
What recommendations will you give your younger self or anyone starting out in this (TPA) field?
Avani: I guess there are three important interrelated ones. First is to find reform champions within the government who speak the TPA language and are keen to actually implement change. We have been fortunate that we have often seen these champions. Relatedly, it’s important to build coalitions and collaborations across civil society. The TPA field can be quite lonely, and there are days, especially these days when it’s no longer in vogue when finding others to brainstorm with, share learnings and failures is important. Finally, I guess patience and persistence can go a long way.
What’s the most useless talent/skill you thought you have but has otherwise proved valuable?
Avantika: I have always held that my skills as an artist are limited, and I cannot use those in a professional setting. However, having been trained in the fine arts for a few years has really helped me in my role as a strategic communications professional working to unlock positive social change more than a decade later. Not everything can be explained using words. Sometimes it is the right visual that sparks discussions and powerfully convey an idea.
Avani: Maybe a few too many detective novels as a child, but I used to like math primarily for its puzzle in school – when one is trying to decode the logic behind the question. I never thought that years later, this skill of trying to be a fiscal detective would come in handy when one is trying to make sense of Indian budgetary systems or trying to follow the money!
Love to hear more from the Accountability Initiative team at the Centre for Policy Research? Connect with them at @AccInitiative