Lessons from 6 Years of Pushing for Accountability
The Accountability Lab that I set up six years ago supports young people around the world to develop creative ways to make their governments more accountable. Our work began in Nepal, where I founded an "accountability incubator“ as a meeting point for potential change-makers to develop new ideas. We soon found that there was a lot of interest in what we were doing, and our initiative quickly grew and expanded around the globe. Today, the Lab has 53 staff members in seven countries developing innovative approaches, building coalitions for change and pushing for policy reforms.
We have tapped into popular cultures to run positive engagement campaigns like Integrity Idol, a global competition to find the most honest civil servants, that is now supporting networks of reformers within government. Through our Accountability Incubators and Citizen Helpdesks, pioneering community platforms aimed at improving local development processes, we have worked with scores of incredible grassroots change-makers to do everything from setting up film schools to building citizen journalism initiatives to close feedback loops on natural resource governance issues. We have also set up the first community and innovation spaces – OpenGov Hubs – for open government and accountability activists in Liberia, Nepal and Mali.
In six years, we have learned that stuff happens, to put it politely. We have weathered health crises (Ebola in Liberia), natural disasters (earthquakes in Nepal), ongoing insecurity (insurgency in Mali) and closing civic space (regulation in Pakistan). This has forced us to be flexible – and led us towards internal innovations like the creation of a standing internal emergency fund to respond rapidly to critical challenges. We have also learned that living your values greatly helps to build trust as an accountability organisation – and we have tried to do that. For example, we post all of our internal documents on our website, so that whatever the situation, we can show what we are doing, why and how.
We have learned the hard way that working to build accountability is an incredibly political and non-linear process which requires deep trust within communities. And that takes a long time – six years in and it feels like we are only just getting started. We have learned that adaptive learning, as well as data collection, have to be absolutely central to everything we do if we want to improve; and that developing a shared organisational culture and values across diverse contexts is one of the most difficult parts of holding everything together.
We have learned that we are much stronger – and our work is much more effective – as part of coalitions for reform. For example, we have worked with others to push for international efforts in the Sahel to focus more directly on governance; and as part of the Open Government Partnership in Liberia to catalyse reforms for transparency. We have learned that positive, solutions-oriented approaches to challenges like the Honesty Oscars that honour organisations and individuals working towards transparency generate much more energy for change than those that are negative; and that accountability is knitted together through support for individuals as part of networks who will move back and forth between organisations over time. For example, we are supporting our Integrity Idols to push for reforms as they move across government ministries and regional offices.
We have learned that harnessing storytelling is essential when working on an issue that can be difficult to understand, like accountability; that we can’t possibly talk about accountability unless we are working constantly towards greater inclusivity in our own work to make sure all voices are heard; and that we have to work harder to share ideas and lessons across and between our country teams to inform programming.
So, what's next for the Lab?
From here we would like to continue to build on the progress we have made, expanding our work and building out our learning. One concrete challenge we are aiming to solve is the lack of support for reformers within government. So we are beginning to work more closely with governments in Africa and Asia, through our Integrity Idol network, with civil service training schools and at the local level through decentralisation processes, to test new ideas for building accountability and integrity within state institutions.
We are also working out how to amplify our work with limited resources, scaling through expanded partnerships and licensing agreements. Transparency International recently launched the Integrity Idol campaign with our support in Sri Lanka, using our model and content; and with Global Giving, a global crowdfunding platform for charitable projects, we are in the process of codifying the Citizen Helpdesks to provide handbooks for others who would like to use the approach in their communities.
We also want to know more about our impact. For this purpose we are conducting more research into how and why what we are doing is valuable and the lessons that can be learned from it. For example, we are about to finalise this draft learning agenda and work around building out our Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) capacity with the Open Society Foundations; and we are partnering with MIT GovLab to evaluate the impact of Integrity Idol.
Finally, we will play a greater role in bringing lessons learned on the ground into policy and practice discussions both at the national and international levels. We hope this will involve closer coordination with national level governance strategies developed by both governments and donors; and further engagement in mechanisms like the Open Government Partnership, the UN Global Compact and at the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA).
There is plenty to do and we’d love to collaborate around all of this to make sure we are adding value where it is needed and not duplicating the work of others. Ideas or thoughts? Email Blair at: or tweet to @blairglencorse.