Confrontation and Collaboration (BLOG)

Village leaders participate in a community survey in Indonesia

This blog was written by Stephen Kosack (UW) and Archon Fung (HKS) and originally published for the Transparency and Accountability Initiative in June 2013.

Very few people in the world of transparency and accountability would claim that there is an automatic, one-to-one connection between the provision of information on one hand and the production of good things like governmental accountability, better public services, or less corruption, on the other. The question is how transparency is connected to accountability? What are the mechanisms that connect increased information to good governance outcomes?

Perhaps the most familiar view is that information empowers and emboldens citizens to confront predatory or inept officials. The now iconic success of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) is an example of this model. In its early days, the MKSS helped villagers in Rajasthan extract budget information from secretive governments and organized public meetings to show dramatic leakages and thefts from the public treasury (An early account of this period is in Rob Jenkins and Anne Marie Goetz, "Accounts and Accountability: Theoretical Implications of the Right-to-Information Movement in India," Third World Quarterly Vol. 20 No. 3 (1999).)

This is a compelling model, but dramatically different from another more recent example is quickly gaining recognition and inspiring replication. Beginning in 2004, a team led by Martina Björkman and Jakob Svennson fielded a health intervention in Uganda in which they distributed information about local clinics and health conditions to community members and health care workers. Based on this information, the community developed action plans to improve the quality of its health services. The team found that their intervention greatly increased the use of health care, reduced child mortality, and increased child weight. (See Martina Björkman and Jakob Svensson, 'Power to the People: Evidence From a Randomized Field Experiment on Community-Based Monitoring in Uganda," Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 124 No. (2) (2009), 735-69.)

Both these interventions relied on transparency to improve governance. But the mechanisms at work in the Uganda intervention are dramatically different from those in the MKSS. The MKSS relied on confrontational, adversarial strategies that developed countervailing power to discipline the traditional and formal power of corrupt officials and local notables. In contrast, the community members in the Uganda case developed ways of collaborating with health workers to improve health care and its outcomes.

One question now faced by the field of Transparency and Accountability is how to conceptualize and navigate the different paths of confrontation and collaboration.

At one level, the problem appears simple. If local officials are willing to act as partners for governance improvement based on information that arises from a transparency effort, then collaborate. If they are not, then confront.

This easy logic is of course more complicated on the ground, because accurately discerning the willingness of officials to act as partners requires extensive, nuanced local knowledge. It may also be possible to make resistant officials more willing to cooperate (or vice versa) through strategic action and program design. More fundamentally, activists, funders, and even researchers may have biases that prevent them from recognizing when one or the other is desirable, or even possible. The very name that the field has adopted - Transparency and Accountability - already connotes a tilt toward confrontation.

The distinction between confrontation and collaboration raises additional questions about political strategy, and institutional design more broadly. (Several years ago, one of us tried to think through the implications of some of these issues for participatory democrats in an essay entitled "Countervailing Power in Empowered Participatory Governance.") If transparency activists sometimes downplay the possibilities for cooperation because they are focused accountability, enthusiasts of participatory governance have often been accused of being obtuse about questions of power and the need for conflict. For the sake of both transparency and participatory governance, practices of confrontation need to complement - that is, work in synergy with - practices of collaboration.

The reason is that a background of balanced power - between potentially predatory officials and organized communities - makes successful local collaboration a lot more likely. When corrupt or predatory officials are threatened with real sanctions from various forms of 'countervailing' social and political power, they will be more likely to cooperate in developing local health improvement plans. In the absence of such countervailing power, what begins as collaborative governance may well become cooptation or another form of domination.

Assuming that advocacy organizations and social movement groups can generate meaningful countervailing power, one broad question is how that power can be best used to increase accountability and good governance. The most familiar route is to construct top-down accountability mechanisms such as independent commissions, inspectorates, or tougher anti-corruption laws. This was the main response to the movement around Anna Hazare in India in 2011. A quite different course is to deploy countervailing power to create levers for grassroots organizations to press for accountability or pursue collaborative governance strategies at the local level. The Right to Information law in India followed this kind of strategy.

These four possibilities and their predicted implications - high/low countervailing power and top-down/grassroots governance - are shown in the table below.



Countervailing Social Power






Governance Strategy Top-Down



Predatory government captured by social and political elites



Formal technocratic reforms

(e.g. bureaucratic inspectorates, punitive laws and regulations)





Failed confrontation


Coopted collaboration




Productive confrontation (e.g. MKSS in Rajasthan)


Constructive collaboration

(e.g. Uganda experience)


An important question for future study is which of the contexts and strategies depicted in this diagram will be more or less likely to increase accountability. Our intuition is that the strategies in cells I and II are likely to fail, while the strategies in cell IV are most likely to succeed because they incorporate both balanced power between the grassroots and government officials, and local, grassroots knowledge about appropriate strategies for engaging those officials. Others may argue in favor of cell III, however, to the extent that reforms that originate within the institutional structure of the state have a better chance of being effective and sustainable. Still others may make the case that effective reforms are limited to those rare cases in which there is activity in both cells - where technocratic initiative and expertise meets grassroots energy and experience.

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