Power from the People: Who Matters in a Social Accountability Intervention? (BLOG)


November 2, 2016

This blog post is the second in a new series “T4D: Views from the Field,” written to highlight what members of the T4D team have observed in launching the co-designed intervention in Tanzania and Indonesia. In this post, Courtney Tolmie shares take aways from observing the intervention in five villages in Indonesia earlier this year, focusing on the importance of intentionally designing the roles of the civil society organization, the facilitator, the community representatives, and the government in a social accountability intervention.

By Courtney Tolmie

Social accountability – at its core – is really about people.  It is about helping people who are not getting the services they should.  It is about holding people to account when they are not doing what they were elected to or paid to do.  And it is about empowering people to play a role in improving health, education, and other services when they are not working efficiently.

So it should not be surprising that some of the most striking trends we saw while observing Transparency for Development (T4D) intervention meetings had to do with how specific people could help – or hinder – how the intervention played out.


The Facilitator

The T4D intervention is different than many social accountability programs in that the Civil Society Organization (CSO) facilitator is – well – a facilitator.  In many interventions, CSOs play a role in brokering relationships between citizens and government officials and service providers. In some cases, CSOs are even leading some of the accountability actions.  In T4D, we wanted to see if the CSO could build the capacity of citizens to quickly fill in some of the roles that we often expect CSOs to play.

With that said, facilitators still play a big role in encouraging and building the foundation on which community representatives build. Observing five meetings with five different facilitators made it very clear that facilitator style varies and can make a big difference.

Some facilitators led the meetings as a teacher would.  They stood at the front of the room, spoke down to the community representatives, took over the writing, and would quickly fill in silence with their own words and opinions.  This dynamic was especially prevalent in Tanzania – and we have a blog post coming up to share even more on this.

But even in the few meeting we observed, a teacher-like facilitator was reflected by community representatives acting like students – which did not appear to help empower the community members to design and lead and celebrate social actions themselves.

On the other hand, we observed several facilitators who saw it as their role to draw out the voices and experiences of the community representatives.  They always asked citizens to write or to lead parts of the meeting.

In one meeting, we saw that – after a brief introduction from the facilitator – the citizen coordinators started running the show.  This dynamic carried throughout the meeting, with more citizens volunteering to lead actions and sharing ideas, celebrating successes and trying to fix what did not work.  The facilitator set up an atmosphere in which she came in when conversation stalled, but otherwise left space for the community representatives to run with their ideas and actions.


Photo credit: Transparency for Development/Courtney Tolmie


The Community Representative Coordinators

If the facilitator wasn’t playing an active leadership role, then who was?  In most meetings that we observed, that role was filled by a strong CR coordinator – or no one at all.  In the first few meetings, community representatives were asked to select two coordinators from their group – these individuals would help keep CRs engaged, check in on actions between meetings, and help to spread the word about what the CRs were doing.

What we observed were coordinators who ran the gamut from very strong to almost non-existent.  On the positive side, some coordinators had already demonstrated a propensity to serve in a leadership role.  One community selected a representative who was also the head of a disaster prevention group in the village.  Another selected a well-respected teacher.

In both cases, the coordinators demonstrated their ability to lead inside the meetings and showcased their dedication to the work by how they pushed their fellow community representatives outside of the meetings.  Actions that may have otherwise been abandoned after the facilitator left the village were completed, a fact that the coordinators celebrated in the meetings.

However, other villages selected coordinators who were frequently absent from meetings and led by poor examples – not participating in actions they volunteered to lead or shifting the focus of the intervention from improving maternal and newborn health to issues that they cared more about.

These poor selections were difficult to overcome, though not impossible.  We spoke with some facilitators who shared that community representatives selected new coordinators after seeing that their initial selections were not putting in the time and effort that they expected.  However, if community representatives don’t have a strong enough foundation to push back against coordinators who are not doing their job, it is unlikely that they will push through with their social actions.


Photo credit: Transparency for Development/Courtney Tolmie


The Village Leadership

A final important set of participants in these meetings is a group that was not supposed to be in the meetings at all – village government officials.  The relationship between citizens and government officials can be a challenging one, with some government representatives acting as important allies and champions for better service delivery and others indifferent or even actively seeking to preserve a status quo that benefits them in some way even if it hurts their constituents.

To address this issue, we and our partners decided to not include village government officials in the meetings between community representatives, to give the citizens the choice of whether to engage the government – and how.  That is how the intervention was designed.

In reality, that is not what happened in many villages.

In half of the meetings we observed, a village head or village secretary was in attendance; further, it was clear that this person had been involved in previous meetings as well.  CSO facilitators tried to discourage this, but sometimes this was outside of their control.

In one case, the village government office was the only viable place to hold a meeting in the village – and so the village secretary had to be present as the meeting was in the main office.  In another case, the community representatives themselves requested that the village head attend the last meeting so that they could highlight what they had achieved.  In other cases still, the village head just showed up unannounced.

In some meetings, a positive dynamic played out, with the village secretary jumping in and offering to provide funding in the budget for health facility infrastructure that the community representatives pointed out as something that was needed.

In other cases, the village head would cut conversation, expressing that any concerns that the community representatives raised were not actually problems and effectively cutting off any meaningful discussion.

And whether well-intentioned or not, village government officials in the meetings did result in some consistent and concerning changes in how the meetings played out.  The facilitator had to speak up more to provide space for the voices of community representatives.  Community representatives spoke less.

Additionally, there was no safe space to discuss problems with the village government – or even strategic approaches to get the support of local officials.  The meetings with government officials present did not focus on what the communities could do to improve maternal and newborn health – they instead focused on whoever the official in the room was.

So what does this mean for CSOs, donors, and practitioners designing or leading social accountability on their own?  First, spend some time designing what role you want the facilitator to play – and really impress upon your facilitators what that role is.

Second, it seems that social action and continued community engagement will work best if you transfer ownership of the intervention to a community member(s) who can encourage and catalyze actions effectively.

Finally, think about how you want your intervention to engage with those local officials who have the best interests of the community at heart – and how to mitigate any push back from those who might not.

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