Social accountability as a form of systems convening?
Rachel Gondo and Florencia Guerzovich
Systems strengthening and transformation is all the rage these days in philanthropy. Conversely, many commentators believe that “social accountability”, especially to support better service delivery at the local level is no longer “hot” among practitioners. What if we were to tell you that many of those social accountability practitioners working in the frontline may have been facilitating system strengthening and transformation all along?
In a recent book, Bev and Etienne Wenger-Trayner draw on interviews with “systems conveners” to identify this practice. Systems convening is an approach to systemic learning capability for non-systems theorists:
“A systems convener or systems convening team sets up spaces for new types of conversations between people who often live on different sides of a boundary …. These conveners see a social landscape with all its separate and related practices through a wide-angle lens: they spot opportunities for creating new learning spaces and partnership that will bring different and often unlikely people together to engage in learning across boundaries”. (download a free version of the book here)
We and other colleagues working in social accountability felt “seen” by Bev and Etienne’s description of the work, perhaps more than by the accountability cannon (even more recent attempts to revisit it from its core). Paula Chies Schommer from Brazil who works on co-production of public services and accountability, including through research Group Politeia and civil society groups #act4delivery and the Instituto Communitario para a Grande Florianopolis (ICOM, a community based organization), is featured in the book. There are also several “close cousins” from the movement for community-led-development whose work has many similarities to the practice of collaborative and other forms of social accountability.
Should we be surprised about this connection? We don’t think so. Tacit knowledge, evaluations, and research have pointed in this direction for a while — even if narratives and popular assumptions did not, as Flor, Tom Aston and Alix Wadeson have written elsewhere.
Look at the practice, rather than the job description
Systems convening is what many social accountability practitioners do, but it is rarely in their job description. Rachel’s work and that of her partners at the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) Regional Learning Program (RLP) is a case in point. Flor, along with Yeukai Mukorombindo, and Elsie Eyakuze, got a glimpse at the work a few years ago. RLP had started bringing civil society groups and strengthening their capacity for many years through training and peer exchange. At some point together, partners across Southern Africa realized that this was not enough. The self-imposed boundary (i.e., working only with civil society groups) had created a wall. In the words of a partner (cited in p. 36 of our report):
“PSAM stakeholders expressed that continuing to dialogue among people with similar viewpoints and mandates was not likely to lead to resolution of the service delivery problems they were trying to address. The need to interact more openly with the people who had the power and the mandate to address their problems was repeatedly mentioned as a key strategy that social accountability practitioners in these contexts found valuable.”
PSAM began experimenting with bringing together people across boundaries, leveraging systems whilst strengthening the capacities of multiple types of stakeholders all at once. Much of this capacity required trust and relationship building, so PSAM and its partners began convening to support social learning on the edge of stakeholders’ practices.
For organizations’ seeking to strengthen accountability, social learning meant accepting the unintended consequences of business as usual and how their own limits affected the status quo. The Community Water Alliance, a PSAM partner in Zimbabwe, provides a candid glimpse at its journey. It started in a context of analysis paralysis, finger pointing about who is responsible for lack of access to water and fragmented advocacy, which the group explained, left plenty of room for officials gaming the noise rather than acting on solutions. Conversely, using social accountability to work with those that do not always agree with their views, enabled the Alliance to be politically savvier. Interactions with stakeholders with differing mandates allowed the CWA to benefit from viewing their problem from different angles which improved their understanding of the nature and extent of the water crisis, what needed to be done by whom and when. There was space for the Alliance to realistically reflect on their advocacy ‘asks’ and the consequences of such demands from other perspectives helping them see, tap into, and (perhaps?) nudge windows of opportunity, engaging meaningfully in decision-making in the water sector.
Borrowing Bev and Etienne’s words, for those in the business of accountability, part of the journey was about “recognizing the limits of traditional audits. Adversarial audits (in which an external auditor comes in and performs a list of formal checks) tend to lead to perfunctory compliance, a check-the-box and cover-my-back attitude, or even outright fabrication … Systems convening can shift audit cultures by engaging a range of players in jointly exploring the potential for real change in practice” — a point also made by Lant Prittchet and Dan Honig as well as many other social accountability practitioners.
PSAM’s shift years ago happened without necessarily having a language to explain to others what the work was like. PSAM colleagues were not speaking the language or aspects of systems convening and social learning that emerged through their practice.The tacit assumptions evolved with practice, as PSAM partners such as the Community Water Alliance begun convening civic actors, oversight bodies (MPs and Counselors), media professionals, and government officials (primarily planning officers, internal auditors, and sometimes sector staff) and the goal posts changed how everyone went about learning together how to do social accountability, building relationships, trust, and social capital.
External Perspective, what’s the value add?
The decision to work with diverse stakeholders came from people in small towns in Mozambique and cities and rural Tanzania who were doing the different types of work. Through those people, they got to know and accept the social landscape in which the work was embedded — its diversity of practices, formal rules, and personal relationships.
This shift towards systems convening did not come from PSAM’s headquarters in Grahamstown (now known as Makhanda) South Africa — where, in fact, it was debated. Change did not come from outside the organizations or the region — where theoretical blinkers made telling the story difficult for a long time. There was no instrumentalization of the label “systems” or references to multi-stakeholder work to tap into trends and “hot” approaches in philanthropy and aid. The RLP monitoring, evaluation, research and learning systems and the global debate and assumptions remained formally anchored in the original model, creating a gap with practice that is not unique to PSAM and its partners.
Our individual and collective aha! moments came after we visited people in their own place and talked about the work in their own words and actions. We put an external perspective in dialogue, connecting across towns and countries. We jointly reflected on patterns of learning and innovations in sub-groups of partners. We wanted to think about what might travel (or be transferred) and what could not, trying to listen to choir rather than a single voice or a cacophony of voices. We had to come up with a language to describe what we found — the Wenger-Trayners’ previous work on learning in landscapes of practice was a helpful building block, as it busted the notion of learning within the boundaries of a single community or network.
Then, it was up to each partner to be reinspired and the most of those tunes back home. For example, in Zimbabwe, the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust (SAPST), another PSAM partner, has been working with the Parliament Budget Office (PBO) to orient Accounting Officers in line ministries at national level on the “Parliament’s Budget Implementation Reporting Guidelines” — SAPST contributed to the adoption of the Guidelines in 2016. In February 2022, Pepukai Chivore PBO’s Director, reflected on a call with Rachel about this process. He exemplified the role of social learning across professional boundaries, agency given ambiguity, and continuity and change in time:
“people are the ones that operationalize (or not — they have a choice) the system. They bring it to life. Weaknesses in the system often come from the fact that I as an accountant only understand what I have to do, not how what I do relates to the next person within the system. That’s why it is key to bring the MPs and Accounting officers together with support from CSOs so that we can see how parts of the budget system interact and work together or not and how this impacts service delivery…In essence it’s useless to work in silos!.”
The work of pivoting
For PSAM partners, pivoting approaches wasn’t an easy or fast process. There were identity crises, heated philosophical and practical debates, fear of the unknown and some finger wagging, too. As Elsie Eyakuze narrates in her keynote remarks to the Global Partnership for Social Accountability (start at minute 44, but especially in 51):
“For me Mozambique stood out, it did not give out its secrets easily … We were welcomed only to be left out of the real conversations … Then we took a chance and did something outside my comfort zone … Now, we were not just guests and observers, we had become friends and allies in the discussion on how to get things done. Through this process many of the hard differences I had set between civil society and government began to seem artificial and inadequate … Traveling to all these countries and being invited into governance conversations changed me. From seeing the world in terms of groups of us and them, I started to see how we construct a collective “we” in our business of life ”.
In Malawi, PSAM’s work with the Partnership for Social Accountability Alliance (PSAA) sought to create bridges to connect different people/stakeholders together to develop a shared understanding on a problem and how it might be addressed. They combined budget analysis, community score card, public hearings, among other tools and approaches. Eventually, through convenings, exchanges, training, monitoring, reflections, stakeholders began to observe the problem from multiple perspectives, but first they had to grasp and accept where each stakeholder was. Only later, they can think through how a problem might be addressed collectively or whether it may require different individual action or even action by a stakeholder that may not be involved in the initial social accountability interaction, whilst respecting each other’s differences because the problem cannot be addressed by those in the room.
Public officials in the Malawi Ministry of Finance, for instance, realized during a social accountability convening, including civil society groups and media, that lack of information and disinformation about the budget process fueled mistrust in government. One problem? According to insiders, the timing of attention by the media and civil society groups is not well aligned with the decision-making process, so it does not have a chance to influence the next budget by design. A possible concrete step to address sources of the problem? The Ministry has arranged a series of capacity strengthening conversations (the first of which was on 6th November 2020) that bring together budget focused journalists and a select group of civil society organizations to explain in detail each and every aspect of the national budget process, using the conversations to orient them on how to engage the system. Flor has observed over the years different officials in Argentinean, Brazilian institutions, among others, take similar steps on systems such as asset disclosures or access to information litigation, or supreme audit institution oversight.
21st century leadership. Building agency and space to take this risk and learn with others requires courage and tenacity. It’s slowly but surely connecting silos, challenging identities, working out conflicts within boundaries and doing so with others to create outcomes that participants would not have expected, all while exploring and dealing with asymmetries of power.
More than meets the eye
If you only focus on the conceptual aspects of PSAM’s human rights based approach, public resource management tools, you are missing most of Rachel and her colleagues day in and day out work. The Wenger-Trayner’s focus on social learning from practice at the edge of what is known across complex systems, got the gist of it without getting into its nitty gritty.
There is more than meets the eye in many other social accountability projects and processes. The evolution of training in a relational direction that embraces practice and uncertainty does not eliminate the technical, expert component of training nor does it eliminate peer to peer learning. These three mechanisms coexist and reinforce each other and the reflective practice that brought them together. The approach, we suspect, is at the core of PSAM’s and other social accountability actors’ legitimacy to continue convening different actors at grassroots, national or regional levels — bridging different roles, practices and types of knowledge.
Social accountability practice is a big tent — sometimes too big to avoid fuzzy identities (many PSAM partners worry about losing the core) and dialogues of the deaf. Practitioners can have different goals or even paradigms that do not fit automatically together. We don’t expect everyone’s work is or should be captured in our reflection — but we want to make room to talk about practice that can go unacknowledged.
Social Accountability practitioners much like PSAM and partners are enablers tapping into the potential that exists across stakeholders to solve problems they care about. They can rekindle agency and bottom-up initiatives within structures, embrace uncertainty and the need to learn beyond what different actors know, because bringing about the change we want to make is often beyond what anyone knows how to do in practice and context. Weaving connections across boundaries whilst embracing uncertainty these practitioners/actors figure out new forms of bringing people together to learn from and with each other going beyond empowering voice or producing data or claims. With a respect for the diversity of identities and boundaries their social capital is strengthened whilst allowing room for them to rediscover their own and their collective agency. As Bev and Etienne put it, “systems convening is not merely a vision or a sense of possible connections; it is work.”
Keep the learning going
In this post, we spoke on our individual capacity, while acknowledging the work of hundreds of partners that have enriched our journeys. They are too many to name, but as we do so, we want to bring them to the forefront of the conversation.
Does it matter that this type of social accountability practitioners are “seen” by a book on systems convening and social learning by non-social accountability experts? We think it does. We want to say loud and clear that you are not alone if you see your social accountability practice as systems convening — with or without the jargon — rather than in the way it’s portrayed in the canon.
And that we can and should build a collective space where it is safe to say so. We know the risks and have suffered the “punishments” for speaking our realities from places of isolation or asymmetries of power (i.e., the opposite of Bev and Etienne’s concern with self-appointed systems conveners that claim the label and its visibility without actually doing the work). But we also know, as a community we are better than that.
The launch of the system convening book got a lot of traction beyond our fields of work. There seems to be an appetite among systems conveners to keep the conversation and collective learning about this form of leadership going. The group proposed a series of volunteer-organized convenings to dig deeper into the issues.
We wonder, if there is appetite (and incentives) in our community, to be part of that conversation. If so, we, along with our colleagues, at Grupo Politeia, #ACT4Delivery, and PSAM are planning to convene one chat with colleagues interested in this framing of systems convening and governance and see what happens.
Register here: https://bit.ly/3p9FxLK
One last point for those interested in joining: Social accountability practitioners and research about them do not connect to the often highly abstract language of systems and complexity theory, but that is not the point of systems convening, As Bev Wenger-Trayner put it in an email discussion “This list is not about what is or is not systems thinking. It’s about what you do to get people to talk to each other when they speak different languages” — and many social accountability processes do exactly that.