Municipality and civil society agree to cooperate on ‘crisis’ at large stakeholder forum
As calls grow for budget reform in South Africa, National Treasury’s pre-budget consultations create an opportunity to improve financial transparency and enhance public participation in fiscal policies.
There are two points on the national financial calendar that have increasingly gained prominence in the public domain: one is the tabling of the Budget, which is held in Parliament in February; and the other is the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement, which is held in October.
Each of these constitutes an important opportunity not only for Cabinet to signal fiscal priorities, but also for members of Parliament to exercise oversight over budget decisions and execution. However, the opportunity for members of the public to meaningfully participate in such processes has traditionally been neglected.
Improved public participation has been shown to enable governments to respond more effectively to people’s needs. In addition, civic participation in the budgetary process can improve efficacy in the allocation and use of public resources.
Over several years, the results of the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Survey have lauded South Africa as a global leader in fiscal transparency. At the same time, however, the survey has highlighted South Africa as one of several countries that does not provide adequate opportunities for those affected by fiscal decisions to inform relevant discussions. This includes making available opportunities for public comment before, during and after public funds have been allocated and spent.
Civil society’s constrained space
Parliamentary budget hearings constitute the primary formal space for civic actors to engage committees on tabled or enacted budgets. However, this space is constrained — first, by the limited scope for informing the Budget before it is “too late” and decisions are finalised; and, second, by the intermediary role of parliamentary committees.
Since 2019, National Treasury has worked with an advisory group comprising civil society representatives, other government representatives, the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency and the International Budget Partnership to identify a mechanism by which the public can participate in fiscal policy processes. This multistakeholder partnership is part of a five-country initiative called the Fiscal Openness Accelerator (FOA) project.
This year is National Treasury’s second year of pilot pre-budget consultations. South Africa is well placed to leverage its advanced public finance environment, progressive policy and high-ranking budget transparency scores in the Open Budget Survey to enable more participatory, democratic budget processes.
To inform systemic, sustained reform, Treasury must continually consider ways of partnering with civil society beyond the conclusion of the FOA pilot in September 2022. Although the outcomes are positive so far, as with most pilots, there is room for improvement.
Participation exists on a continuum and the pre-budget consultations in the current format can do with some enhancements. If effectively enacted, this may be a significant opportunity to effect budget reform and foster more accountable decision-making where public resources are concerned.
The deadline for public submissions in response to a call from the National Treasury for inputs on the medium-term budget was on Friday, 19 August 2022.
This second call invited the public to submit written proposals containing key recommendations under the following guiding themes: unemployment, social security funding, energy choices and fiscal subsidies, safety and security, health and food security. These written inputs will be analysed, and the recommendations shared with the Medium-Term Expenditure Committee.
The opportunity for the public to contribute to these deliberations in advance of the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement is significant given that Medium-Term Expenditure Committee hearings interrogate the links between departmental budgets and government’s policy priorities.
It further involves key government role players, such as the National Treasury’s director-general and deputy director-general, senior Treasury officials and directors-general from other departments including the Presidency.
The Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement itself provides an opportunity to review the country’s fiscal policy positions and is an important participatory space. Following deliberations of the National Treasury and the FOA Advisory Group, the 2022 pre-budget consultations were designed to align with the medium-term allocation process, which is driven by the Medium-Term Expenditure Committee.
How has the pilot changed in its second year?
Provincial treasury offices were called on to promote the call and to receive handwritten responses from members of the public who do not have access to technology or the internet.
Although the first year of the pilot afforded participants the opportunity to engage in a live dialogue between participants and senior National Treasury officials, this second iteration of the pilot limited feedback to written submissions.
Although this option may allow officials more time to prepare more considered responses and produce a more comprehensive (written) public record, this change constrains the opportunity for robust engagement because there are no direct exchanges between participants and officials.
But there is scope for submissions received from participants and official feedback in the form of response to contribute to later iterations of the pilot that are more interactive, as well as for further innovation.
The pre-budget consultations are a welcome and necessary step towards budget reforms envisaged in section 215 of the Constitution; section 195 of the Constitution, which obliges the government to encourage public participation in policymaking; in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16; and in the objectives of the National Development Plan to ensure the participation of all South Africans in the process of achieving their own development. Public feedback from the first pilot informed key aspects of the second pilot.
More direct links needed
The proverbial ball is now in the hands of National Treasury about how and whether this participation mechanism will be further developed to become an integral part of engaging civil society around the Budget.
This will hopefully include heeding some past suggestions from civic actors. For instance, pre-budget consultations should be progressively deepened and institutionalised within fiscal policy and budget processes.
The potential for forming more direct links between public inputs and critical decision-making structures such as the Ministers’ Committee on the Budget Technical Committee, for one, is significant, because these deliberations inform key executive structures, such as the Ministers’ Committee on the Budget, and ultimately have an impact on national policy and planning priorities.
Providing citizens a lever to access resource allocation in decision-making is an astute governance choice and mechanism for balancing the power differential between state and citizenry. Moreover, it is a critical tool in democratic participation for keeping and holding the government accountable.
As we approach the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement in October, it is worth reflecting on how the second iteration of the pre-budget consultations can promote participation in fiscal policy in South Africa.
Increasing opportunities for public participation in the Budget is not only necessary, it has the interest and support of a cross-section of government and non-governmental actors. This level of public consultation can serve as an opportunity for budgeting and policymaking processes to centre on the country’s most vulnerable citizens and to ensure allocation of resources in a participatory and human rights-based manner.
This moment is an important opportunity for improving engagement and building trust between the government and its citizens. DM/MC
The authors are members of the advisory group of the National Treasury’s FOA.
Zukiswa Kota is programme head: South Africa at the Public Service Accountability Monitor. Matshidiso Lencoasa is a treasury researcher at Section27. Gary Pienaar is a senior research manager in the Human Sciences Research Council’s Developmental, Capable and Ethical State research division. Celeste Fortuin is a member of the FOA administrative support team. Kailash Bhana is the FOA lead consultant to National Treasury.
South Africa has regressed in its efforts to expand public participation in national budget processes according to the Open Budget Survey 2021. The Survey is the world’s only comparative, independent and regular assessment of transparency, oversight and public participation in public budgets and has been undertaken across 120 countries. The Survey ranks countries according to their level of accountability in national budget processes.
South Africa’s score for public participation, dropped from an already disappointing score of 24/100 in 2019 to 19/100 in 2021.
“National Treasury and Parliament need to do far more to enable public participation and regain the trust of the public” said Jay Kruuse, Director of the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM), which conducted the research for South Africa. “To encourage greater public participation the following actions should be undertaken:
South Africa’s National Treasury should introduce:
- Pilot mechanisms to encourage the public to monitor budget implementation.
- Actively engage with vulnerable and underrepresented communities, directly or through civil society organizations representing them.
South Africa’s Parliament should:
- Allow any member of the public or any civil society organization to testify during its hearings on budget proposals prior to their approval.
- Allow members of the public or civil society organizations to testify during its hearings on the Audit Report.
The Open Budget Survey also found that South Africa’s Auditor-General should establish formal mechanisms for the public to assist in developing its audit program and to contribute to relevant audit investigations. Currently the Auditor-General does engage the public on its audit investigations but is not formally required by law to do so.
In the area of budget transparency, South Africa has managed to continue its practice of scoring well, achieving a score of 86/100 in the 2021, marginally down from its score of 87/100 in 2019. Only one country (Georgia) achieved a higher score (of 87/100) than South Africa for this aspect of the Survey.
Looking at global trends, the 2021 Open Budget Survey found that legislative oversight globally has declined. Some governments have found ways to undermine Supreme Audit Institutions. Only 31 percent of countries provide sufficiently detailed information to understand how their budget addresses poverty and only 14 percent present their expenditures by gender. Only 8 countries worldwide have formal channels to engage underserved communities in budget processes.
To access the 2021 Open Budget Survey report for South Africa visit https://internationalbudget.org/open-budget-survey/country-results/2021/south-africa
To access the global report on the 2021 Open Budget Survey visit https://internationalbudget.org/open-budget-survey/open-budget-survey-2021
To access the 120 country results visit: https://internationalbudget.org/open-budget-survey/country-results
To access the 120 country rankings visit: https://internationalbudget.org/wp-content/uploads/2021_OBS_rankings.pdf
- Only documents published and events, activities, or developments that took place through 31 December 2020 were assessed in the OBS 2021.
- The survey is based on a questionnaire completed in each country by an independent budget expert: Jay Kruuse (Director)Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) – Rhodes University; email@example.com
- To further strengthen the research, each country’s draft questionnaire is also reviewed by an anonymous independent expert, and in South Africa by a representative of the National Treasury.
At an estimated R27 billion per year, the cost of corruption equates to about 10% of the country’s total budget for health in 2022. With procurement understood to be a government’s single greatest corruption risk – health contracts are especially vulnerable. This is why reform related to safeguarding public procurement and resources is now beyond urgent, argues Zukiswa Kota.
Much has been said about this ‘moment’ in South Africa’s socio-political environment. And while much of it has rightly centred on efforts to recover from Covid-19 and ‘state capture’, more must be said – and done – to achieve the longer-term changes required for such recovery.
Open government reform is key to tackling corruption and capture.
The clandestine nature of corruption makes it nearly impossible to accurately quantify the losses to the state. However, at an estimated R27 billion per year, the cost of corruption equates to about 10% of the country’s total budget for health in 2022, and with procurement understood to be a government’s single greatest corruption risk, health contracts are especially vulnerable.
In South Africa’s case, this constitutes a direct threat to closing the yawning chasm in universal healthcare and equity. With an estimated 87.7% of children and 84.7% of the total population having no private medical aid cover and depending on an ailing public health system, the risk is serious.
The potential for clean procurement to contribute to the realisation of universal healthcare is severely undermined in a multitude of ways (including in less obvious ways such as in the abuse of preferential procurement policy). While issues like shortages of medicines can result from a wide array of factors such as delayed tenders, late payment to suppliers, and poor contract management by health departments, it creates breaches in people’s access to vital care. These recurring drug stock-outs in public health facilities underscore the need to ensure an open, transparent procurement system.
The same can be said for Covid-19 vaccine contracts.
Various organisations have advocated for the South African government to introduce open contracting to counter malfeasance and the derailing of public procurement processes. The Health Justice Initiative, for instance, has approached the courts to compel government departments to publish Covid-19 vaccine contracts.
Clearly, reform related to safeguarding public procurement and resources is now beyond urgent. Since 2018, there have been some important interventions including key appointments to State-owned enterprises (SOE) boards and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). Interventions to strengthen criminal justice institutions and bolster prosecution authorities must also be met with steps to prosecute those implicated in corrupt activities.
Currently receiving public attention are the recommendations emanating from the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, Corruption, and Fraud in the Public Sector that make explicit reference to public procurement. Another is the release for public comment (in 2020) of the Draft Public Procurement Bill by the National Treasury.
A third is the tabling of the National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill. Many of the public submissions on the NHI Bill decried the dire impacts and risks of procurement corruption in the health sector. Finally, open government and clean governance commitments made by the Presidency via the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) and Open Government Partnership (OGP) are worth some attention.
A social and environmental justice imperative
Effective public procurement is squarely a social and environmental justice imperative which, in South Africa also carries constitutional obligations to tackle the consequences of apartheid-era discriminatory policies.
It is not unreasonable, then, to expect the Minister of Finance and the President in their Budget Speech and State of the Nation Address (SONA) respectively to boldly articulate how the South African government intends to address massively compromised, opaque procurement governance environments.
But this was not quite the case.
There were some encouraging signals in the SONA and Budget 2022 for plans to bolster state capacity and anti-corruption interventions. This includes the allocation of R 426 million to the Investigating Directorate in the NPA and the Financial Intelligence Centre to support the investigation and prosecution of criminal cases emanating from the State Capture Commission.
Of concern, though, is that some of these funds (R262.1 million) will be euphemistically ‘reprioritised’ from existing budgets.
However, given deep-seated corruption involving complex webs of private and state players the Presidency and National Treasury’s seeming lack of urgency to implement critical reform is worrying. A range of civic actors forming the Procurement Reform Working Group have raised concern, for instance, about the government’s lax approach to procurement reform and anti-corruption interventions.
Among the proposals made in the NHI Bill is for procurement of health sector goods and services to be more centralised. The Draft Procurement Bill also aims to “create a single regulatory framework for public procurement and eliminate fragmentation in laws which deal with procurement in the public sector”.
Centralising procurement can have significant benefits, including substantial cost savings. In a 2016 supply chain management review, the National Treasury outlined a range of benefits including the elimination of unnecessary duplication, the reduction of leakages, better utilisation of scarce procurement skills, and the reduction of administrative burdens on officials. A particular emphasis was placed on the need to ensure that officials ‘refocus’ their efforts on actual contract management. This is particularly important.
The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) report relating to misappropriated millions in the Digital Vibes contract highlighted weaknesses in the National Department of Health’s project and contract management. The State Capture report highlights the abuse of provisions of the Public Finance Management Act allowing entities to deviate from regular procurement practice.
The report cites that instead of proper planning and effective contract management (and contrary to sections 217, 28, and 51 of the Constitution and Public Finance Management Act respectively), deviations appear to be the norm rather than the exception.
So, the benefits of centralisation are only likely to be reaped under specific conditions that will require extensive strengthening and capacitation not only of the health sector but of the public service more broadly. This objective is not a clearly budgeted-for priority. In the short to medium term, there is value in implementing more e-government and open data platforms to support health procurement.
In the context of the NHI, aligning tender data with the Office of the Chief Procurement Officer’s e-tender portals and central supplier databases to ensure access and centralisation of data using uniform open data standards can be an important safeguard using existing platforms.
Both the NHI and Procurement Bills should respond to South Africa’s OGP and African Peer Review Mechanism commitments to transparency. Both the OGP and APRM involve international and regional agreements signed by government to foster multistakeholder collaboration and accountability to improve governance and deepen democracy.
This is particularly important for the publication of fiscal and procurement data. In the 2020/21 and 2021/22 financial years, R10.1 billion was allocated for the rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations. In the current financial year, the health department has been allocated R4 billion to purchase and administer vaccines with provisional funds set aside. Worryingly, however, is that there has been no public disclosure of the details of the related contracts despite the vulnerability of this sector.
On 14 March, the President shared reflections on the achievements of the Special Tribunal of the SIU which he established. The SIU Tribunal has reportedly recovered an estimated R8.6 billion from unlawful contracts and — in recent weeks — set aside more than R100 million in irregular and unlawful contracts in Covid-related procurement. Ramaphosa’s emphasis on the need not only to see prosecutions but to recover funds is significant.
The President has set a date in June 2022 to announce his Cabinet’s response to the State Capture Commission findings. Here’s to a detailed, fully-resourced plan that recognises the dire urgency of this ‘moment’ in South Africa’s history.
*Zukiswa is head of monitoring and advocacy at the Public Service Accountability Monitor at Rhodes University.
*This article was published by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest.
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.