By Markus Maier
Social Accountability interventions at the local government level can bring about actual, significant improvement of living conditions for citizens. Sustainable institutionalisation of Social Accountability mechanisms in municipalities, however, is a complex and lengthy process which requires strong local ownership and supportive national policies. The Palestinian territories are presently at the stage of transitioning from locally focused pilot interventions towards a national institutionalisation process that encompasses all municipalities.
What is Social Accountability?
Social Accountability (SA) aims at establishing direct accountability relationships between citizens and the state. SA refers to the broad range of actions and mechanisms beyond voting that citizens can use to hold government to account, as well as actions on the part of government, civil society, media and other societal actors that promote or facilitate these efforts. Its main pillars are transparency (citizens have access to information and state actors have the duty to provide that information), answerability (citizens are able to demand justifications and state actors respectively have the duty to explain and justify their action), and enforceability (citizens are able to assess the action and are in a position to sanction it either positively or negatively. This can be done by elections or by continuous public supervision and control).
How does Social Accountability help to improve municipal service delivery?
Social Accountability helps to improve municipal service provision, and as an end result also the quality of life for citizens. Instruments such as community score cards, citizen report cards, or transparency gates enable direct monitoring of selected municipal services by citizens. Citizens can subsequently supply service providers and the municipality with valuable feedback and data which helps to improve and fine tune the provision of these services. Through tools like citizen charters, multi-stakeholder dialogues and participatory budgeting, citizens may also participate in the identification of priorities in service provision. This is especially important when municipalities struggle with tight budgets. After all, citizens know more about their most immediate needs than government officials and thus can provide crucial information on where to focus scarce resources. Inclusive participation in municipal planning processes (strategic development and investment planning) offers the opportunity to influence the future direction of municipal development. Finally, the involvement of citizens in decision making processes on the municipal level creates a stronger sense of ownership and community spirit. As a consequence, citizens are more willing to pay fees and taxes, which eventually generates higher municipal revenue and fewer budget constraints.
Moving from pilot projects towards sustainable institutionalisation
It is relatively uncomplicated to conduct Social Accountability interventions in individual municipalities. However, institutionalising these processes in all municipalities in a given country is inordinately more challenging, as it requires engagement on all societal levels, a sustainable funding mechanism, and national ownership.
Implementation in the Palestinian territories: National Policies and Standardisation
With the Local Governance Reform Programme (LGRP), the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) is currently working towards institutionalising Social Accountability mechanisms across all Palestinian municipalitiesIn order to do this, GIZ is working with a wide range of Palestinian partner organisations on all societal and governmental levels. In a first step, the institutional framework conditions on the ministerial level must produce policies conducive to accountability in local governance. A constructive dialogue with relevant ministries, particularly the Ministry of Local Government, is essential to create supportive legislation and to define common standards among all actors. LGRP is hence in constant dialogue with line ministries and supported the creation of a national working group, which published the “National Toolkit for Social Accountability in Palestine” at the Social Accountability EXPO in April 2016. This toolkit constitutes a major benchmark in the process of institutionalising Social Accountability. All relevant actors such as ministries, national development agencies, donors, and civil society, together defined common standards for interventions in this field.
In the longer term, LGRP puts an emphasis on the cooperation with the Palestinian Municipal Development and Lending Fund (MDLF). MDLF provides municipalities with funding for infrastructure, but also develops the technical capacities of municipal staff and provides incentives for good practice. A ranking scheme rewards good practices, such as public disclosure of budgets or own revenue generation. The municipalities that implement such measures move up in the ranking, and in turn receive more funding. Since Social Accountability is included in this mechanism, it ensures a sustainable practice of responsive municipal governance.
Civil Society Engagement and Advocacy
The aforementioned legal frameworks and incentive schemes are crucial for the institutionalisation process; yet, Social Accountability should not be regarded as a top-down approach. Civil society is indispensable to implement tools of Social Accountability on the ground, to mobilize citizens and to assure constant monitoring of the actual application. Building upon a longstanding partnership with highly engaged non-governmental organizations, LGRP works towards a holistic application of Social Accountability on the local and the national level. In order to promote a national driver of change from the civil society side, the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability – Arab World (ANSA-AW) is supported and encouraged to become the voice of civil society on the national level.
The results of 17 pilot interventions of Social Accountability in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip show tangible improvements of the relationships between citizen and the local government. Citizens felt that municipal services were increasingly geared towards them: “A real advance in the relationship between the two parties has been made,” said a community activist in Beitounia who felt relieved about the improved relationship between the municipality and its citizens after a Social Accountability intervention. A community representative from Tafouh, where GIZ also piloted the mechanisms of Social Accountability, said, “Today, we are partners with the municipality for improving municipal services.”
The process of Social Accountability institutionalisation in the Palestinian territories is still in an early stage. Similar to many other multilevel approaches in international development cooperation, this process will not be a linear one. Past achievements and the continued dedication to the topic by many actors constitute a promising set-up. Yet, continuous engagement by national and international actors over an extended period of time is needed to reach the ambitious goal of institutionalising a new pattern of citizen-state relations in the volatile and fragile context of the region.