Social accountability is defined by the World Bank as “an approach towards building accountability that relies on civic engagement, i.e., in which it is ordinary citizens and/or civil society organizations who participate directly or indirectly in exacting accountability. Mechanisms of social accountability can be initiated and supported by the state, citizens or both, but very often they are demand-driven and operate from the bottom-up.” The significance of social accountability relies in providing a common platform on which different actors, including government, CSOs, media, private sector, can work together. Social accountability therefore aims at complementing, rather than, replacing horizontal accountability mechanisms.
Social accountability mechanisms include classical tools such as raising awareness of legal rights and advocacy for example. Accountability becomes even more effective if social accountability mechanisms are built-in the state accountability system which is termed as “diagonal accountability”. This can take place through effective engagement of citizens in existing accountability frameworks such as public commissions and hearings, citizen advisory boards and advisory committees. Other tools are primarily citizen-led such as community score cards, citizen report cards, and social audits but can include space for dialogue and cooperation with citizens. The community scorecard, although includes separate evaluation of the target services by citizens and governments, brings both groups together to exchange their findings, initiate dialogue and agree on interventions. The vast increase of countries adopting social accountability mechanisms from less than 60 in 1985 to over 140 in 2007 sheds light on the significance of social accountability. It has become evident that social accountability leads to improvements on both the operational and outcome levels. Operational changes can include better performance of civil servants or adoption of disciplinary measures whilst outcomes refer to overall improvements in the institutional environment and behavior of employees.
The success of social accountability depends on the surrounding legal, political, social and economic contexts. The primary perquisites for social accountability include: access to public information, capability of citizens to voice their needs and state capacity to respond to these needs. Some social accountability mechanisms require a level of technical and analytical competence. For instance, participatory budgeting or public expenditure tracking surveys require the actors involved to have at least budget literacy skills. Studying the potential of introduction social accountability mechanisms in local governance in Palestine requires analyzing the social accountability contextual factors namely, transparency, accountability and participation.
Social accountability complements formal accountability with citizen-led accountability mechanisms. Horizontal accountability mechanisms are instituted by governments within their structures such as state audit institutions or the different set of checks and balances within political systems. Although, these mechanisms are rooted in most political systems, with different degrees of variations, they were not very effective. These mechanisms were found to be insufficient in both the developed and developing countries. On the other hand, vertical accountability represents direct mechanisms such as elections or indirect ones such as those led by civil society. Elections however have proven to be ineffective in holding power holders to account. Elections further grants oversight powers on public service providers to representatives only rather than citizens directly. Under the “long accountability route”, citizens need to approach policy makers who in turn need to influence service providers. The Figure below illustrates the different horizontal and vertical accountability mechanisms.
Source: O’Donnell, G. 1999. “A Response to My Commentators.” In A. Schedler, L. Diamond & M. F. Plattner (Eds.), The Self-Restraining State: Power and Accountability in New Democracies. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, p. 29
Bringing this route short can be more effective in ensuring improvement of service delivery. This does not undermine the significance of horizontal accountability mechanisms but highlights the need to bridge both strengthen both horizontal and vertical accountability routes. Both are seen impactful in ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of public services. Empowering citizens’ capabilities to voice their needs can result in getting service providers to be more accountable and responsive. Social accountability mechanisms reflect the empowerment of citizens to hold service providers accountable.