Accountability failures can be an underlying cause of persistently poor service delivery. The seminal World Development Report in 2004, Making Services Work for Poor People, drew attention to the problems of accountability at three levels; between citizens and political actors, between political actors and bureaucrats/providers, and between citizen-users and providers. It placed particular emphasis on the so-called short route of accountability, between citizens and providers, as key for better services. More recently, researchers have stressed that progress can be made where top-down control and bottom-up pressures work in combination.

Different services may encounter particular barriers to accountability. This is partly because of their different technical characteristics – such as the targetability of the good being delivered, the level of discretion involved in delivery, or the degree of information asymmetry between users and front-line providers (e.g. doctor and patient).

Some experts argue viewing service delivery as the failure of accountability gives a narrow principal-agent perspective, whereas the widespread failure of public services is better understood as a series of collective action problems. Others highlight that even where formal accountability mechanisms break down, there are likely to be local informal controls on political actors where those actors are embedded within community structures.

World Bank. (2003) World Development Report 2004: Making Services Work for Poor People. Washington D.C.: World Bank.>
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Jelmin, K. (2012). Democratic Accountability in Service Delivery – A Synthesis of Case Studies. Stockholm: International IDEA.
Existing formal accountability systems are dysfunctional in many countries due to weak formal mandates, the capacity constraints of parties and parliaments or underlying political practices such as clientelism or corruption. Balancing political and social accountability efforts needs to be a higher priority. Social actors are not suitable as the sole form of accountability, since they often engage in short term advocacy at a specific point in time. Civil society organizations also are severely limited when it comes to interest representation as they themselves are not accountable to those they claim to represent. Formal arrangements need to be in place to ensure enforcement and continuity of accountability mechanisms.
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Lynch, U. et al. (2013). What is the evidence that the establishment or use of community accountability mechanisms and processes improves inclusive service delivery by governments, donors and NGOs to communities? (EPPI report 2107). London: EPPI Centre.
This systematic review analysed four types of intervention: greater freedom of information, greater transparency in service delivery mechanisms, an increase in budget control by citizens and increases in the consumer’s assessment of service accessibility and quality. The findings highlight the importance of capacity development, empowerment, level of corruption and health. Interventions are most effective when they are grounded in grassroots communities and adopt cross-cutting approaches, for example, combining cash transfer interventions with education and training opportunities or combining community infrastructure programmes with quotas for participation of women in governance roles.
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Joshi, A. (2008). Producing Social Accountability? The Impact of Service Delivery Reforms. IDS Bulletin, 38(6), 10-17.
How can accountability mechanisms improve service delivery? This paper draws on the polity approach, which suggests that the organisation of state institutions influences who engages in collective action and around what issues. Collective action is essential for the poor if direct accountability is to work. Successful cases of social accountability are often the result of alliances that cut across class and public-private divides.
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Mcloughlin, C., & Batley, R. (2012). The Effects of Sector Characteristics on Accountability Relationships in Service Delivery (ODI Working Paper 350). London: Overseas Development Institute.
Different types of services encounter different accountability challenges. The paper outlines a number of ways in which the nature of the good being produced, the type of market failure encountered, the tasks involved in delivery, and how the service is demanded and consumed can influence the balance of power between politicians, users and provider organisations. These defining or ‘fixed’ characteristics may influence key relationships of accountability and control between elected politicians, policymakers, providers, and potential and actual users in service provision.
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Hossain, N. (2009). Rude Accountability in the Unreformed State: Informal Pressures on Frontline Bureaucrats in Bangladesh (Working Paper 319). Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.
How successful are the informal pressures that poor citizens exert on officials to provide services in Bangladesh? This paper examines how poor people experience safety nets, schools and health services. Local political and social pressures provide responsiveness to demands for services through shame and the threat of violence. The gains from ‘rude’ accountability are often short-lived, however, and may backfire. It is important to bridge the informal and official mechanisms of accountability.
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