Accountability and responsiveness of the state and society

Page contents


Efforts to empower citizens need to be accompanied by state mechanisms to ensure accountability and responsiveness. Accountability mechanisms can include formal top-down processes (such as elections, hearings, consultations) or bottom-up strategies (such as participatory budgeting, social mobilisation, and citizen monitoring). Accountability also requires mechanisms through which citizens can hold government to account. These include direct mechanisms, such as citizens’ scorecards on service delivery; institutions such as civil society organisations and political parties representing citizens’ views in engagement with decision-makers; and more formal accountability mechanisms like elections, parliaments and ombudsmen at local and national levels.

It is increasingly recognised that greater accountability and responsiveness can only be brought about by working across these levels. Fox (2005) (cited below) argues: “Pro-poor reforms require changes in three distinct arenas: within the state itself, within society and at the state-society interface.”

Fox, J., 2005, ‘Empowerment and Institutional Change: Mapping “Virtuous Circles” of State-Society Interaction’, in Alsop, R (ed.), ‘Power, Rights and Poverty: Concepts and Connections’, World Bank/DFID, London
How do pro-poor reform innovations scale up and spread out to influence entire agencies, regions or nation-states? How can pro-poor policymakers and social actors gain leverage against those who oppose reform? This article looks at pro-poor institutional change in rural Mexico. It argues that the empowerment of poor people is important for the success of anti-poverty policies. ‘Virtuous circles’ of mutual empowerment between institutional reformers and social actors in the public interest need to be triggered and sustained.
Access full text: available online

Benequista, N., 2010, ‘Putting Citizens at the Centre: Linking States and Societies for Responsive Governance – A Policy-maker’s Guide to the Research of the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability’, Prepared for the DFID Conference on ‘The Politics of Poverty, Elites, Citizens and States’, 21-23 June, Sunningdale, UK
How does citizen engagement contribute to responsive governance? This paper summarises ten years of research from the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation, and Accountability, presenting the key findings of more than 150 case studies of citizen engagement. It argues that existing donor programmes fail to recognise the full potential of citizen engagement, resulting in lack of understanding of the complex relationship between citizens and the state that shapes governance outcomes. Citizens need greater political knowledge and awareness of rights and of agency as a first step to claiming rights and acting for themselves. Involvement in associations has been an effective way of strengthening notions of citizenship and citizen engagement, which can contribute to more responsive states.
Access full text: available online

UNDP Capacity Development Group, 2006, ‘Mutual Accountability Mechanisms: Accountability, Voice and Responsiveness’, UNDP, New York
How can one increase the responsiveness and accountability of development agents, decision makers and service providers to the concerns of the poor? This paper examines the building of accountability mechanisms as part of developing capacity. The capacity of any system requires appropriate feedback loops to self-regulate, adapt and effectively achieve its objectives. Accountability strategies need communication strategies.
Access full text: available online

The chapter below argues that for social accountability mechanisms to be effective in enabling citizens to hold powerholders to account, some level of state support is required. Experience shows that such support can range from intensely active to extremely reluctant. However, governments can view civil society involvement in advocacy less positively than service delivery. Advocacy activities can often be subjected to government controls and legal barriers, which is frequently the case in fragile states with weak governance and accountability.

Blair, H., 2011, ‘Gaining State Support for Social Accountability’, in Accountability through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action, eds. S. Odugbemi, S. and T. Lee, World Bank, Washington DC, pp.37-52
If social accountability is to be successful in holding public power-holders responsible for their actions, then the state must support the mechanisms used in exacting it. This chapter examines the many types of state support for social accountability.
Access full text: available online

One of the reasons for accountability failures is the capture of public institutions by powerful and resourceful groups, and the lack of representation of poor people. The ability to demand accountability and the capacity and willingness to respond to calls for accountability is shaped by relations of power between the state, civil society and market actors.

Lindberg, S., 2009, ‘Accountability: The Core Concept and its Subtypes’, Africa Power and Politics Programme (APPP), Working Paper no. 1, Overseas Development Institute, London
The concept of accountability has become increasingly popular in diverse fields including development policy. This working paper from the Overseas Development Institute argues that new meanings and dimensions risk diluting its content and creating conceptual confusion – with significant implications for empirical analysis. A classic approach to concept formation is required, which suggests that accountability refers to a class of concepts under the category ‘methods of limiting power’. It is important to distinguish between accountability and responsiveness.
Access full text: available online

Newell, P., 2006, ‘Taking accountability into account: the debate so far’, in P. Newell and J. Wheeler (Eds.) Rights, Resources and the Politics of Accountability, Zed Books, London, ch. 2
It is widely assumed that a notion of accountability is crucial for ensuring that political and business actors respond to the needs of poor people. This chapter from Rights, Resources and the Politics of Accountability explores the relationship between power and accountability. The changing relations between state, civil society and market actors both create and restrict new forms of accountability as new power dynamics evolve.
Access full text: available online

The political economy of accountability is a growing area of interest. It considers how informal relations between state actors and citizens often act as a stronger means of holding elected representatives to account than formal processes. While this kind of ‘rude’ accountability is important because it highlights how relationships of accountability are embedded in social relations, the gains derived from it can be short-lived. Thus, it is important to connect the power and accessibility of informal mechanisms of accountability to the sanctions, rules and neutrality of official mechanisms.

Lindberg, S., 2010, ‘What Accountability Pressures do MPs in Africa Face and How Do They Respond? Evidence from Ghana’, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 48, no. 1, pp. 117-142
What is the role of clientelism in African politics? How are MPs held accountable in Ghana? This article examines the daily accountability pressures and responses of Ghanaian Members of Parliament, the strength of the institution, and the formal and informal aspects of their role. It finds that these MPs devote a significant proportion of their time to producing and distributing private goods to constituents, and to constituent service. Marginal attention is devoted to legislating and executive oversight. Some MPs have been able to counter political clientelism, however, through civic education and by reformulating constituent expectations toward the production of collective, public goods.
Access full text: available online

Hossain, N., 2009, ‘Rude Accountability in the Unreformed State: Informal Pressures on Frontline Bureaucrats in Bangladesh’, IDS Working Paper 319, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton
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 service 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.
Access full text: available online

Blunt, P., 2009, ‘The Political Economy of Accountability in Timor-Leste: Implications for Public Policy’, Public Administration and Development, vol. 29, pp. 89-100
What conditions facilitate corruption in Timor-Leste and what measures should be taken to address it? This article examines the social, economic, political and governance context of Timor-Leste and suggests that it is conducive to state capture and systemic grand and petty corruption. It is also resistant to conventional short-term technocratic anticorruption remedies. Anticorruption progress is a long-term endeavour that requires sustained impartial service delivery, the emergence of leaders of integrity and a middle class, and the establishment of the rule of law.
Access full text: available online

Forms of accountability: Vertical accountability

There are various forms of official accountability mechanisms. Vertical accountability measures allow citizens to hold institutions and states to account, whether through elections or through social mobilisation or advocacy and lobbying. Horizontal accountability mechanisms involve state entities monitoring and demanding answers from (and sometimes sanctioning) other state entities. More recently, citizens have begun to engage directly with the state and service providers through budgeting, monitoring and other oversight processes in what are variously referred to as ‘direct’, ‘social’ or ‘demand-side’ accountability processes.

Vertical accountability refers to direct engagement by individuals and groups with governments and other duty-bearers through participation in democratic political processes, and with service providers through advocacy and oversight channels and mechanisms. The effectiveness of vertical accountability mechanisms thus depends on citizens’ awareness of rights and choice, and their ability and readiness to engage and use voice, either through political cycles or through civil society mobilisation and involvement in monitoring mechanisms. The latter has been addressed in the ‘Political empowerment section’ above. This section focuses on a discussion of elections – traditionally considered the ultimate means of exercising political voice.


Elections are the main political mechanism for allowing citizens to choose their government, and form a central pillar of any democratic political system. How electoral systems are designed determines the political representation of certain groups, including minorities and excluded groups, and ultimately citizen satisfaction with the electoral process.

Merloe, P., 2008, ‘Human Rights – The Basis for Inclusiveness, Transparency, Accountability and Public Confidence in Elections’, in Promoting Legal Frameworks for Democratic Elections: An NDI Guide for Developing Election Laws and Law Commentaries, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, New York, pp 9-36
What are the fundamental principles for genuinely democratic elections? How can states realise these principles in practice? This section from the National Democratic Institute publication Promoting Legal Frameworks for Democratic Elections examines electoral-related human rights law and principles. Honouring citizens’ collective right to genuine elections and establishing and maintaining public confidence in elections requires inclusiveness, transparency and accountability.
Access full text: available online

Bratton, M., and Logan, C., 2006, ‘Voters but not yet Citizens: The Weak Demand for Vertical Accountability in Africa’s Unclaimed Democracies’, Afrobarometer, Cape Town
Why has democracy failed to secure better governance and accountability in Africa? This article from Afrobarometer finds that how Africans understand their own roles and responsibilities for securing vertical democratic accountability – between leaders and the public – is important. Democracy in Africa remains unclaimed by ‘voters’ who have embraced multiparty elections but failed to grasp their rights as ‘citizens’ – notably to regularly demand accountability from leaders.
Access full text: available online

Access to justice and the rule of law

As key guarantor of the rule of law, the justice system is a strong mechanism of accountability. A strong, independent and well-respected judiciary can provide a check on the arbitrary exercise of state power and citizens (and non-citizens) can use the justice system to formally claim their rights and seek redress. However, poor people face significant barriers in accessing justice, and are particularly susceptible to being excluded from property, labour and business law protections. Legal empowerment strategies improve the accessibility of justice systems and help citizens demand accountability from officials. These involve increasing awareness among citizens about their rights as well as giving them the skills and opportunities needed to access institutions and services. However, state institutions and leaders may attempt to undermine this accountability channel if it threatens their interests, for example by removing judges.

UN Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, 2008, ‘The Four Pillars of Legal Empowerment’, in Making the Law Work for Everyone Volume I, Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor and United Nations Development Programme, New York, pp. 25-42
Most of the world’s poor live outside the ambit of the law and their poverty is both a cause and consequence of their lack of effective legal rights. This chapter argues that addressing the issue of legal empowerment is both smart politics and good economics. It presents a framework of legal empowerment based on 1) access to justice and the rule of law; 2) property rights; 3) labour rights; and 4) business rights.
Access full text: available online

Bruce, J., et al., 2007, ‘Legal Empowerment of the Poor: From Concepts to Assessment’, USAID, Washington, D.C.
What does Legal Empowerment of the Poor (LEP) mean? How can it be achieved and assessed? This paper outlines LEP’s components – the enhancement, awareness, enablement and enforcement of rights. Synergies could be realised if projects pursued components simultaneously. It is difficult to address legal empowerment issues at the appropriate level: an intervention might fail because it is too superficial, or because it is too ambitious and is blocked by vested interests. However, some LEP interventions can be combined in ways that avoid losing important but risky opportunities. Indicators for assessing LEP could be divided into those which reflect efforts to deliver LEP, and those which measure its realisation.
Access full text: available online

Traditional, customary or informal justice systems also play an important role in the lives of poor people, especially in contexts where the official justice structures are largely absent or incapable. Traditional rulers, religious leaders, village elders, local elites – even illegal groups such as paramilitary or guerrilla groups that control an area – may be asked to arbitrate disputes. Such systems can be more relevant and accessible for poor people than state institutions. Where they work well, they can empower people and lead to real, local-level accountability. However, they can also reinforce local power inequities, patterns of social exclusion and human rights violations. In many contexts, women are not allowed to occupy positions of authority within these processes. It is therefore important that any support to non-state systems pays heed to issues of accessibility and equity.

Unsworth, S. (ed.), 2010, ‘An Upside Down View of Governance’, Centre for the Future State, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton
How can effective, accountable public authority be increased? This paper synthesises research findings from the Centre for the Future State. It explores how public authority is created through processes of bargaining between state and society actors, and the interaction of formal and informal institutions. Findings highlight the need for a fundamental reassessment of existing assumptions about governance and development. Informal institutions and personalised relationships are pervasive and powerful, but they can contribute to progressive as well as to regressive outcomes. Rather than focusing on rules-based reform, policymakers should consider using indirect strategies to influence local actors.
Access full text: available online

Goetz, A-M., 2007, ‘Gender Justice, Citizenship and Entitlements – Core Concepts, Central Debates and New Directions for Research’, in Gender Justice, Citizenship and Development, eds. M. Mukhopadhyay and N. Singh, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, pp. 15-57
Why have efforts at law reform and progress in exposing gender biases in formal legal systems failed to bring about gender justice? This chapter, from the International Development Research Centre’s (IDRC) book Gender Justice, Citizenship and Development, links current thinking on gender justice to debates on citizenship, entitlements, rights, law and development. It argues that equal citizenship, whilst key to the struggle for gender justice, does not guarantee it.
Access full text: available online

For further information about legal empowerment and access to justice for vulnerable groups, please see the Access to justice and Human rights, gender and social exclusion sections of the GSDRC’s Justice guide.

Forms of accountability: horizontal accountability

Horizontal accountability involves state institutions engaging in mutual scrutiny to prevent abuses of office. This can take a variety of forms. For example, judicial institutions can review the constitutionality of executive decisions; the public audit function can monitor public spending; parliamentary committees can provide government oversight; and ombudspersons or human rights commissions can investigate citizens’ complaints.

Effective legislatures

The legislature has an accountability relationship with both the executive and to citizens. The key functions of parliaments are legislation, oversight and representation, and an effective parliament is one which performs these functions in light of the wishes of citizens. To fulfill these roles effectively, parliaments require appropriate powers, committed members and adequate resources. But many parliaments in developing countries are weak and can become vehicles for ‘rubber stamping’ legislation. This leads to unaccountable executive powers and can leave a state more susceptible to autocracy and corruption.

UK Department for International Development (DFID), 2004, ‘Helping Parliaments and Legislative Assemblies to Work for the Poor’, Policy Division, DFID, UK
How can legislatures and parliaments be better at helping development and poverty reduction? How can they improve the way they perform their key constitutional roles? These guidelines from the Department for International Development are part of an international effort to address these issues.
Access full text: available online

Barken, J. at al, 2004, ‘Emerging Legislatures: Institutions of Horizontal Accountability’ in Levy, B. and Kpundeh, S. (eds.) ‘Building State Capacity in Africa: New Approaches, Emerging Lessons’, World Bank Institute, Washington, DC
The wave of political liberalisation that swept across Africa during the 1990s gave rise to an expansion of legislative authority in some countries, but not in all. What determines the nature and power of African legislatures in the context of liberalisation? This study, published by the World Bank Institute, analyses the situation in Kenya, Benin, Ghana and Senegal and suggests that the extent of the legislature’s authority is largely a function of the evolving incentive structure confronting individual members of the legislature.
Access full text: available online

For more information on this, please see the Effective Legislatures section in the GSDRC’s Political Systems guide.


The justice system is an important channel for horizontal accountability also because state entities can use legal and judicial proceedings to demand answers from and sanction other state entities.

Department for International Development, 2008, ‘Justice and Accountability’, Briefing, DFID, London
This note illustrates the relevance of justice sector reform for promoting accountability: political accountability, bottom-up participatory accountability, and accountability within the justice sector. It provides examples of DFID programmes.
Access full text: available online

Forms of accountability: social accountability

Social accountability aims to increase accountability through civic engagement, and to complement and reinforce conventional mechanisms of accountability such as political checks and balances, accounting and auditing systems, administrative rules and legal procedures. Social accountability mechanisms – such as, for example, community monitoring or public expenditure tracking – allow communities to be directly involved in monitoring government performance, generating evidence and demanding accountability. These citizen-led monitoring mechanisms have proven successful in developing and transitional countries such as India, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Uganda, in terms of improving governance institutions, relations between citizens and these institutions, and service delivery.

Ackerman, J., 2003, ‘Co-governance for Accountability: Beyond “Exit” and “Voice”’, in World Development vol. 32, no. 3, pp.447-463
How can government accountability be improved through a combined strengthening of civic participation and state engagement? This paper surveys various accountability strategies, focusing on ‘co-governance for accountability’ programmes in Brazil, Mexico, the US and India. It argues that, by giving social actors direct access to state institutions, these projects’ approaches have achieved significant pro-accountability success. Co-governance is the best way to tap into the energy of society.
Access full text: available online

Joshi, A., 2008, ‘Producing Social Accountability: The Impact of Service Delivery Reforms’, IDS Bulletin, vol. 38, no. 6, pp. 10-17
Which types of state reform improve public services and citizen engagement? 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.
Access full text: available online

Social accountability mechanisms are, however, predominantly information-based and are most suitable for enhancing the capacity of already informed publics to articulate their needs and interests. They are less well designed to engage marginalised communities which have neither the confidence nor the skills to make their voices heard. In this sense, social accountability needs to consider not just ‘power over’ – as in the state’s power over its subjects – but also collective conceptions of ‘power with’ and ‘power to’ – that is, citizens’ ability to work with one another to collectively demand change, responsiveness and accountability.

Effective social accountability approaches seem to therefore require two key elements: 1) capacity among citizens and civil society organisations to monitor government and service providers; and 2) an effective information and communication system which acts as a ‘feedback mechanism’ between the state and citizens.

Agarwal, S. Heltberg, R. and Diachok, M., 2009, ‘Scaling up Social Accountability in World Bank Operations’, Social Development Department, World Bank, Washington D.C.
What are the lessons from piloting and scaling up social accountability approaches in development projects supported by the World Bank? Findings suggest that social accountability holds considerable promise for achieving better governance and service delivery. However, the World Bank needs to focus more on areas such as such as linking the supply and demand sides of governance, upgrading staff skills, improving monitoring and evaluation, increasing the evidence base, and expanding external partnerships to create coalitions for change.
Access full text: available online

CommGAP, 2007, ‘Generating Genuine Demand with Social Accountability Mechanisms’, workshop report, Communication for Governance and Accountability Program, (CommGAP), World Bank, Washington, D.C.
What factors contribute to the success or failure of Social Accountability (SA) initiatives? This paper reports on a 2007 workshop organised by the World Bank’s Communication for Governance and Accountability Program. It examines what works in: (1) analysing the public sphere and political context; (2) gaining official support for the use of SA tools; (3) informing citizens; (4) mobilising citizen activism; and (5) achieving behaviour change in public officials through public opinion.
Access full text: available online

Citizen-driven accountability tools in use

There are various mechanisms for empowering citizens to participate in the delivery of public services. These include participatory budgeting, public expenditure tracking, social audits, community score cards, and participatory monitoring and evaluation. Citizen-led initiatives are particularly well developed in the area of budget processes.

The World Bank, n.d., ‘From Shouting to Counting: A New Frontier in Social Development’, The World Bank, Washington D.C.
Access full text: available online

McNeil, M., and Mumvana, T., 2006, ‘Demanding Good Governance: A Stocktaking of Social Accountability Initiatives by Civil Society in Anglophone Africa’, Community Empowerment and Social Learning Program, World Bank Institute, Washington D.C.
This report reviews civil society-initiated social accountability practices in the public budgetary process of 10 Anglophone African countries. It finds that, while the practice of social accountability in these countries is still in its infancy, demand for it is high. However, the staff of civil society organisations need greater technical skills. They need to be able to develop and implement innovative and credible tools and methodologies to give weight to the results of social accountability initiatives. Capacity building is therefore crucial.
Access full text: available online

Arroyo D., and Sirker K., 2005, ‘Stocktaking of Social Accountability Initiatives in the Asia and Pacific Region’, World Bank Institute Community Empowerment and Social Inclusion Learning Program, Washington, D.C.
What can be learned from social accountability initiatives in the Asia and Pacific region? This World Bank report summarises a review of such initiatives. It finds that social accountability tools are not confined to the public expenditure management cycle, and that initiatives that use advocacy and information strategies are more successful than those that do not. While governments sometimes take the lead in promoting accountability, different groups involved in social accountability mechanisms can link together in advocacy chains to hold the state accountable for pro-poor service delivery. Ultimately, government and civil society must collaborate.
Access full text: available online

Ramkumar, V., 2008, ‘Our Money, Our Responsibility: A Citizen’s Guide to Monitoring Public Expenditures’, International Budget Project, Washington D.C.
This guide looks the work of organisations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It argues that civil society organisations have many opportunities to monitor budget implementation. Strategies include creating new monitoring methodologies and collaborating with the legislative branch on oversight. A wide variety of organisations around the world have had an impact on budget execution. Their success should inspire others.
Access full text: available online

Sundet, G., 2004, ‘Public Expenditure and Service Delivery Monitoring in Tanzania: Some International Best Practices and a Discussion of Present and Planned Tanzanian Initiatives’, Working Paper no. 7, HakiElimu, Dar es Salaam
How effectively have initiatives to enable public service users to monitor government expenditure and service delivery worked in practice? How can service users’ oversight of government programmes be improved? This paper surveys the various instruments for enabling communities to monitor and provide feedback on the public services they use. It argues that a co-operative relationship needs to be established between government and civil society to strengthen monitoring and governance.
Access full text: available online

Singh, R and Vutukuru, V., 2010, ‘Enhancing Accountability in Public Service Delivery through Social Audits: A Case Study of Andhra Pradesh’, Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
Access full text: available online

McNamara, B. 2006, ‘Provider-Specific Report Cards: A Tool for Health Sector Accountability in Developing Countries’, Health Policy and Planning, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 101-109
Access full text: available online

Additional resources

More information on tools for participatory governance can be found on the CIVICUS’ Participatory Governance Programme website, PG Exchange.