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When and how citizen engagement can improve social protection programme delivery


Social protection schemes are often implemented in contexts characterised by weak accountability of government officials to citizens. Strengthening accountability is important to ensure the quality delivery of social protection and to build better relations between citizens and the state. One way of strengthening accountability is through increased involvement of citizens in social protection programme monitoring, writes Rasmus Schjoedt.

Social accountability initiatives – aimed at empowering citizens to hold officials to account – can be a useful complement to more conventional accountability mechanisms. Most social protection programmes have some social accountability mechanism in place, at least on paper. In particular, grievance redress mechanisms and community monitoring committees are very widespread. However, the use of structured collective social accountability mechanisms, such as social audits, community score cards and citizen report cards have so far been much less common.

We carried out a research project funded by the UK Government to explore whether, how and when, social accountability mechanisms in social protection programmes can strengthen service delivery and state-society relations.

To aid our research, we adapted a conceptual framework from the World Bank book Opening the Black Box: the Contextual Drivers of Social Accountability’, which can be found in Figure 1 below. This framework breaks down the social accountability concept into two elements: citizen action and state action. How these two elements interact is mediated by three ‘levers’: the level of information held by citizens; the degree of civic mobilisation; and, to what extent an interface exists to bring citizens and state actors together.

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Figure 1: Conceptual framework for analysing social accountability in social protection













We explored the interaction of these elements in relation to social protection programmes through a comprehensive literature review, field research in Nepal, Ethiopia and South Africa and a desk-based study of India. We found evidence of positive effects but some significant limitations.

Despite the proliferation of grievance redress mechanisms in social protection programmes, there is little evidence of their impact. Inconsistencies in the way data is recorded – for example, what constitutes a ‘complaint’ and what it means that a grievance has been ‘resolved’ – means that their effectiveness is difficult to measure.

One of the few cases of collective social accountability mechanisms being used at scale is the use of social audits in the Indian public works programme MGNREGA, mainly in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

The effectiveness of these audits is largely a case of glass half full/half empty. There is evidence of an increase in the number of work days generated, improvements in the provision of work site facilities and identification of cases of labour-related corruption; but, on the other hand, corruption seems to largely have just shifted to less visible forms and officials are rarely punished for transgressions.

In Ethiopia, our case study suggests community scorecards piloted through the Ethiopia Social Accountability Program have had some positive impacts for recipients in the Productive Safety Net Programme. They have contributed to better aligning local service delivery with established procedures and standards and to curbing abuses by local officials. On the other hand, there are many issues that they have not been effective at addressing.

Based on the literature review and case studies, we are able to draw out the following key findings:

  • Social protection programme design can constrain or facilitate social accountability. Eligibility criteria that are not transparent, complex calculations of benefit levels and the use of conditions, ‘graduation’ or quotas, all pose barriers for accountability. Social accountability mechanisms can mitigate, but not entirely make up for the challenges posed by a design that constrains accountability. So, rather than conceiving of social accountability as add-on, stand-alone interventions, social protection programmes should be designed to facilitate accountability.
  • There is no blueprint for successful social accountability in social protection: design needs to be grounded in contextual analysis. Given that social accountability is essentially a political process, the design of any intervention to support it needs to be strongly informed by the context within which it operates. This suggest the need for an exploratory approach to design and implementation, grounded in local analysis and with strong monitoring, learning and evaluation alongside.
  • Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 15.24.23
    State action is often the missing link in social accountability initiatives

    State response is frequently the weak link in efforts to promote social accountability. There is a need for much more attention to the factors promoting or hindering state responsiveness. A recent paper by Joshi and McCluskey provides a useful framework for more analysis of this area.

  • Efforts to support social accountability need to take account of the level where social protection programming decisions are taken: a common problem is that social accountability mechanisms are locally bounded, whereas decision making in social protection programmes is often very centralised, even when implementation is decentralised. So, in most contexts, citizen concerns about social protection programmes straddle issues under both local and national control, meaning that social accountability mechanisms need to become much better at linking local and higher levels (regional, national etc., as appropriate) in order to be effective.
  • Different types of citizen concern can best be addressed through different types of social accountability mechanisms. Grievance redress mechanisms have tended to be the default social accountability mechanism for social protection programmes, but are poorly suited to addressing many of the challenges. A suite of mechanisms – both individual and collective – with each adapted to addressing a particular set of challenges, are needed for success.
  • Social accountability is not a panacea: other accountability mechanisms are better at addressing certain issues. Social accountability should be seen as just one element of an integrated approach to accountability in the social protection sector, which also involves top-down controls. The value-added of social accountability is mainly in relation to issues that are highly salient to citizens in the target group.
  • While intermediaries can play useful roles, relying on them too much risks excluding many people. The available evidence suggests a strong preference on the part of marginalised citizens for face-to-face interfaces with service providers; but this preference is coupled with various time, logistical and economic constraints to participation that are particularly acute for people living in poverty. Access to intermediaries is itself gendered and often lower for those experiencing social exclusion. Social accountability initiatives should invest more in reaching marginalised citizens directly with key information on entitlements.
  • Improved basic monitoring and documentation of social accountability initiatives will be key to enhanced learning about what works. Without improvements in the generally weak documentation and monitoring of social accountability in social protection, it will continue to be difficult to draw specific evidence-based conclusions about what works. To strengthen social accountability to marginalised citizens, disaggregation of monitoring data by gender, disability and other context-specific dimensions of social exclusion will be important.

You can find the final report by clicking here. The findings will be discussed in seminars starting in London on the morning of 20th February. 






















Rasmus Schjoedt is a Social Policy Specialist with Development Pathways, currently based in Kampala and managing Development Pathways' programmes in Uganda. He is interested in the political economy of social protection programmes, especially how local power relations influence implementation.
Rasmus Schjoedt is a Social Policy Specialist with Development Pathways, interested in the political economy of social protection programmes, especially how local power relations influence implementation.


  • THanks Rasmus for this information. Are you familiar with World Vision Social Accounbility approach called Citizen Voice and Action? it involves direct input from the community themselves via focus group scorecards, monitoring standards comparison, then face to face in an interface meeting with the service providers and decision makers. These reflections are useful. Thank you 🙂 Natasha Tamplin (World Vision Australia)

  • Hi Rana, thank you very much! I am happy you like the report. Hope all is well in Bangladesh? We are not printing this report (it is rather long!), so I hope you can make do with the electronic version. We will also soon have a Guidance Note ready, which you might find interesting – it will provide some more practical recommendations for how to implement social accountability in social protection. Best, Rasmus


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