Analytic Overview of Essays on Transparency and Accountability

11 May 2016

By Thomas Carothers

The author is Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, D.C. The following article, reprinted with permission, sums up 18 articles commissioned by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, a consortium of funders. References in this article are to the contributions by other authors. The entire collection is here.

Second-Generation Guideposts

Although the contributors to this exercise range widely in their contributions across the domain of transparency and accountability work, a number of overarching ideas and themes appear in many of their essays. Taken together, these ideas and themes can be understood as basic guideposts of what might be called a “second generation” approach to T&A, one that the contributors believe should replace the core features of T&A work during its initial surge. It is not clear whether the assumed elements of the first generation approach were ever in fact quite as present as the analyses suggest—as with most sets of “second generation” recommendations in policy analysis, some tendency exists toward portraying the first generation as having been more simplistic than it probably was in practice. Yet setting up the two contrasting frameworks nevertheless provides a useful overview:

First Generation Second Generation
Inadequate attention to particularities of local contexts Deeper understanding of local contexts
Short-term projects Longer-term, more iterative, “organic” engagements
Blanket assumption re value of transparency More focus on how transparency translates into accountability
Fascination with technological tools; treating them as ends in themselves Viewing technological tools as means, not ends; experimenting with multiple tools
Act first, learn later Greater attention to accumulating and applying learning
Tactical aims Strategic approaches
Small-scale, fragmented efforts Building larger movements and coalitions

Beyond these general imperatives, the contributors’ recommendations span four principal categories: (1) recommended research; (2) new linkages; (3) improved methods; and (4) new substantive areas.

Recommended Research

The contributors put forward many ideas regarding further research.

A core idea mentioned by several authors is the need for more research on how precisely transparency in different issue areas and contexts translates into accountability. The authors emphasize that there may not be an overarching answer to this central question, but rather many different answers that activists and funders will have to grasp and incorporate. De Renzio frames this broadly, “There is still a need for coordinated support for research that can advance serious learning throughout the sector, and bring it together in an intelligent way.” Glencorse describes it as the need for understanding “pathways for change” and notes that the frequent emphasis on theories of change has led to “linear mental models.” Adaptive learning is useful, he comments, “but we still tend to test singular assumptions.”

Some of the writers emphasize the need for more research on particular kinds of contexts for transparency and accountability work. Chayes for example highlights what she believes is a serious lack of detailed understanding of kleptocratic systems in the many countries where they appear. She argues that such understanding is critical to effective work in such contexts, yet is frequently seen by external actors as being too sensitive to pursue. De Renzio stresses the need for greater understanding of how transparency and accountability play out in authoritarian contexts.

Other contributors highlight the need for more research on certain elements of the commonly assumed causal chain in accountability work. Devarajan for example notes how the “voice link” is crucial to effective accountability, yet is often not really understood in practice. The voice link involves not just the ability of citizens to use information in holding politicians accountable, but other issues, such as the role of norms in determining how politicians respond to pressure from citizens. He notes that research on the voice link inevitably raises highly political questions, and is thus avoided by multilateral organizations that try to stay clear of explicitly political work. Fung similarly highlights the need for work on how reform-mindedness arises among officials and other power holders: “The T&A field would benefit from a sharper understanding of the political dynamics that make some officials and government organizations favor transparency policies and motivated to implement them rigorously.”

Another major research suggestion comes from Flores who contends that most T&A research is the result of “top-down initiatives by donors and academic researchers.” There is a strong need in his view for donors to support the development of a strategic research agenda that would be jointly developed by practitioners and researchers.


Many of the authors point to the need for more linkages to be forged in T&A work. In some cases, the recommended linkages are within the domain of T&A actors. In other cases, they are between T&A actors, and actors outside the standard T&A field.

Recommended linkages to be strengthened or developed within the field:

  • Ties among different actors working on social audits in diverse parts of the world (Dey/Roy)
  • A global discussion platform for activists across different regions, “To ensure that even small T&A efforts in different parts of the world are understood and shared in a community of practitioners from around the world” (Dey/Roy)
  • Common space for motivated policymakers from different national contexts to connect with each other (Weinstein)
  • Bringing different T&A initiatives (such as OGP, EITI, International Aid Transparency Initiative, and GIFT) together around specific concerns, encouraging joint activities among them (de Renzio)

Recommended linkages to be strengthened or developed between the T&A field and others:

  • Ties between the T&A field and the SDG community, to help show SDG-focused actors how T&A can contribute across all of the SDGs (Flores)
  • Doing more to bring private sector actors into T&A efforts and processes (Glencorse, Scott)
  • Connecting T&A concerns to the civil society domain more generally—making it a feature of all civil society development work rather than allowing it to be seen as a specialized sector of civil society work (Hosein)

Improved Methods

Many contributors suggest possible improved methods in T&A work.

A starting point for many discussions of methods is the need for better context analysis by funders and practitioners. Glencorse for example argues that “the T&A field still lacks a real, highly ethnographical approach to context . . . and a rigorous, deeply nuanced understanding of the relationships and incentives that lead to behaviors within a specific political space.” Pritchett warns that in its focus on tangible outputs and markers, T&A work is neglecting deeper contextual issues, such as why service providers are not doing their job. For Lipovsek, getting more contextual “means focusing on the subnational level, customizing initiatives more and worrying less about external validity, seriously understanding local political realities, history, and geography.”

Following this, some writers stress the need for better theories of change. Fung notes that all T&A efforts explicitly or implicitly suppose that if more information is made publicly available, someone will use that information to attempt some social, political, or economic improvement. He urges that “across the field, it become standard practice to immediately articulate, in every single effort, who that someone is.”

O’Brien goes further into the need to do more to ensure that citizens act on the information that becomes available. Overcoming the “rational ignorance” of citizens is crucial, he notes, and he posits ways around it, such as better translation of data into relevant forms.

On how to get greater traction on accountability, several authors call for increased attention to the building of pro-accountability coalitions or movements. Weinstein for example says that an essential next step is concentrating on how transparency efforts can be used to “contribute to broad-based, issue-focused coalitions that energize key actors.” Arguing that T&A efforts “are frequently disparate and fail to cohere,” Glencorse says that “accountability must be understood as a generational movement that will require long-term, collective, and often nonlinear support.”

Fox takes the idea of coalitions or movements one step further, advocating that more attention be paid not just to greater horizontal linking up among actors but to vertical integration of T&A efforts: “Coordinated civil society policy monitoring and advocacy, to leverage the power shifts that local, subnational, national, and transnational levels necessary to produce sustainable institutional change.”

Two authors present other broad ideas for changed methods. Lipovsek calls for greater work at the subnational level, where traction may be more possible. Golooba-Mutebi argues that international actors are often intent on near-term, narrowly defined gains, and as a result neglect “the broader task of helping promote a culture of transparency and accountability.” Public education campaigns through media, as well as strategic litigation to compel officials to provide access to information, are two ways he suggests that donors can do this.

Suggestions regarding methods also concern the realm of monitoring and evaluation. Several authors urge funders not to let monitoring and evaluation methods (as opposed to learning from monitoring and evaluation) shape program design and implementation. More generally, Lipovsek urges funders to apply transparency and accountability norms and practices to themselves.

New Areas

Various contributors suggest new areas that T/AI could take up. Some of these are relatively specific issues:

  • Gelb outlines the important spread of new citizen identification programs in developing countries and notes that there has been little systematic work on the T&A implications of these systems. He recommends “a concerted initiative to take advantage of new technology to enhance the transparency of service delivery through a multidonor . . . initiative.”
  • Scott urges T/AI to develop a role helping grow markets for gov-tech: “T/AI can work from the top down to encourage government to be an anchor tenant in gov-tech markets, and it can work bottom-up to showcase homegrown talent.”
  • Hosein highlights how states and industry are increasingly relying on complex technological systems using algorithms and vast amounts of data, yet it is not clear who is holding these systems to account. He advocates a role for T/AI work to help create the analytic and legal foundations for investigating such systems.
  • Brautigam suggests that funders look for ways to help ensure quality of new streams of data becoming available through transparency work: “It may be time to go beyond data proliferation and support the establishment of a set of guidelines or standards, perhaps combined with a peer review system, for ‘grading’ the data used for accountability.”
  • Scott identifies public blockchain technologies as a promising new data platform for gov-tech that T&A funders should be paying attention to.
  • Dey and Roy note the need for figuring out better ways to mediate the tension between the accountability imperative and the independence of some state institutions, such as independent commissions.

Other ideas for new areas of work point to very broad areas of engagement:

  • De Renzio identifies climate finance as an emerging area of global debate where more attention to T&A would be warranted.
  • He also points to the regulation of global finance or global inequality as areas that “could also benefit from more debate around how the production and dissemination of information could shift the balance of power and help generate mechanisms for holding powerful actors to account.”
  • Brautigam advocates more attention to and engagement with China on transparency and accountability issues, arguing that there is much to be learned from the parallel experiences of engaging China on corporate social responsibility and environmental protection.
  • Barder advises that T&A funders concentrate on the policies of industrialized countries that affect T&A, such as information on company ownership and taxation, cross-border payments for mineral rights, and international open data standards.
  • Dey and Roy recommend greater funder focus on expanding the use of T&A platforms by the poor and marginalized.


1 See Archon Fung, “Infotopia: Unleashing the Power of Democratic Transparency,” Politics and Society 41, no. 2 (June 2013): 183–212.

2 For related reflections, see Stephen Kosack and Archon Fung, “Does Transparency Improve Governance?,” Annual Review of Political Science 17 (2014): 65–87.

3 An extended discussion of users in the context of transparency in advanced industrial countries can be found in: Archon Fung, Mary Graham, and David Weil, Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). The challenges facing individual and organizational users are obviously different in developing country contexts.

4 See Archon Fung, Hollie Russon Gilman, and Jennifer Shkabatur, “Six Models for the Internet + Politics,” International Studies Review 15, no. 1 (March 2013): 30–47.


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