Accountability in the public sector: what data alone can’t do

Have you heard of that recent data-driven initiative that will revolutionise the way you think about your business systems, your shopping experiences, your home, or even your bodies? Most of you reading this probably have, and you will also know that the public sector is no stranger to this agenda.

Screen with data
Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

More and more information-driven initiatives promise to change forever how public administration is performing for its constituents. The promise is attractive, but some public sector change-management programmes overplay the importance of data by presenting it as a panacea even in some of the more complicated environments.

I had the chance to work on a few programmes aimed at strengthening horizontal accountability to improve performance in the health sector in low and lower-middle income countries. I was surprised to find that most of them conceptualised accountability exclusively through the lens of data availability. In some cases, it was a poor conceptual delimitation of ‘accountability’, which is one of the most misused terms in international development. In other cases though, it was more problematic as the implementers of the change programmes hypothesised that they would strengthen accountability when data is made available, and government employees access it and use it for decision-making. I believe the second assumption requires careful consideration, because data availability alone is almost never sufficient to improve accountability.

In some of the programmes I evaluated, it was commonly assumed that setting up a system to collect the data and manage it, followed by training employees to obtain and use the data, would lead to a more accountable public service delivery system and better performance. In reality, these inputs managed, at best, to improve the data management process with high-quality information about the performance of the system. Information is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition to strengthening accountability.

Other elements are just as essential to creating the foundation for an accountable public sector, even if they are sometimes overlooked. The basics of (horizontal) accountability require data about the performance of the system, but also clarity on what success looks like, control over the processes and a credible system of sanctions and rewards. A clear definition of success and a clear mandate are critical to any change-management process, even more so for those that aim to improve accountability with defined roles, responsibilities, and supervision arrangements. This can be a challenge in significant programmes that involve several levels of government across an entire state, and especially in hierarchical public administrations where success is usually subject to whatever one’s superior considers “a success”. 

Clarity and information, without control over the process of delivery, will also invariably lead to poor outcomes. When responsibilities are defined, they need to be matched by the required level of power to control the inputs, the process and, to the extent possible, the outcomes of the endeavours. In one project, I noticed that the facility-level employees were held accountable for the adequate staffing of their centre, but they had no control over the recruitment or allocation of staff. On the other hand, state-level decision-makers had the power to do so, but took no responsibility.

Finally, yet importantly, accountability needs to be enforced credibly. For any system to change, it requires feedback mechanisms that suggest if the actions are acceptable. Designing appropriate sanctions and rewards for public servants, and applying these indiscriminately, can influence behaviours. Nevertheless, this is one of the weakest points to many of the programmes mentioned above, mainly because it requires the most significant investment of political capital and authority.

Beyond the foundational elements, influencing the working culture is key to ensuring sustainability. Putting in place the four elements simultaneously will only set the basis for accountability, but will not guarantee its durability. Some programmes manage to make significant changes in all these areas in a short timeframe, but their viability depends on longer-term engagement that affects the working culture. In this case, sustainability depends on the success to embed the protocols and formal rules into the day-to-day working culture.

For instance, I worked on establishing and evaluating of a few technical support units (or delivery units) that promoted tools and approaches for improving performance on specific targets, and ultimately accountability within the government. These institutional setups have proven to be highly effective in achieving specific targets set by the political principals, but they have less to show regarding building sustainable accountability systems. I learned that one cause (among others) for the short-lived ‘performance’ of the public sector was that the focus on protocols and targets overrode the focus on behaviours. The fascination with targets incentivised bureaucrats around the world to develop shortcuts that cut through the red tape and show progress fast. For this reason, achieving targets is not necessarily a measure of success for ‘performance’ or ‘accountability’ in the government, but at most a smart way to show results on specific indicators in a short time. When some of these targets are revisited, for example after a change in government or political leadership, the ‘old ways’ of working that preceded them kick back in, and the performance improvements dissipate.

To sum up, improving data availability, quality, and management and claiming these to strengthen accountability is like feeding your old family car with Formula 1-grade engine oil and then expecting to win the F1 Driver’s Championship with it – granted, one may even make the podium in one or two races, but soon enough the inherent limitations of the car will derail one’s ambitions. There is value in investing in data availability, but there is also a risk that making unachievable promises will distract the attention from more difficult but necessary interventions.

Alexandra Nastase is an alumna of the University of Oxford, Blavatnik School of Government (Master of Public Policy, Class of 2015). She is a senior public governance specialist, working on the implementation and evaluation of public sector change programmes in Eastern Africa, South Asia, and Europe. 

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