Searching for that elusive public agency

The citizen-state contract and its forms has been talked and written about for centuries. As the saying goes, nothing is new under the sun -- but recently, much has been made of social accountability, that is, the extent and capability of citizens to hold the state accountable and make it responsive to their needs. In fact at a recent global event on the topic, the keynote speaker noted that social accountability is, so far, the defining concept in 21st century governance talk. Well the century is young, but one could be optimistic.   

At Twaweza in East Africa we have focused on social accountability from the organization’s start. At first, we worked exclusively on inspiring citizen agency: we would provide information and inspiration as the tools, and citizens would figure out what was the best path to action. In the years since, we learned that we under-estimated entrenched power and political dynamics which overshadow citizen and civil society capacity to act and which cannot be overturned by information alone; we also learned that we must engage constructively with the existing power structures, craft the path through the thick relationships, and build alliances carefully. After all, a functional and responsive state is an essential component of the ecosystem we envision. Along the way, it also became (obviously) clear that neither “citizens” nor “state” are monolithic and that subtle differentiation is needed to understand any specific group or actor’s roles and behaviors, and the opportunities for and barriers to changing these.   

Coming around to the idea that it’s the social contract that needs to be enhanced (not just the strength of a particular faction), our work now focuses on improving real opportunities for citizens to engage, and promoting constructive responsiveness from public authorities (with relevant differentiation according to the specific problem we are working on). We are calling this public agency: spaces and processes in which citizens and authorities jointly shape decisions for the future of their communities and countries.

We were able to really learn these insights – i.e., use them to re-define our strategy, our programming – because we believe intensive learning from success and failure, both big and small, is really the only honest way to engage in development work where we aspire to big goals and spend other people’s money to get there. You can find a succinct summary of our lessons learned in the front pages of our strategy document. That document also shows our revised theory of change, where public agency occupies the “sweet spot” in the overlap of the top three long-term goals we say we will contribute to. But drawing the picture is one thing, turning it into practice is another. This brief paper describes the first phase of taking public agency from theoretical to practical in our work in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. 

Read the full report

The paper was informed by fieldwork in the three countries during our 2016 Annual Immersion.

Read more: Citizen Agency



You might also like...