Information for accountability: Transparency and citizen engagement for improved service delivery in education systems

There is a wide consensus among policymakers and practitioners that while access to education has improved significantly for many children in low- and middle-income countries, learning has not kept pace. A large amount of research that has attempted to pinpoint the reasons behind this quality deficit in education has revealed that providing extra resources such as textbooks, learning materials, and infrastructure is largely ineffective in improving learning outcomes at the system level without accompanying changes to the underlying structures of education service delivery and associated systems of accountability.

Information is a key building block of a wide range of strategies that attempts to tackle weaknesses in service delivery and accountability at the school level, even where political systems disappoint at the national level. The dissemination of more and better quality information is expected to empower parents and communities to make better decisions in terms of their children’s schooling and to put pressure on school administrators and public officials for making changes that improve learning and learning environments. This theory of change underpins both social accountability and open data initiatives, which are designed to use information to enhance accountability and thereby influence education delivery.

This report seeks to extract insight into the nuanced relationship between information and accountability, drawing upon a vast literature on bottom-up efforts to improve service delivery, increase citizen engagement, and promote transparency, as well as case studies in Australia, Moldova, Pakistan, and the Philippines. In an effort to clarify processes and mechanisms behind information-based reforms in the education sector, this report also categorizes and evaluates recent impact evaluations according to the intensity of interventions and their target change agents—parents, teachers, school principals, and local officials. The idea here is not just to help clarify what works but why reforms work (or do not).

While a select number of initiatives have reduced corruption; improved managerial, parental, and teacher effort; and led to more efficient targeting of reforms and resources at the school level, it is clear that these limited successes are context-specific and difficult to replicate. Certain enabling conditions are required to facilitate the meaningful engagement of citizens, or improved decisionmaking and targeting of reforms by policymakers.

In the absence of latent demand and ability, infomediaries—the media, civil society organizations (CSOs), research groups, and the like—must be available to collect, translate, and communicate information in actionable ways.

Political actors must be motivated to release data and respond to demands for reform as well as have the capacity and capability to take action or change behavior. Conversely, citizens and communities must have the interest and capacity to access, understand, and act based on available information. In the absence of latent demand and ability, infomediaries—the media, civil society organizations (CSOs), research groups, and the like—must be available to collect, translate, and communicate information in actionable ways. Independent of their role as translators, infomediaries can also place pressure on governments and providers to open data and engage in the reform process. Technological considerations, such as the affordability, availability, accessibility, and appropriateness of information platforms, as well as the legislative and regulatory environment, must also be taken into account in assessing whether fertile ground exists for information-based initiatives to take hold and result in improvements in service delivery.

Even under the best of circumstances, however, information is not guaranteed to stimulate citizen action and improve systems of accountability. In designing information-based reforms, strategies must take three things into account: data quality and availability; digital and societal divides; and tension among stakeholders.

First, a simple but critical point is that transparent data systems are only as strong as the source data. Efforts must be made to institute structured and timely data systems to fill large data gaps and ensure that data are available and trustworthy. Most important, though, data must be usable, meaning that they are in a format that allows for comparison, either in relation to set standards or among different contexts, and that they are sufficiently disaggregated and valuable, in that the information can be tied to a decisionmaking or accountability mechanism (for example, data on expenditures rather than budgets).

Second, interventions must take into account and mitigate digital and societal divides that could result in adverse effects—empowering the already empowered, teaching to the test, misrepresenting data, and burdening the marginalized who can ill afford to divert time away from generating their livelihood. Additionally, information-based initiatives are susceptible to triggering individual actions at the expense of collective action, which may undermine, rather than strengthen, education systems. For instance, if parents take action by moving their children into better-performing schools, this does not support improvements in struggling schools and may actually cause them additional harm. It cannot be assumed that citizen priorities are in line with interests of front-line providers, or even national policies.

Third, the locations of transparency and accountability reforms must be aligned with points of decisionmaking and responsibility. This means that reforms cannot be aimed at the school level without taking into account vertical integration with local and national bureaucratic institutions, where key decisions on funding allocations, teacher hiring, and curriculum are often made. Moreover, information-based reforms targeted directly to parents must ensure that functioning response and feedback systems are in place or that sufficient choice exists among schooling options.

Findings from this report support a number of key takeaways:

  1. Information is not enough. This systematic review echoes existing literature in finding that information alone is rarely sufficient to activate collective action or impel response from service providers. Instead, information must be made actionable through certain processes, such as interventions that change the capabilities or incentives of front-line providers or that empower parents with direct pathways or tools to use information.
  2. What information is captured and how it is shared matters. Information needs to be user-centered to empower its audience, meaning that information must be targeted in a way that users perceive it as both useful and actionable. This highlights the importance of selecting not only the appropriate indicators—whether on inputs or outputs—but also the most appropriate format—whether the information reflects official standards or is placed in relation to similar contexts (for example, schools in close proximity or with similar socio-economic environments). The correct choice depends on the targeted audience and assumed channels of change.
  3. The use of infomediaries is vital. In cases where the ability of citizens to understand, process, and act on published information is constrained, intermediaries—for example, the media, CSOs, researchers, and information and communications technology (ICT) organizations—may strengthen capabilities by translating and communicating information so it is more actionable for end users. These “infomediaries” play an especially important role when the use of technology to disseminate information, such as on internet platforms, creates vast digital and data divides. Beyond making data actionable by end users, infomediaries also play a vital role in articulating demand for data, in working with governments to supply open data and engage in the reform process, and even in collecting and disseminating data on their own.
  4. Dissemination tools are as important as the source data. New technologies for transparency and accountability initiatives are wide-ranging and generate a lot of excitement—examples include social media platforms, text messaging, cloud services, tablets, mobile apps, and web interfaces. However, this should not imply that older means of communication are no longer useful. Just as information must be targeted effectively to ensure uptake, so, too, must the vehicle of dissemination be carefully considered. A key first step in the design of information for accountability initiatives is testing the means of communication for its appropriateness for intended users.
  5. Pathways to change may be nonlinear. Often, ICTs are assumed to be disruptive tools that radically alter existing accountability relationships and processes. However, recent research suggests that so-called home runs—interventions that unleash a dramatic increase in accountability—are rare. Evidence shows that successful open data and social accountability initiatives build on existing formal or informal accountability practices. These insights stress the importance of working “with the grain” of embedded accountability relationships and with a deep understanding of complex political dimensions.
  6. Location matters. Transparency and accountability reforms must take into consideration the location(s) of decisionmaking and availability of resources, particularly in relation to local bureaucratic institutions, to reinforce efforts at the point of delivery. As such, localized efforts must be integrated vertically, so that there is two-way communication between local actors and information and central resources and authority, rather than a strictly horizontal approach that prioritizes replication over integration.

A more positive, systemwide impact on education and learning (rather than localized effects) will likely require that demand-side interventions are complemented and reinforced by internal accountability mechanisms within the bureaucracy that rely on evidence-based policymaking and strong feedback loops. There is clearly room to build on lessons learned from social accountability interventions to improve their impact—by linking information to specific paths of action; thoughtfully targeting the appropriate type of data to the relevant actor and location of responsibility; empowering infomediaries; and working with the grain of existing accountability mechanisms. But the delivery of quality education for all depends just as much on the capacity and willingness of governments to assess reform options and trade-offs as they respond to increased citizen engagement.

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