Adrianna Algarin Castillo
“For things to remain the same, everything must change“
I am currently at the end of my first year as a doctoral researcher at INLOGOV where I am researching the implementation of social accountability, understood as a relationship between citizens and representatives, in Colombia. Social accountability entered into the public discourse at Colombian national level in early 2000. From there, its implementation at the local level has been promoted, with public audiences as one of the means to do so. Despite the law, policy and guidelines promote social accountability as a relationship that requires information, dialogue and incentives. Governments rely heavily on public hearings or audiences as the means to operationalise social accountability but these activities can feel like tick box exercises. The public audience methodology is criticised because the format tends to be unidirectional, with officials presenting information through monologues in a technical and complex language. The events therefore arguably enable accountability to be demonstrated at a superficial level but with no real accountability in place.
For example, earlier this year (April), Barranquilla Mayor’s Office organised several sectoral meetings and a big public hearing to give account to citizens about its 2017 performance. Since 1998, when the law made public audiences mandatory, most local governments (and public authorities for that matter) use this space to provide information about what they did the previous year. The public audience acts as big public meeting where mayors invite councillors, programme beneficiaries and citizens to present their most important accomplishments. The exercise has been criticised because instead of working as a space for deliberation, mutual engagement and citizen participation, it has been used as a stage where public officials present what is convenient for their image. Thus, citizens do not get a real opportunity to engage with their representatives and hold their public officials accountable.
This way of presenting information hampers citizens’ ability to engage with and reflect on public performance, and reward or sanction representatives. For example, a 2018 hearing took more than three hours in which one by one, different officials of the Mayor´s Office presented the achievements of 2017. Because of time constraints there are no in depth explanations of what has been done or not. Curiously, being such a long event, most public’s focus is lost after the first hour. This occurs even when an annual report was shared beforehand on the Mayor’s Office website; a person attending the event may expect the report to be mentioned or go deeper into it. However, who accesses those spaces (the website and the public audience) may not be the same people.
Reflecting upon this, several analysts (academics and Civil Society Organisations) suggested that rather than holding just one big audience, smaller meetings should also be held by sector. So when this year, local government decided to go with this new strategy, the change was welcomed by CSOs who saw it as an opportunity for Barranquilla’s government to have meaningful engagement with citizens and consequently, to be accountable. Moreover, not everyone cares about the same topic. Some want to know more about culture programs, others about how much was invested in infrastructure, or why a park was constructed in x neighbourhood and not y. However, old habits endured even with the new format. The meetings were still unidirectional, with handpicked guests and without deliberation or discussion. What is more, the big public audience then became a show where public officials no longer presented information or explanation but instead where beneficiaries of programs just thanked the Mayor for what he had done in the past year.
Thus, despite the innovation -which by itself is an advance- the main problems with public audiences (big one or by sector) as a space to operationalise social accountability remain. First, the information shared beforehand does not say much about what it is that government did in the past year and therefore undermines citizens’ capacity to question it. Second, participants are handpicked and an open call to attend the meeting is deficient because is not properly advertised (among others), so instead of actively participating citizens, the meetings are more an applause committee. Third, the unidirectional focus and the use of the space to celebrate what governments consider its achievements without self-reflection and critique on what can be done better undermine their democratic and representative character.
What I have learned so far is that governments are not enthusiastic about providing information or providing explanation, when it means discussing failure or error. Nevertheless, as much as we expect representatives to be accountable, we have to hold them accountable as well. I know it takes more than the desire or will to do so. Active and meaningful citizen participation and social control also depend on context, opportunity and capacity. Still, in the context of Colombia, where the law places the responsibility of social accountability on governments, more needs to be done for them to foster a meaningful, engaging a permanent accountability relationship with citizens.
Adriana Algarin C. is a Doctoral Researcher at the Institute of Local Government (University of Birmingham). She also has experience as a research assistant at Universidad del Norte (Colombia) and her research interests include social accountability, local governance and political representation.
All views reflected on this blog are those of the author(s) and not those of INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.