Can Citizens Act Effectively as Watchdogs?


Governments and international donors have long struggled to ensure accountability in large projects where patronage, inefficiency or outright corruption can lead to misallocation of resources and funds. One innovation has been the creation of community-monitoring initiatives that allow citizens to provide feedback on projects. Proponents believe such social audits not only improve project performance, they facilitate communication between communities, service providers and politicians while boosting transparency and accountability in the long-term.

To date, however, the efficacy of such initiatives has not been fully tested. International aid agencies and non-governmental organizations stress the importance of involving citizens in development endeavors. More than 60 governments, including 15 in Latin America, have committed to increase citizen participation through the Open Government Partnership, to which the IDB provides support. But the extent to which community oversight can actually improve services while cutting down on corruption and waste remains an open question.

A recent experience gives reason for hope. In 2008, the Colombian government launched the Citizen Visible Audit (CVA) program to involve communities in the fight against corruption in education, health, housing, sanitation, water and energy endeavors. A typical CVA employs several steps.  Newspapers, radio and television outlets announce forums at which the communities’ rights and the executing firm’s responsibilities are explained. Representatives of the firm, supervisors, and local authorities meet with the community and commit to resolve problems. The community monitors the project, and facilitators serve as a bridge to higher authorities, communicating problems, if they persist, to the level of the local or national government.

By the time the program was inaugurated in 2008, Colombia already had attempted to fight corruption on many fronts. The new initiative looked impressive on paper. But would it work? Would citizens receive enough information about projects to do the monitoring? Would they find the time to become involved? Would politicians respond positively?

My research provides encouraging answers on all fronts. The CVA program did increase information, citizens did take an interest and were willing to sacrifice other activities to become involved in monitoring-related activities. Indeed, the tracking or monitoring of projects was 51% greater among participants than in those not involved in the program.

Most importantly, perhaps, the monitoring had an impact. The CVA program resulted in a 21% increase in the number of citizens reporting that projects had adequate use of resources and nearly 23% increase in overall satisfaction with the projects. CVA communities also were more likely to rate their politicians as good or very good, rewarding their representatives with a 15% increase in their performance rating as a result of the monitoring program.

Overall, positive results mask the fact that some projects improved substantially as a result of the program and others failed miserably. Why did this happen? I found that in places where citizens believe in their ability to hold politicians accountable, they were more likely to participate in monitoring the project. As a result, the project received more visibility, and, in turn, politicians had more incentives to provide better public services, which translated into more efficient projects. On the other hand, in places where citizens did not believe they could influence politicians, they decided not to participate in monitoring, causing the project to receive less attention by the community. This resulted in politicians prioritizing other issues and, as a result, corruption and inefficiency increased.

Largely, the results are encouraging: citizen engagement and oversight can significantly improve the use of scarce resources, help elevate the quality of political representation and provide citizens with better public services. Combating corruption and inefficiency in service delivery is hard and there are no easy recipes to overcome it. However, when citizens and politicians have incentives to work together, it is possible to make it happen.

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