Accountability and oversight: public scrutiny and social accountability

Effective accountability and oversight systems can improve the quality and reach of the public services governments provide. Typically, bureaucratic hierarchies are intended to ensure that public officials can be held accountable by higher administrative officers, such as supervisors, public auditors, and legislative bodies. In addition, independent bodies, such as external auditors, ombudsmen or dedicated agencies (such as the anti-corruption commissions, environmental review boards, or commissions for sustainable development) can conduct administrative audits on public institutions that assess compliance issues against standards set by the national government at the sector level.[1]

However, in many countries, formal processes for monitoring and supervision are not followed or enforced, due to a poor definition and understanding of monitoring and supervision processes, weak regulations, lack of resources, capacity and bureaucratic performance disciplines, combined with a lack of commitment and political will to enforce laws.[2] Social accountability mechanisms offer a promising complementary approach to the public oversight of service delivery and can include citizen report cards, community scorecards, social audits, public hearings, citizens’ juries and community radio.[3]

For example, citizen-based initiatives can complement internal government accountability mechanisms in monitoring the procurement and implementation of government contracts. Integrity pacts[4] offer promising opportunities for civil society to actively participate in the monitoring of public procurement processes. For example, since 2002, the Transparency International national chapter in Mexico has implemented pacts in over 100 contracts worth US$30 billion and advocated for the use of independent monitors, so-called social witnesses. This initiative also resulted in the Mexican Public Administration Authority making social witnesses mandatory for public contracts above a certain threshold.[5]

Community monitoring of service delivery can also be instrumental in promoting efficient and accountable services, including participatory assessments and feedback surveys, and agreements on expected standards of services (citizens’ charters). Citizens representation in service-specific institutions give service users a voice to exercise accountability and allow regular oversight.[6]

Social audits can help raise public awareness and knowledge of budget-related issues. They also empower citizens by allowing them to provide feedback, gather evidence, interpret findings and develop solutions to their problems. This tool can also enhance transparency by creating demand for information and even facilitating legislation on the right to information in service delivery, planning and implementation. Furthermore, when institutionalised, social audits allow for regular monitoring of public institutions, thus increasing the legitimacy of state actors and the trust between the citizens/CSOs and the government.[7]

Social audits in India

In India, social audits were first made statutory in the 2005 Rural Employment Act. As part of the process, an independent body – mandated by law – conducts an audit of the expenditure and is required to share documents with village-level auditors trained by the independent social audit team. A record of the accounts of the civil works is read out in public in the presence of beneficiaries of the scheme and public officials, encouraging villagers to question transactions. The government takes action against those found guilty of siphoning funds. This approach is likely to be extended and social auditing institutionalised as a monitoring tool for major welfare schemes across the country.[8]



Iñaki Albisu Ardigó; Marie Chêne


Matthew Jenkins

Contributing experts:

Umrbek Allakulov (Water Integrity Network)

Shaazka Beyerle (US Institute of Peace)

Simone Bloem (Center for Applied Policy)

Claire Grandadam (Water Integrity Network)

Jacques Hallak (Jules Verne University – Amiens)

Mihaylo Milovanovitch (Centre For Applied Policy)

Muriel Poisson (International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP-UNESCO)

Juanita Riano (Inter-American Development Bank)

Marc Y. Tassé (Canadian Centre of Excellence for Anti-Corruption)

Vítězslav Titl (University of Siegen)

Davide Torsello (Central European University Business School)

Patty Zakaria (Royal Roads University)



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