Concern is an international development NGO based in Ireland. We spoke to Robyn Wilford, from Concern’s Policy Evaluation and Development Directorate, who shared the experience of developing and piloting Listen First, a pilot project to develop systematic ways to manage downward accountability. Listen First intends to enable communities to systematically feedback on how accountable Concern is to them and how satisfied they are with the work. It emerged from a research project, which involved over 500 people in exploring how downwards accountability is perceived and conducted in development, and developing, piloting and refining the practical tools. These focus on working with NGO staff to develop strong relationships and dialogue with the communities and partners with whom they work.
The Listen First Framework focuses on four principles at the heart of listening and accountability: public availability of information; participation in decision making; listening; and staff behaviour and relationships. By reflecting on these areas, and inviting communities, partners and groups to give structured feedback, it is anticipated that the NGO can improve their effectiveness as well as their accountability. The approach also emphasises the importance of developing quantifiable and comparable data, as well as qualitative feedback. The research found that having a standardised tool does allow building of shared understanding and facilitate learning, but also identified challenges in contextualising and applying generic frameworks. It was also found that comparable quantified results from different projects and processes can provide robust data and rich insights which can be useful to inform wider debate in the organisation, suggesting strong linkages to the topic of this research.
Skills and attitudes:
Although staff and communities indicated that they found the experience, and the framework, helpful and relevant it was very challenging. Listening is a skill, and unequal power relations between NGOs and community members, or even partners, can be difficult to overcome, requiring a high level of skill in facilitation. The research report noted a lot of learning on the pitfalls and nuances of facilitating participatory processes which acknowledge diversity in communities and groups.
The issues we had identified of dual accountabilities and conflicting reporting requirements were also brought up as challenges to the process. The research found that the most important factors for improving this accountability were the attitudes of field staff and managers. This includes the belief in the right and ability of local people to contribute meaningfully to decision making and a respect for their views, as well as flexibility and openness in planning in order to allow for appropriate responses to the feedback received.
Politics and power:
The research and the framework recognise that downward accountability is a deep and sensitive process, which involves challenging and transforming power relations and influence over decision making. While the report states that “[downward accountability] is widely seen as one of the foundation stones of effective NGO work”, it also points out managers had no incentive to prioritise it, were not accountable for making sure it happened, and that in reality downwards accountability was often actually in conflict with other priorities and more centralised decision making processes. The report from the research recommends that relationships between head office and field offices, and between field staff and partners, need to actively model and reward downward accountability, and prioritise listening and responsive behaviour.
The research also showed that the NGO staff were “more comfortable considering partners’ downward accountability than their own.” This implies that there is more to downward accountability than just listening. There is also the issue of how we respond to criticism and feedback. And this is especially true considering the pressures that NGOs face of internal systems and procedures for planning and reporting, which can make it very difficult to change direction. International NGOs such as Concern are very aware of the need to strengthen downward accountability through systems and structures to elicit the opinions and perspectives of communities and stakeholders. However, the actual political and organisational implications are very far reaching. It will take a significant amount of political will and organisational flexibility, to be able to follow this through to its logical conclusion.