Accountability and transparency initiatives have taken democratisation, governance, aid and development circles by storm since the turn of the century. Many actors involved with them – as donors, funders, programme managers, implementers and researchers – are now keen to know more about what these initiatives are achieving.
This paper arises from a review of the impact and effectiveness of transparency and accountability initiatives which gathered and analysed existing evidence, discussed how it could be improved, and evaluated how impact and effectiveness could be enhanced. This paper takes the discussion further, by delving into what lies behind the methodological and evaluative debates currently surrounding governance and accountability work. It illustrates how choices about methods are made in the context of impact assessment designs driven by different objectives and different ideological and epistemological underpinnings. We argue that these differences are articulated as methodological debates, obscuring vital issues underlying accountability work, which are about power and politics, not methodological technicalities.
In line with this argument, there is a need to re-think what impact means in relation to accountability initiatives, and to governance and social change efforts more broadly. This represents a serious challenge to the prevailing impact paradigm, posed by the realities of unaccountable governance, unproven accountability programming and uncertain evidence of impact. A learning approach to evaluation and final impact assessment would give power and politics a central place in monitoring and evaluation systems, continually test and revise assumptions about theories of change and ensure the engagement of marginalised people in assessment processes. Such an approach is essential if donors and policy makers are to develop a reliable evidence base to demonstrate that transparency and accountability work is of real value to poor and vulnerable people.