More often than not, in our travels around DC, we’ll meet fascinating people doing interesting work. We’re starting a new series where we’ll share some of these stories through Q&A. Today we present: Accountability Lab.
I first heard about Accountability Lab through Pitch Salon, an underground DC event that combines the best of the Washington happy hour, with the intellectually stimulating European-style salon. Enough back story–to the Q&A with Blair Glencorse, Accountability Lab’s founder!
1) What prompted you to start Accountability Lab?
After spending a lot of time in the developing world- especially difficult places in Africa, South Asia and the Middle-East- I came to two realizations. First, that the accountability of decision-makers is the central issue of development- it is the key that unlocks trust and social interdependence, which can in turn provide the basis for political and economic development. And second, I realized that despite this fact, we have made very little progress in generating accountability in the developing world and have even less imagination with the approaches we use. The incentives and organizational structure of the aid system do not allow for risk-taking or testing of innovative new tools. I started the Lab to try and bring some creativity to accountability- and support people on the ground who really understand the solutions to the challenges they face.
2) How did you come up with the Theory of Change?
As I began to think more deeply about accountability, I realized I needed to be able to explain “why” accountability is important, not just “what” it is or “how” the Lab would try and create it- that is to say- to explain the causal links between the work the Lab would do and the outcomes that would be produced. This is difficult for a nebulous concept like accountability- because it can be hard to define and even harder to measure. The working theory of change tries to bring this together in a way that is understandable- we are in the process of looking more deeply into metrics that can be used to quantify this change without simplifying the process too much.
3) What have been your greatest challenges so far? Your greatest successes?
The Lab has been operational for almost a year now. We were in the very privileged position of being able to secure some funding before the work started, which helped a lot as we started out. It has been challenging- but brilliant- to build-out the organizational side of the Lab, develop the thinking and roll-out programs across two disparate and difficult places at once. Generating accountability is a long-term process, so I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we’ve had any success yet- and in fact embracing failure is very much part of our thinking (and we’ve had our fair share of failure already!). That said, I do think we’ve made some important progress in small ways- gathering data on accountability issues that a university administration in Liberia is now using collaboratively to improve life on campus; or creating a toolkit for journalists to help them better use the Right to Information law in Nepal, for example.
4) How has the Lab been received in communities in Liberia and Nepal?
It can take time to build trust, especially in places where the social fabric has been seriously damaged by years of conflict and mismanagement. Equally, aid has become such a business that it also takes time to find partners who are truly committed to positive change and are not just in development to make money. We were at an advantage in that I had worked in these countries previously so had some knowledge and networks. The Lab also places listening at the heart of what it does- and it is amazing what you can learn when you indicate that you are ready to listen hard before acting. Through repeated interactions over time we are now in a position to work with the right kind of people in the creative ways we hope will begin to change accountability dynamics.
5) To what other countries would you want to take the lab?
Accountability- or the lack of it- is an issue almost everywhere, in the developed and the developing world so there is no shortage of work! We focused on Liberia and Nepal for a few reasons. First, these countries are strategic within their sub-regions, and while some progress has been made in terms of accountability in each, there are still some serious problems. Second, it is interesting to compare experiences across very different contexts and see what can be learned from each. And third, the Lab had existing networks and knowledge in these places that it could leverage. For now we are focusing on consolidating and deepening our work in these countries before expanding any further.
6) How do you think about failure?
Failure is a learning process, and should be embraced as such- not as something to be scared of or to try and avoid at all costs. Within international development there is far too much emphasis on scaling-up quickly and on short-term results, which creates incentives to demonstrate success, even when approaches are not working. In the worst cases, this means there are huge programs that are based on very little accurate analysis or concrete proof of cause and effect. At the Lab we are trying to embrace failure and take risks- because in terms of accountability our feeling is that unless we test out new ideas we won’t make progress. We’ve created a “Failure Lab” which we are now building out on the website, which will document- honestly- where we’ve gone wrong and the ideas that haven’t worked. It is only by being honest about shortcomings that we can improve our approaches next time.
7) What does this work mean to you personally?
Accountability means a huge amount to me, and I’m hoping that the Lab can be a small part of the change that needs to happen in the accountability space. It is fundamentally about giving citizens in developing countries fair and equal access to power and resources, so that these assets can be managed most effectively to underpin peace and stability. This is important in difficult places in particular, because in our globalized and inter-connected world, conflict and instability don’t respect borders. But more importantly, accountability is critical because it reaches to the heart of the human ideas of dignity, justice and fairness, which I hope we all share.