Effective interventions

A remedy for poor design: professionalizing accountability of security &justice programs

Conflict Research Unit of Clingendael Institute

I recently engaged in a number of events that discussed what can be done to improve the quality of international support for security and justice programs in fragile societies. What continues to strike me is that we have quite a substantial amount of knowledge about what is likely to work and what will likely not. In other words, we know more or less what a good program looks like. Yet, while this knowledge exists, it has not triggered learning in the sense of bringing change about - at scale - in how the average development organization designs and implements its security and justice programs.

This makes it tempting to conclude that the organizational policies and procedures that are supposed to enable good programming are not up to date with the existing knowledge base. Somehow they are resilient to adaptation. When I speak with practitioners, I get the sense that good programs often happen despite – not because of – organizational policies and procedures. ‘Success’ tends to be due to a combination of individual entrepreneurship and creative deviance from organizational parameters that are not fit-for-purpose in areas like risk-taking, administration and finance. Seen this way, we cannot reasonably contend that a mature professional practice of security and justice programming exists. Nor can it be assumed that current practice is grounded in widely accepted and evidence-based standards that are applied as well as enforced.

I wonder whether a fairly straightforward solution to this situation is to reconceive accountability for security and justice programs. What I mean by accountability is taking responsibility for the relevance and quality of how a program is run, what results it generates and to whom it reports. We might label these dimensions of accountability ‘process accountability’, which is about efficiency, ‘results accountability’, which is about meaning and ‘functional accountability’, which is about authority. Reconceiving what accountability means about could look something like this:

Process accountability: From short-term engagement to long-term conceptualization

At present, process accountability for security and justice programs typically amounts to initiating, implementing and concluding bundles of activities of 3-5 years in duration in such a way that a definitive set of results is generated. This makes it difficult to create trust (there is not enough time to develop a partnership), be sustainable (development of attitudes, skill transfers and diversification of funding cannot happen adequately) or enable learning (due to high operational pressure). What if process accountability for programs instead amounted to a choice between designing and implementing an 8-10 year program or an iterative 3-5 year program. The longer term, 8-10 year program would define its results in detail during its implementation. Alternatively, a 3-5 year program would operate on the basis of general principles and outcome areas, tracking what change its activities contribute to rather than what tangible results it generates, on the assumption that it contributes to a process longer than its own lifetime. My contention is that this would create significantly more space for the learning, innovation and relation building that programs need to have a chance of succeeding.

Results accountability: From tangible results to a mix of result types

At present, results accountability of security and justice programs often amounts to delivering tangible results at the output level that can be counted. Yet, the meaning of such results in their context is often unclear. Such result regimes fail to track or help understand broader changes in attitudes, (organizational) cultures and views related to security and justice. What if programs instead pursued a mix of relational, intangible and tangible results? Relational results are about whether a program creates new connections, conversations and engagements between security and justice stakeholders that did not previously exist due to past habits, ‘enemy images’ or distrust. Intangible results are about whether a program develops values, views, ethics, policies and practices within security and justice organizations that change imperceptibly and incrementally. Tangible results are about whether a program achieves countable, concrete improvements that directly increase performance of security and justice organizations. Pursuing such a mix would hold programs accountable on the basis of a more meaningful understanding of what sort of change happens and how it happens.

Functional accountability: From donor dominance to a mix of views

At present, the functional accountability of security and justice programs is almost exclusively to those that fund them. This often refers to donor development ministries/agencies, their political leadership and associated parliamentary control because they mobilize taxpayer’s money in the form of development assistance. Yet, these funds do not intervene in the lives of citizens in donor countries, but in the lives of citizens elsewhere, who have little say on how this is done. The oft invoked principle of ownership recognizes this in part, but is complex to operationalize and remains poorly applied. What if programs were accountable to review boards consisting of donor representatives, international experts (as guardians of the practice’s standards) and representatives of a diverse mix of a program’s national stakeholders? To truly enable such accountability, funds might have to be placed in escrow accounts to reduce the financial asymmetry of many programs and allow national stakeholders to engage freely. These would only be released when the board agrees with proposals that have financial implications - on the basis of pre-determined decision-making procedures and criteria.

The short of the matter is that there must be consequences for poor program design and implementation. A different conception of accountability is likely required to trigger such consequences. The reflections above on how this could be done are fairly radical and are unlikely to gain traction overnight. Pilots might be a good way to go. Yet, the poor state of much security and justice programming suggests that radical innovation might be precisely what is needed.

This blog was inspired by the Platform's Interactive Brainstorm. Click on the link below to read the summary report of the event: 

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