By Jean Scrimgeour & Cheri-Leigh Erasmus

The Accountability Lab supports responsible leaders, active citizens and accountable institutions. We think this can make governance work for people. For us, this is essential if we want to live in a world where resources are used wisely, decisions benefit everyone fairly, and people lead secure lives. We know that systems change is complicated, time consuming and unlikely to produce neat, sequential outcomes. But we also understand that in order to bring about these changes we will need to be a part of a fundamental shift in the underlying structures and systems. 

We have a singular mission and vision across all 10 countries in which work. We are a translocal network in that we share principles, narratives of change and practices, yet we remain local in the sense that we manifest ourselves – sometimes very differently – in the adoption and translation of principles and ideas into specific local contexts. 

For us, systems change does not have one singular roadmap. Instead we subscribe to a definition of systems change as proposed by NPC: “Systems change is an intentional process designed to alter the status quo by shifting the function or structure of an identified system with purposeful interventions…These can include policies, routines, relationships, resources, power structures and values.”

Our programs are a vehicle to achieve an outcome, rather than the outcome itself. As a result, our programs can, and often do, take different forms depending on the most effective route to systems change in a given context. While the intended outcome of all our programming is the same, each Lab operates slightly differently. Let’s use Integrity Icon, our campaign to ‘name and fame’ honest civil servants (now in 12 countries) as an illustrative example; and draw on the principles of how to ‘do’ systems changes from NPC and FSG. There are 5 key points we might draw from this.

First, we have learned that systems change means we must work with others. The accountability and transparency field can at times be confusing, overly technical and filled with exclusionary language and approaches. This prevents different, dynamic voices and people from becoming part of larger efforts to create change. We’ve learned that when we build “unlikely networks” among civil society, government officials, musicians, creatives, technologists, film-makers and others, we can open up accountability work and generate greater engagement around core issues. In the case of Integrity Icon, we have brought together a number of different actors to increase our reach and amplify our messages. In Nepal and Nigeria, for example, we have successfully used hundreds of volunteers from universities and a variety of youth organizations to gather nominations and disseminate content. In South Africa we worked closely with the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA) to identify Icons and with start-up film companies to develop an emerging young filmmakers program to tell the stories of the Icons. The unlikely networks we build in each context may be different- but they have the same goal: to change systems of accountability.

Second, leadership for systems change takes different forms. We have found that it is important to distribute leadership, responsibility and power throughout organisations and networks. The Lab does not need to be at the nexus of all decision-making and project execution on our programs. Sometimes we are in the lead (as in Nepal, Pakistan and Nigeria for example) but more often than not we work through organisations that have established assets, networks, reputations and relationships that are different (and better) than ours. In South Africa in 2019, for example, we relied heavily on our relationships with Corruption Watch and the Nelson Mandela Foundation– organisations with long standing networks – to promote the campaign. In Somaliland, Morocco and Sri Lanka we work through our partners Transparency Solutions, Sim-Sim and TI Sri Lanka respectively. The partnerships may be different in each case- but again, the goal is the same.  

Third, systems are complicated. Insisting on a one size fits all approach to understanding or changing a system may result in a few short term, quick wins but it rarely leads to larger change. In the case of Integrity Icon, the stated reasons for nominations vary across countries – in some places Icons are nominated for the reforms that they have enacted (South Africa), in other cases nominees are honored for their honesty (Nigeria) or in the case of Pakistan, nominees are more likely to be people who shun opportunities to be corrupt. Integrity can mean different things in different places. However, with the right support and engagement, none of these differences make an Icon more or less likely to affect change – but it may affect the ways and levels at which they can make an impact. By offering integrity training to Icons, and convening multi-stakeholder summits aimed at finding innovative solutions to specific challenges in the civil service, we are better able to find a variety of entry points to create change within complex systems.  

Fourth, act on points of leverage where there is a realistic prospect of changing the system. Donella Meadows talks about nine leverage points, or places to intervene to most effectively bring about systems change. With Integrity Icon Philadelphia for example, the judges highlighted that education is a sector where system change is possible because it is an area where there is a high degree of trust and it is relatable for citizens- and so four of the five final Icons work with schools. In SA, we found a point of leverage was that Icons welcomed recognition from their superiors, and we have made this a central part of the campaign. This recognition further motivates the Icons to push for change. We have also seen this recognition supercharge the influence of the Icons. For example, in Mali, Dr. Malick Coulibaly, an Icon from Mali was made Justice Minister after he won the campaign. In South Africa, Sakhile Nkosi now serves as the public health representative on the South African Association of Audiologists (SAAA), where he also has a seat on the Ethics Committee. The point of leverage may be within a sector, an organization or a theme- the key is to understand how to use it for change. 

Fifth, prioritise learning and programmatic iteration. We encourage experimentation and multi-level problem solving. While the outcomes for Integrity Icon remain the same, finding new ways to achieve these outcomes is an important part of how the Lab aims to affect change. In Nepal for example, we are experimenting with doing away with what we thought was a major component of the campaign – voting. Voting is an important measure of community engagement and large numbers of votes also provide additional motivation for Icons to continue their good work. But at the same time, an alternative way to foster community engagement more meaningfully may be to give individuals an opportunity to actively participate/ engage with reforms the Icons would like to see. An example of this could be signing a petition in support of a particular policy or process reform, or adding a voice to a call for more resources to address a critical challenge. Rather than a single act of voting, this call to action is based on a more sustainable connection with an issue, which can create space for larger scale advocacy. The learning here is that how system change happens can change over time, and we need to adapt accordingly.

Our work is grounded in practice through which we have learned that systems change requires intentionality, consistent innovation, reflection, learning and iteration. Please do share any ideas or thoughts you may have about how we can improve or partner around all of this!

Jean Scrimgeour is Director of Growth and Strategy at Accountability Lab; Cheri Erasmus is Director of Learning at the Lab.