In late 2019, we developed a new global strategy for the 2020-2023 period. The strategy outlined why we care about accountability, what we have learned from almost 9 years of work on these issues, where we are going and how we’ll get there. The strategy was matched with a 2020-2023 operational plan and a budget for this work (here.

Adapting to COVID-19

And then everything changed…as COVID-19 fundamentally transformed global politics, economics and societies; and dramatically altered accountability dynamics everywhere. The pandemic has highlighted the deep-set challenges of corruption within healthcare systems; and the policy responses have demonstrated how critical integrity and accountability are to longer-term recovery. In response, we moved quickly and focused on:

  1. Ensuring the wellbeing of our teams– including a push to provide ongoing and accessible duty of care resources to all team members;
  2. Citizen feedback– on COVID-19 responses using our Civic Action Teams (CivActs), groups of trained volunteers in communities working to counter misinformation and rumors related to the pandemic and related governance challenges. Read more here and here; and learn more about our partnership with the UN’s Verified Campaign on these issues here;
  3. Creative, bottom-up approaches– through support to our networks of “accountapreneurs” who are working on these issues in their communities. This involved small innovation grants to existing accountapreneurs and the launch of a new virtual accountability incubator (in Kenya, Uganda and Guinea Bissau);
  4. Adaptive learning– through internal collaboration grants to spur new ideas by team members; regular “open board calls” to discuss challenges and an OpenGov Digital Youth Summit with 1,000+ young people sharing ideas around open governance;
  5. Working within systems– to support reformers (such as previous Integrity Icons) on the frontlines of the response; and create cross-sectoral learning opportunities among Icons
  6. Inclusion– through collaborations to push for greater equity within development as a whole; the use of lower-bandwidth tools such as Whatsapp channels and trainings; “accountabilitea” discussions with new audiences; and a focus on diversity within existing programming; and  
  7. Building translocal networks– to ensure that across our Labs we have a shared sense of purpose and understanding; and a collective support network for any challenges we might face during COVID-19. 

This wasn’t easy. We’ve seen closing civic space across the countries in which we work, with governments using the COVID-19 crisis to restrict speech, movement and assembly, curtail rights of all kinds and undermine processes for transparency and accountability. We’ve faced operational challenges– for example, team members and their families have become sick with COVID-19; team coherence has been difficult to maintain within Labs during long periods out of the office; hiring and onboarding of new staff members has been complicated; and it has been more difficult to vet partners in new contexts where programming has begun. And as the Lab has grown and become better known within the accountability space we have become more of a target for forces aligned against accountability which has meant we have sometimes had to avoid certain topics and partnerships that we would otherwise have looked to develop. At the same time, as a translocal network, these kinds of challenges in one context have repercussions beyond that context in places where our other Labs operate too.

Moving forwards into 2021

In 2021 and beyond we see our comparative advantage within the accountability space as our ability to shift norms and narratives through positive campaigns; our deep and trusted efforts to grow knowledge and “unlikely networks” from the ground upwards; and our ability to connect the dots to build “insider-outsider” coalitions for reform. We see ourselves in a position both to improve what we do but also support others to push for collective change. We will incorporate the additional shifts in our work to ensure we maximize impact and meet the challenges that lay ahead:

  1. We’re doubling down on learning– this has always been a key part of what we do as an organization and the way we understand our role, and we will grow our learning efforts going forwards to inform our own work and that of others. This means we will work to improve our data collection efforts; deepen research into what works and what does not around key elements of our work (including norm shifting and campaigns); test new evaluation tools and approaches; and better codify and align our learning outputs, including with our Accountable Now compliance processes;
  2. We’re focusing on media accountability– building on our work to counter disinformation around COVID-19 in 2020 and our media-driven programming previously. This means we will grow our Covid-19 CivActs Campaign; pilot a new incubator in South Africa focused specifically on supporting local narrative-builders and story-tellers; and look for new partnerships with media entities around solutions journalism. We are also going to build out our own story-telling platforms including through a new “Ask Accountability Lab Anything” podcast.
  3. We’re adapting how we build and share knowledge– by expanding our virtual incubator and growing out additional curricula we have developed (on anti-corruption and accountability) to make them relevant for other contexts and with other partners; and to new formats that can allow for low-bandwidth, distanced learning. COVID-19 has also shown the need to reinforce integrity within public service, and we will grow our partnerships with national and regional civil service training schools to support values-based training for government officials. 
  4. We’re going to push on donor accountability– particularly around COVID-19 spending and of multilateral processes and organizations including the G20 and the World Bank. This will include work to maintain and build on the G20 Accountability Tracker we developed during 2020; collaborative efforts to ensure progress towards SDG16; and continued guidance to the World Bank and other donors. The focus will not be on calling out those that fall short as much as identifying what works and sharing solutions to common problems.
  5. We’re working harder to embed our ideas– in new ways. This means scaling up to new contexts both through the Lab itself (in places such as Zimbabwe); through a hybrid partnership structure through which we hire local Accountability Lab staff within partner organizations (as in DRC and Somaliland); and through supporting other partners to implement our ideas directly (as in Guinea Bissau for example). It also means a particular focus on working with government officials at the sub-national level to grow their accountability ideas and systems; and working even harder to embed local civil society networks that can push back against accountability challenges, related to COVID-19 and otherwise.
  6. We’re leading and field-building around duty of care issues– including through a new partnership with the Funder Safeguarding Collaborative to institutionalise safeguarding protocols into grantmaking as well as support non-profit organizations to support the safety and security of their staff, beneficiaries and partners. In 2021 we will also be working to bring together a similar initiative led by Restless Development and Accountable Now in an effort to create a more unified movement around these issues across civil society.

What this means operationally

In 2021, despite encouraging news recently with respect to COVID-19 vaccines, we will operate under the assumption that our work will continue to be affected by the pandemic throughout the year. We will redouble our efforts to provide wellbeing and duty of care support to our staff; we will conduct our first USAID Uniform Guidance financial audit of our operations globally and refine our Accountable Now compliance and reporting process; we will further grow engagement around our messaging, with an emphasis on bringing in new audiences; we will look to commission external evaluations of our work and build evidence gap maps; and we will look to build a Lab in one additional country and to partner in one more as our budget increases by 10% year-on-year, with a particular focus on diversifying funding streams and increasing core support for our work. 

We know this won’t be easy, but we’ve made great progress and we’re starting the new year determined to push hard for greater accountability everywhere! Read our 2021 Strategy update here.

We’d love to hear any ideas or feedback. Feel free to reach out to [email protected] or connect with us on Twitter @accountlab