Blog | July 6, 2017 | Heather Gilberds and Blair Glencorse

Recently, we concluded a Making All Voices Count Practitioner Research and Learning grant, focusing on the dynamics, process and outcomes of building accountability with young people in Liberia. The research generated some useful insights – as we’ve written about previously – including the need to make governance changes meaningful for citizens; the importance of a collective, eco-systems-building approach; and the opportunities that exist around more creative, and less institutionalised, governance programmes.

The research involved a survey of over 1,000 citizens in four of Liberia’s 15 counties, delivered by trained enumerators using a mobile open data platform. Survey respondents were recruited using purposive-systematic sampling whereby clusters of potential participants were selected according to convenience and access, but respondents within them were randomly selected. We also carried out 12 focus group discussions with youth groups, women’s organisations, government officials and the media in all four counties; and carried out over 50 key informant interviews with a variety of stakeholders from across the public, private, civil society and donor sectors. Frequency calculations were conducted to analyse the survey data, responses to open-ended questions were coded and thematic analysis was used to draw out key themes and areas of shared understanding.

Beyond the accountability-specific lessons that came out of this research, which the Accountability Lab is now working to integrate into programming, we’ve also been thinking hard about how to better understand the process of the research. In this blog we focus on some of the things we learned that we think might be might be relevant for other actors working similar contexts.

Technology as an enabler for research

There is value in the use of technology tools for accountability and transparency, although Making All Voices Count research elsewhere has indicated the limits of these approaches, which can be overly tech-centric and supply driven. But in terms of research data collection in challenging environments, cellphone apps are now indispensable. For this research we used Kobo Toolbox, which is easy, reliable and free. After half a day of training with volunteers they could design research questions, collect data offline and synthesise findings into useful outputs.

Quality not quantity of data

While Kobo Toolbox allowed for easier data collection, we also realised throughout this process that in the Liberian context there is no substitute for in-depth conversations with stakeholders about what good governance and related issues of accountability and integrity mean, and why they are important.

Although we felt the surveys were designed in a way that was relatively simple, where our team sought to gather large amounts of data quickly, the feedback was often confused, contradictory or non-sensical. Where they took the time to have longer more meaningful interactions with participants, the information was far more accurate and useful.

Accountability can be a nebulous and confusing concept, with fuzzy definitions and many different understandings. It sounds straightforward, but meaningful conversations are essential to understanding citizen perceptions

Unstructured inputs are invaluable

Through our focus groups, we spoke to hundreds of Liberians across the country asking questions and listening to their thoughts on accountability and transparency issues. These conversations were sometimes dominated by several individuals who were perceived to have the authority to speak on behalf of others, which in itself was an enlightening insight into social and cultural constructs and local dynamics.

Equally, many of the best ideas and feedback we received were from those people who did not speak up in the groups, but found us afterwards to explain their opinions or those we chatted to in less structured settings (such as during shared taxi rides). More organised conversations are important, but we’ve found that continually listening and being open to learning in a setting like Liberia is by far the best way to gather useful information.

Understand vertical integration

A growing body of research demonstrates the role that social movements and civil society can play in pushing accountability reforms. Through the research process, we worked to redefine who might be a governance actor, and what role they might play.

One of our focus group participants - a motorcycle taxi driver in a small community in Margibi County told us: “no one has ever asked me what I think about accountability”. Ensuring that even those who are furthest removed from power have an opportunity to share their opinions is a crucial element of understanding how accountability dynamics operate in the day-to-day lives of citizens. This allowed us to better understand the barriers to and facilitators of productive state-citizen relations. Over time, it might help link localized citizen action and social movements to formal structures, actions and reforms at the national level.

By leveraging this vertical integration frame, research shifts from a focus on the efficacy of reform initiatives to the complex ecosystems of values, norms and influence within which accountability operates.

Closing the research feedback loop

Research can often be an extractive process – with participants providing researchers with information, without a sense of how it is used or shared. This can undermine both the impact of the outputs and the willingness of citizens and partners to participate in future research.

Through this project, we are working hard to make sure we close the research feedback loop by getting creative in terms of outputs (through a summary video, for example) disseminating the reports back to communities as best we can, hosting validation discussions with key interviewees, and using the findings as the basis for public outreach. At the same time, we are integrating findings into our work in an adaptive way, allowing our stakeholders to see their recommendations put into practice.

New spaces for learning in Liberia

Research-focused adaptive learning has plenty of room to grow in Liberia. This year, the iCampus/OpenGov Hub in Monrovia is becoming a central space for the learning community in partnership with DAI and USAID, which through the CLA network is collecting and supporting some of the best ideas around learning in development. If research can continue to generate actionable knowledge and inform practice, its scope for improved outcomes is significant.

About the author

Heather Gilberds is a PhD candidate at Carleton University in Ottawa, and a research consultant with the Accountability Lab. Blair Glencorse is Executive Director of the Accountability Lab. Follow the Lab @accountlab.