Resilient Roots: Debunking the Myths around Primary Constituent Accountability

By Isabelle Büchner (Accountable Now) and Laurence Prinz (Keystone Accountability)

When you are passionate about something and join others to work on it collectively, you quickly start to develop your own group language. You start using jargon and acronyms. This is a central part of creating a close community of peers. Yet this language can also become exclusive, where others misinterpret or feel uncomfortable to ask for clarifications on what has become a common part of your group’s vocabulary.

We have identified this problem with the central concept that drives our work on the Resilient Roots initiative: “primary constituent accountability”. From the initiative’s co-creation phase to the open call for proposals from the wider civil society organisation (CSO) community, it has been used frequently. And while we made a real effort to try and clearly explain what we meant by the term to people outside of our immediate community, understanding a concept like this, where many other similar terms exist, is not straightforward.

So what is primary constituent accountability?

What do we mean by primary constituents? These are individuals or communities that a CSO aims to assist or who benefit from its work (also known as ‘beneficiaries’). Simply put, the people for whom the organisation works, represents and seeks to empower. In most cases each CSO will have multiple primary constituents. For example, primary constituents for a CSO working with schools are most likely the children and families of the children, but can also be the teachers, school boards, etc.

Keystone Constituent Voice Cycle

The second part of this term is built from what we usually call CSO accountability. By this we mean the ways in which an organisation is held responsible for its policies and actions by – (and answerable to) – its primary constituents. Accountability is highly context-specific and constantly evolving. This means that organisations need to adapt to the nature of their relationships with primary constituents as and when things change.

So combined, primary constituent accountability is not only about transparency and evaluating effectiveness, it’s also also about meaningful dialogue with primary constituents and having the learning from this drive organisational decision-making.

CV is a rigorous feedback system that monitors the impact of your activities from the perspective of those most affected by them. It is a tool that not only allows organisations to manage their performance by collecting valuable feedback data, but also in the process optimise their relationship with constituents. CV is focused on perceptual feedback from constituents. It blends social research and participatory development practice with the relationship and performance focus of the customer service industry. The image below shows the five steps of the CV cycle.One way to harness feedback from your primary constituents, and ultimately improve your organisation’s performance, is Keystone Accountability’s Constituent Voice (CV) method.

The single most important step in the cycle involves closing the loop by reporting back to constituents what you heard and how you are responding to it. By doing so, organisations are being accountable to their primary constituents and involving them in improving the organisation’s performance. Organisations that move beyond data collection to dialogue not only learn and improve their performance, they underwrite higher response rates and more frank feedback in future surveys.

All these activities aim to build better dialogue and stronger relationships with constituents.

So have you got it now?

If not, you are not alone. We often find organisations struggle to translate these concepts into practices. Based on the conversations with our partners, pilot organisations, the broader NGO community, and other CSO actors, here are some common misconceptions around primary constituent accountability that we have identified.

  1. Only focusing on stakeholder engagement

Involving stakeholders actively in your programme will definitely increase the trust your primary constituents have in your organisation’s work. However, when we talk about primary constituent accountability, it means more than just engaging them. Becoming an accountable organisation to your primary constituents means establishing mechanisms that allow them to provide feedback on the ways in which you are engaging them and how well they believe you are working with them. What will make your organisation more accountable to these groups, therefore, is how you incorporate this feedback into your work. This means that you need to report back to your constituents on the feedback explaining what can and can’t be implemented, and why. This is what we mean by closing the feedback loop.

  1. Not going beyond an inclusive M&E approach

In your monitoring & evaluation (M&E) work, primary constituents might be consulted to measure your organisation’s success against set project or strategic indicators. Again, this is necessary but inclusive M&E alone won’t make your organisation accountable to its primary constituents. Accountability goes a step further, involving an ongoing two-way conversation which gives primary constituents the opportunity to be engaged in and influence all elements of the organisations work and decision-making over the long-term.

  1. Confusion with social accountability

Many CSOs use social accountability tools to help hold governments to account. In comparison, primary constituent accountability is solely focused on the work of your organisation. If your organisation's work includes elements of social accountability, you should provide your primary constituents with the opportunity to give you feedback on how well you support their needs when holding governments to account. Not only will this improve your services and relationships, but it will also demonstrate the high accountability standards of your organisation, which provides you with the “we practice what we preach” benefit when demanding the same from governments.

  1. Primary constituent accountability as one separate project

Primary constituent accountability is NOT a standalone project or a one-time activity. You need to think about how you can make your efforts sustainable and link with other projects in your organisation. This is of course a process and doesn’t happen overnight. However after you have tested which primary constituents accountability mechanisms works best for your context, you should work to implement them as part of your organisational culture.

So what now?

Implementing the elements described above is something that can provide your organisation with a great start to becoming more accountable. However practicing true primary constituent accountability involves continuously questioning the status quo and the way in which these activities themselves are carried out. You should always think about whether something you do is based on your assumptions about what your primary constituents need from you to be accountable, or whether you have asked your primary constituents about the quality of the work and services that your organisation provides them with.