2017 Global Education Monitoring Report: Accountability in Education

The thirteenth annual Global Education Monitoring Report came out recently, and it synthesizes the state of the art of accountability in the education field. Sponsored by UNESCO, GEM Reports are editorially independent, and their mandate is to monitor progress towards the education targets in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework. This blog flags three of the 2017 GEM’s most important contributions, from the point of view of the broader field of accountability practice, with a specific focus on accountability strategy.

First, the report emphasizes “downward accountability” to people  - as well as “upwards accountability” to bureaucracies and the international community. This public accountability focus is especially important insofar as the Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) primary ‘theory of change’ is strongly tilted towards upwards accountability Indeed, for those interested in bolstering the public accountability of nation-states to their societies, the SDGs pose a challenge – how to tap in to the emerging global consensus that they reflect in order to create space for national and local actors to exercise voice – without reinforcing the predominance of upwards accountability and inadvertently “crowding out” space for downwards accountability. This tension is clearly reflected in debates over indicators of public sector performance. The SDG approach emphasizes national averages – as part of reporting upwards and outwards - but more disaggregated, problem-solving indicators are more likely to be actionable for the empowered citizens and policy reformers who are the main drivers of downwards accountability to national and local publics

Second, the report shows how far the accountability field has come since the 2004 World Development Report (WDR), which first mainstreamed the accountability agenda in the world of service delivery. That influential report promoted the distinction between what it called the ‘long route’ and ‘short route’ to accountability. It basically concluded that since channels for political representation are messy, indirect and clogged –  it’s better to focus on creating space for local citizen voices to shoulder the burden of detecting and acting on service delivery failures. To that end, collective action is fine, as long as it is bounded to the most local level and only addresses the “end of the pipe” of the service delivery supply chain. For more than a decade, this 2004 WDR view generated a strong consensus in the mainstream international development community. Increasingly, however, analysts are recognizing that this approach hasn’t gotten very far. Indeed, last year the World Bank published a major Policy Report, “Making Politics Work for Development,” that stood the 2004 WDR on its head, showing that for the short route to work, the long route has to work as well. The 2017 GEM report is very consistent with this new turn in the field, looking beyond narrow, tool-led approaches, with its strong emphasis on the relevance of the rule of law, “justiciable” (legally enforceable) approaches to claiming the right to education, and the contribution of the mass media and citizen action through the political process. These are all key elements of more strategic approaches to accountability.

Finally, the GEM report makes a major contribution with its explicit, extensive recognition of the risk of perverse effects of exclusively “upwards accountability” strategies that rely heavily on a narrow range of indicators. These risks of what the report calls “an excessive audit culture” include blaming teachers for educational performance challenges that go beyond their responsibility – not to mention, creating incentives to game the system. Recall the notorious case of the city of Atlanta, where the highest levels of the school system faked the high stakes testing data.

This focus of the GEM report is especially notable because the accountability field’s famous “what works” question has generally been limited to yes or no answers, without recognizing the possibility of perverse effects. It is not hard for the production of indicators to fall into a “data for data’s sake” approach, to measure only symptoms and not address the causes of system failures, or for indicators to be designed in ways that fall short of informing and motivating citizen action that is targeted to specific bottlenecks in the educational system --, not to mention the application of the rule of law where actual corruption is involved. This is where the under-appreciated concept of “targeted transparency” comes in.

I’d like to conclude with a comment that brings together these three points – downwards accountability to the public, the need for more strategic, multi-pronged approaches, and the need for actionable indicators. The point is that we can be more explicit about linking open government measures to accountability strategies in the education field.

With OGP, we now have thousands of open government initiatives, but only a modest fraction are directly linked to accountability strategies. In the education field, we have many accountability strategies, but few are linked to open government initiatives.

For example, one of the goals of Mexico’s first OGP National Action Plan was to publicly disclose disaggregated numbers of teachers who are on the government payroll, which would have contributed to identifying ghost teachers (public employees on the payroll but never in the classroom). Unfortunately, this proactive disclosure commitment was blocked by vested interests – which only served to underscore what a relevant and potentially powerful reform tool it might have been, had the government exercised more political will. Indeed, though originally included as commitment 31.C of the first National Action Plan, it was dropped when the first plan was renegotiated and no longer appears in the official Mexico OGP materials now online.

To sum up, the 2017 GEM report emphases a wide range of indicators and monitoring strategies – but we can go even further to link its spot-on recommendations to open government agendas. The proactive disclosure of educational system data at all levels -- disaggregated and disseminated in ways that stakeholders see as meaningful and actionable -- can help to target transparency to leverage accountability.

Authors: Jonathan Fox