Q&A with Accountability Lab’s Blair Glencourse

Blair Glencourse is the founder and executive director of the Accountability Lab, an anti-corruption oriented nonprofit organization that places integrity at the heart of its work. Accountability Lab prides itself on taking a “positive” approach to anti-corruption work, focusing on solutions, do-gooders, and individuals instead of institutions and bad actors (a method they refer to as “naming and faming” instead of “naming and shaming”. CIPE’s Business of Integrity Blog recently caught up with Glencourse to talk about Accountability Lab’s unique approach to promoting integrity.

 

How do you judge the success of your work?

Building accountability and integrity is not easy to measure- it is a generational process, which is why focusing on young people is so important. It is not linear; and it is political. All of this makes progress difficult to quantify. Some of our efforts are easier to measure in quantitative terms than others. We carry out regular qualitative surveys and real-time information collection processes among our stakeholders- to understand how our work might be influencing or changing attitudes, actions or norms. We are also finding more scientific ways to understand how our work is leading to concrete changes- through a process called contribution tracing, for example. More recently, we have begun to design broader experiments to see how our efforts might affect certain constituencies versus others within a specific context. And we bring in external experts whenever we can to evaluate our efforts. The most important thing for us is learning- we don’t mind if the evidence shows something isn’t working. If we can work out why, that learning is incredibly valuable, both for us- and as we share it- for the field more broadly. Then we can iterate and improve.

One of the most unique anti-corruption programs you run is “Integrity Icon”, which spotlights the most honest civil servants in nations such as Nepal and Liberia. What kind of impact has Integrity Icon had on the culture of accountability in these countries, and are you looking to expand the reach of the program in the future?

We’re beginning to see some really exciting outcomes from Integrity Icon. For example, one winner in Nepal was recently made the Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Labor (an important department in Nepal) and the fact that he was an Icon was explicitly referenced in the reasoning for his promotion. The same goes for a previous winner who recently became the Minister of Justice in Mali. If we are seeing integrity becoming a key criterion by which people in power are being judged, that is a really important change. In other places, Integrity Icon has led to changes to civil service training exams, and we are working with civil service training schools to adapt their curricula and bring in the Icons as mentors for incoming recruits. Through Integrity Icon in Nepal (and under discussion in Pakistan) we have even developed an Integrity School, through which we create peer learning networks of pubic servants to share challenges and develop new solutions to challenges of accountability; and Integrity Fellowships through which young people serve with the Idols. The evidence from this program indicates that people who previously said they would never join government because they are people of integrity are now saying they see how it is possible. This is all exciting stuff, because it shows we are slowly shifting perceptions of what is possible and the ways that governance manifests itself.

What role does gender equity play in Accountability Lab’s work?

Equity is central to what we do in every way- whether that is equity in terms of gender, ethnicity, language, geography, sexuality or any other differences. We believe strongly that we cannot create accountable societies unless these are predicated on equity and inclusion. We live this internally within our own organization but also support it in a variety of ways within the work we do. One thing we have realized, when it comes to gender, is that governance programming rarely accounts for the varied pressures, incentives and relationships that different types of people have- different types of men, for example, or women vis-à-vis men. We’d like to explore that more through research over the coming years and through the ways we support champions to push for reforms.

Do you believe that there is an ideal point at which nations are able to “self-regulate” in the realm of anti-corruption and accountability, without help from foreign groups? If so, what internal conditions need to exist in order for a nation to reach this state?

We believe strongly that foreign groups should only be involved in anti-corruption work if they are truly supporting and lifting up local efforts, actors and movements that are building accountability. There is far too much work in international development that is self-interested, sub-optimal and only perpetuates the status-quo without addressing the causes of inequality and corruption (perhaps a larger conversation for another time).

Communities themselves always have the knowledge, ideas and processes to solve problems- they are always “empowered”; there is no need for anyone to empower them. There may in certain circumstances be a role for international organizations to play in supporting reforms- but it needs to be done in the right way. At the Lab, we think this means truly being part of those communities, living their challenges as far as possible in the same ways they do, and meaningfully listening to ideas for change. It means building trust over a long period of time, ensuring flexible approaches, and working with the most excluded populations as far as possible. We certainly always need to improve, but this is a starting point.

Over the past several years, developed democracies have seen a rise in populism. Has Accountability Lab’s work changed at all in the face of this trend?

I would argue that populism is a direct result of a lack of trust in government, which in turn comes back to a lack of accountability and integrity. It is a symptom, not a cause. Everywhere we go, we speak to people who tell us that their biggest problem is a lack of accountability of people in power, or that there is no justice for the poor, or that patronage flows from the top-down- this is as true in developed countries as developing contexts. One important shift we have seen is the emphasis among many groups- like the OpenGov Hub of which we are a part- to share lessons from the developing world around these issues that might be relevant in North America or Europe, for example. The learning is definitely in both directions. At the Lab, we are also looking at how we can do this practically- and we are planning to launch Integrity Icon in the US next year, which is exciting. As we have in other contexts, if we can highlight the incredible work of honest civil servants in the United States, we hope it might in a small way shift the needle among the public and begin to rebuild a modicum of trust.

 

Caroline Kelly, Fellow, CIPE’s Anti-Corruption and Governance Center