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Accountability in the 21st century

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

Movements for social justice are demanding - and the power of social media is facilitating - a new kind of accountability for organisations to the people they serve. Increased openness and willingness to respond to consumer pressure or to movements such as Black Lives Matter or Charity So White has become part of the landscape for many civil society leaders. But is this change driven by a desire to be seen to do the right thing, rather than a willingness to grapple with real issues of how and for whom they work?

When every announcement comes with a hashtag, when the actions of leaders are exposed more readily through social media, when every organisation professes the desire for engagement from staff, volunteers, and service users – what are we to make of the traditional accountability frameworks governing civil society organisations?

A group of 16 civil society leaders have been grappling with just these questions. These men and women are members of the PACT Pioneer Programme, which over 18 months is challenging leaders to bring to life some of the principles of the recommendations from the Independent Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society (

At their last session PACT pioneers were invited to consider the ways in which traditional accountability structures tend to flow ‘upwards’, favouring the interests of the powerful (like funders) over the less powerful (often the people or communities that such organisations were created to serve). Strong upward and weak downward accountability can drive organisations towards performance measures that may seem to some staff or supporters to be taking them away from their mission or values.

Putting in place new processes and systems to strengthen downward accountability (like collecting feedback or sharing decision-making rights more widely with those impacted by the work) is an important part of civil society’s response. Yet the group also discussed how recruiting new people to the board or gathering feedback differently is only part of the story. They discussed their own individual role as leaders in making accountability processes effective. They talked about the behaviours and cultures that can make downward accountability harder within teams and organisations.

A leader’s awareness of their own power emerged as particularly important. The rank and power that goes with a leader’s role can affect how colleagues see them and the type of feedback and ideas they choose to share with them. Yet when leaders aren’t aware of this and don’t take steps to address this power dynamic, it can distort communication and make it harder to get good quality feedback. Sometimes, if leaders are in situations where they themselves feel like they lack of power, they may close themselves off to critical feedback to protect themselves too, they may surround themselves with others who think like them and they may not want to admit that they need help. Participants on the programme are currently piloting and exploring strategies to navigate their own relationship to receiving feedback on their leadership.

We explored how leaders play a crucial role in setting the tone for the types of feedback that are valued in the places they work. We explored how some aspects of performance (particularly those about how people ‘feel’ about an organisation and its culture) are harder to ‘count’ and measure. Sometimes gaining feedback on issues like this can be uncomfortable reading. Yet feedback of this type can offer a really useful insight into how people experience the work of civil society and their involvement in it.

Towards the end of the session, PACT leaders were invited to take a blank sheet of paper and dare to imagine approaches to accountability more closely aligned with their organisation’s mission or which focus more on what matters and less on what’s easily countable. One participant, Danny Sriskandarajah, CEO Oxfam GB, said:

“the exercise we did forced me to think about my behaviours and the culture and structures that organisations like mine adopt.”

Another participant, Meena Rajput, Diversity and Inclusion Lead at Greenpeace, said the session…

“made me realise that I’ve never held anyone to account. The session helped me reflect on what a culture of accountability means – it’s about being honest with myself. Through accountability comes growth”.

Over the coming months we will be sharing more learning, ideas and tools from the group’s work.

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