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Social Audits: When People Verify State Actions

A social audit is a powerful accountability tool to understand, measure, verify, report on, and improve a government’s implementation of its policies and programs. [1]


Social audits let communities control public investment in a variety of programs such as the construction of roads or water supply, housing programs, as well as social safety net and employment programs. Similar to a financial audit, the social audit verifies how money is being spent. It involves reviewing official records and determining whether state-reported expenditures reflect the actual monies spent on the ground.


The very nature of social audits—which involve the dissemination of information, a physical space for citizens to interact with officials, the public and collective form of interaction, and the presence (which in some cases is mandatory) of government officials—contains the necessary ingredients to ensure national or state agencies take action.


Social audits were first developed and used in the 1990s by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) [2], a grass roots organization in Rajasthan, India, that has been spearheading the fight against corruption and misappropriation of public funds in the state. Public investment and safety net programs had deteriorated into self-service outlets of the powerful at the time. MKSS used the social audit process, which culminates in a 'Jansunwai' or public hearing to uncover the secrecy and corruption of those involved in misappropriations and were successful in improving how some state programs function. Subsequently, the social audit and other processes that increase accountability have become an integral part of state programs in India. One example is the Employment Guarantee Act of 2005 and the National Food Security Act of 2013. The film that follows explores a social audit of the government’s national rural employment scheme.

What is the purpose of the Social Audit?

The social audit is a process through which all stakeholders, both service providers and users, systematically examine the impact of a project or service, comparing the real benefits that have been achieved with the planned benefits, while also looking at unexpected impacts. The findings of the social audit are shared with all stakeholders.

© Illustration by Civil Society Academy

How to conduct a social audit

1. Preparatory groundwork

  • Define the scope of the audit, (e.g., the specific service, organization, program, project, component, or activity to be examined).

  • Form a committee or working group to implement and oversee the social audit.

  • Identify key stakeholders (intended users, community members, local civil society organizations, service providers, responsible government officials, employees, contractors, volunteers, donors, etc.)

  • Develop a clear understanding of relevant administrative structures and pinpoint key responsible agencies/actors.

  • Develop a clear understanding of the vision and objectives of the service/project in question.

  • Develop performance indicators through stakeholder consultation.

  • Consider requesting specialized assistance to plan your information-gathering channels (including sampling, development of questionnaires) and how you will analyze and use the data collected.

  • Organize a public awareness campaign about the aims and benefits of the social audit, using media, public forums, door-to-door visits, etc.

2. Investigation and analysis

  • Access relevant public documents (such as accounting records, cash books, payroll, bills, technical project reports, and managerial records). The Right to Information Act (if enacted in your country) can be used for this purpose.

  • Gather qualitative data from relevant stakeholders about their perceptions and experiences of the service/project in question (e.g., using surveys, focus group discussions, community meetings, etc.).

  • Collect qualitative and quantitative data through household questionnaires; community profile questionnaires that focus on the use, experience, and perception of public services; published and available administrative data; interviews with elected representatives and service providers; and focus group discussions.

  • Analyze the collected data (specialized assistance may be needed).

3. Public disclosure and evidence-based dialogue

  • Develop a communication strategy to disseminate findings and outcomes (using the media, public meetings, and postings, etc.).

  • Convene meetings with community members to discuss findings and propose changes and solutions.

  • Convene public meetings with public authorities/service providers to allow community members to discuss the evidence, and to plan and implement changes.

4. Follow-up

  • Where necessary, use findings to address specific instances of mismanagement and corruption, as well as broader policy considerations.

  • Train and support community members and service providers to undertake future social audits.

  • Prepare a formal report on the social audit after the hearing/forum, and send copies to relevant senior government officials, the media, and other groups.

  • Aim to ultimately institutionalize social audits and repeat them regularly.


This tool can be applied to collective action at the community level. The main audit is for one to two days but preparatory work involving invitation and analysis of data as well as community interaction takes time, which may vary, as officials need to check their schedules and availability. The preparatory work starts a month before the public meeting and regular follow-ups with officials must be done to ensure their participation. Also, communication with the community should continue.



What are the advantages?

Government, civil society, and community-level actors can individually or jointly conduct social audits. They often start as civil society initiatives and sometimes evolve into collaborative efforts as the government sees the benefits of the approach. Social audits are sometimes undertaken as a one-off event but are usually more effective when planned as an ongoing process, and undertaken at regular intervals. Usually, participatory techniques are used to involve all relevant stakeholders, where problems are identified and the process of implementing changes is initiated.


Over the years, various studies have found that social audits’ most significant contribution is increased public awareness. This increased awareness, coupled with the public nature of the audit, encourages public debate on different aspects of the implementation of government programs. As a result, the social audit brings out a range of complaints or issues citizens face. Not only do social audits expose corruption, but they also reveal a range of governance issues related to day-to-day administration, such as policy bottlenecks and lack of information. More important, access to information through audits enables citizens to pinpoint actions the government must take.



The advantages of a social audit include:

  • Ensuring that the implementation of projects and programs is transparent, enabling community members to identify, control, and report irregularities.

  • Generating information that is perceived to be evidence-based, accurate, and impartial.

  • Raising awareness among beneficiaries and local service providers about public projects or services.

  • Assessing the impact of projects and preventing the abuse of funds and corruption.

  • Strengthening community empowerment through participation in the process.

  • Improving citizens’ access to public information and serving as a valuable tool for exposing corruption and mismanagement.

  • Increasing social audit committee members’ basic understanding of project finance and procurement.

  • Promoting collective decision-making and shared responsibilities. They allow stakeholders to better influence the government’s behavior and monitor progress.



What are the challenges when conducting a social audit?

  • Requires substantial technical support, especially in obtaining and analyzing data.

  • Access to public records is crucial and obtaining records may often depend on political willingness. The Right to Information laws should be used to access copies of public records in such cases.

  • In some cases, the absence of accurate and updated public records is a problem.

  • Public service providers and policymakers may feel threatened by the social audit process. It is prudent to foresee the need for conflict management and to remind all participants that the primary goal is not to blame, but to bring about improvements.


 

Case Study


Social Audit in Odisha, India: A Collective Action for Nutrition Program [3]


Social audits offer a demand-driven alternative to improving the delivery of state nutrition related services. In India, social audits have been institutionalized in a few national laws and programs including the employment guarantee act and food security act. The latter aims to improve food and nutrition security by bringing together existing programs on a) Integrated Child Development Services, b) school feeding, c) a cash transfer program to benefit pregnant women or maternity entitlement scheme and d) public distribution system.


Section 28 of the National Food Security Act in India provides that “every local authority, or any other authority or body, as may be authorized by the State Government, shall conduct or cause to be conducted periodic social audits…” Similarly, Section 29 provides “for ensuring transparency and proper functioning of the Targeted Public Distribution System and accountability of the functionaries in such system, every State Government shall set up Vigilance Committees…”.


These provisions in the law along with public interest litigation on the implementation of the food security act by Swaraj Abhiyan are the rationale behind Collective Action for Nutrition’s social audit exercises in the state of Odisha in India. The social audit has been undertaken across 240 Gram Panchayats in 24 blocks of 6 districts in the state. A team of 10 to 12 auditors and a team leader are placed in every Gram Panchayat for eight days to conduct the audit. In this phase, intensive campaigns are also conducted as promotional activities for the social audit. Seven days are spent in institutional verification, individual interviews, conducting village meetings, focus group discussions with local council members, field surveys, data collection with rights holders, compiling information, and preparing reports. On the eighth day, a Gram Sabha is organised where all the social audit’s findings are presented, and resolutions are passed.


All the social audits are conducted in consultation and coordination with the Gram Panchayat. The elected head of Gram Panchayats writes letters informing block-level officials of concerned departments about the process and notifying the date of the Gram Sabha. Four schemes are audited in this process.


For Integrated Child Development Services, the facilities along with registers of Anganwadi centers are verified. Moreover, visits are made to the houses of 20 percent of the beneficiaries. At least four direct cash transfer beneficiaries of each Anganwadi center are interviewed. Interviewers also asked questions regarding the availability of grain under the public distribution system. Along with household verifications, meetings are held in villages in the presence of Vigilance Committee members, mothers' committee members, panchayat members, and community members. The point is to get an overall sense of how the policies work and to raise awareness about them. Panchayat ward members preside over village meetings.


Some key findings from the social audit are: 1) Nearly one in ten (9.75 percent) eligible households do not participate in the public distribution scheme. They do not have the required cards and documents to get subsidized food grain from the fair price shops; 2) the information boards that were supposed to be at each fair price shop, per Section 10 of Odisha Public Distribution System Control Order 2016, are mostly absent or the information displayed is not updated; 3) Vigilance Committees are largely not working at the block and Gram Panchayat level. Only 52 out of the 240 Gram Panchayats studied had Vigilance Committees.


After the initial findings from the social audit were shared in Gram Sabha meetings, reports were shared at the block level in the presence of panchayat members and officials. Periodic social action bulletins are shared with all departments concerned. Data is also shared with the Panchayati Raj department and the Women and Child Department.


 

Social Audit in Kenya: Budget Transparency and Accountability [4]


The activities of Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI) a civil society organization based in Mombasa, Kenya demonstrate the significant role budget transparency plays in improving accountability. MUHURI’s work also shows how public engagement in the budget process can strengthen oversight and lead to public service delivery.


Since 2005, MUHURI has been monitoring expenditures made under the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), which was introduced in 2003 during the Kibaki presidency [5]. The main purpose is to address the socio-economic development of the people at the constituency level, reduce poverty, and enhance regional equity. This fund provides every Member of Parliament in Kenya with approximately $1 million a year to support development projects in his or her constituency. The CDF has been more effective in delivering development aid than traditional line ministries, and marginalized local communities have welcomed the fund. However, the funds have been plagued by allegations of corruption, fraud, nepotism, and lack of accountability, as no regulatory framework governs the allocation of these funds.


MUHURI has worked to bridge CDF’s accountability gap by conducting “social audits”—participatory processes in which CSOs and communities evaluate the use of public resources and identify how best to improve outcomes of public programs and policies. The social audit also looks at the quality of community participation in decision-making and how well projects serve the needs of the residents.


During the first two years of their monitoring efforts, MUHURI struggled to gain access to CDF records. As a result, their activities were limited to generating awareness about CDF schemes. Then in 2007, MUHURI succeeded in obtaining CDF records from two parliamentary constituencies. It subsequently used the records to conduct two social audits—one in August 2007 in Changanwe (a suburb of Mombasa, in Mombasa County) and the other in July 2008 in Bahari (Kilifi County).


Describing the audit as a “training” event, rather than a public discussion, MUHURI convinced the MP of Changamwe that the social audit would be a ground-breaking event, as he would be the first MP ever to open his accounts to civil society. In addition, they convinced the MP that the audit would help boost his public image—a particularly persuasive argument during an election year.


MUHURI obtained a partial set of CDF records for 14 projects for the social audit—projects the Changamwe CDF Committee (CDC) considered the best. Some of the documents they were given included the Second Schedule, listing the projects selected by the CDC; Bills of Quantities, describing work specifications; minutes of CDC meetings; and Completion Certificates, which verify that projects were completed.


With these documents, MUHURI and the social audit team conducted site visits to all 14 projects, which included interviews with residents. They discovered several problems in the implementation of the projects that would have been impossible to identify without detailed project records. For example, when auditing a market construction project, residents described how materials from the old market had been used in the construction of the new market, even though the Bill of Quantities showed that all new materials were to be purchased.


A day-long public hearing was then held to announce the findings, with approximately 1,500 attendees, including residents, local CDF officials, and media. The details of this public hearing are given in the related article in this toolbox.



The documentary film, “It’s Our Money. Where’s It Gone?”, focuses on how the international Budget Partnership’s partner, MUHURI, is involving communities in directly monitoring the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) in Mombasa, Kenya.


 

Notes:


[1] Dona Mathew, “Social Accountability: The Indian Experience,” Accountability Initiative, April 20, 2018, Social Audits: The Indian Experience - Accountability Initiative: Responsive Governance (accountabilityindia.in).


[2] “About MKSS,” Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, accessed August 25, 2022, http://mkssindia.org/.


[3] Gordon, Jessica, et al. "APPI/SPREAD Collective Action for Nutrition Social Audit Programme Odisha, India: Final Evaluation Report." (2019).


[4] Vivek Ramkumar and Sowmya Kidambi, “Twataka Pesa Zetu” (We Want Our Money): A Public Budget Hearing in Kenya, Social Audits in Kenya: Budget Transparency and Accountability,” International Budget Partnership, August 22, 2007, https://www.internationalbudget.org/publications/%E2%80%9Ctwataka-pesa-zetu%E2%80%9D-we-want-our-money-a-public-budget-hearing-in-kenya/.


[5] The CDF Act has undergone a series of amendments over the succeeding years. Most recently the National Government Constituencies Development Fund (NGCDF) has been established under the NG-CDF Act 2015

 

References:

Bangladesh Institute of Theatre Arts (BITA). “Understanding Social Audit.” Accessed August 25, 2022. https://bitactg.org/social- audit-process/.


Berthin, Gerardo. "A Practical Guide to Social Audit as a Participatory Tool to Strengthen Democratic Governance." Transparency, and Accountability, United Nations Development Programme UNDP Regional Centre Panama (2011). practicalguide-socialaudit-e.pdf (undp-aciac.org).


Centre for Good Governance. “Social Audit: A Toolkit for Performance Improvement and Outcome Measurement.” Hyderabad: CGG, 2005.


Gordon, Jessica, Jean-Pierre Tranchant, Laura Casu, Becky Mitchell, and Nicholas Nisbett. “APPI/SPREAD Collective Action for Nutrition Social Audit Programme Odisha, India.” Brighton: IDS, 2016.


Mathew, Dona. “Social Accountability: The Indian Experience.” Accountability Initiative, April 20, 2018. Social Audits: The Indian Experience - Accountability Initiative: Responsive Governance (accountabilityindia.in).


Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. “About MKSS.” Accessed August 25, 2022. http://mkssindia.org/.


Ramkumar, Vivek, and Sowmya Kidambi. “Twataka Pesa Zetu” (We Want Our Money): A Public Budget Hearing in Kenya, Social Audits in Kenya: Budget Transparency and Accountability,” International Budget Partnership, August 22, 2007. https://www.internationalbudget.org/publications/%E2%80%9Ctwataka-pesa-zetu%E2%80%9D-we-want-our-money-a-public-budget-hearing-in-kenya/.


Social Justice Coalition (SJC), Ndifuna Ukwazi (NU), and International Budget Partnerships (IBP). “Social Audit Network South Africa: Experiences in South Africa: A Guide to Conducting Social Audits in South Africa.” Published November 2015. E-Guide.


The World Bank Group. “Social Accountability”. Published April 15, 2019. https://ppp.worldbank.org/public-private-partnership/library/social-accountability-e-guide.


 

About the Author:


Jeannette Weller is a Senior Advisor for Civil Society for Welthungerhilfe in Bonn, looking at strategies related to civil society and rights-based work. Before moving to Bonn in 2012, Jeannette has been a Regional Director for Welthungerhilfe in South America, where she lived for nearly a decade.


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