What is community accountability?

What does accountability mean to community businesses? Is it about accounts and following legal requirements, or is it something broader, about engagement and communication between businesses, their communities and stakeholders? That’s the backdrop to new research on community accountability being carried out by the Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) for Power to Change. Research Manager Eliza Buckley tells us about their preliminary findings.

The research aims to develop a deeper understanding about what accountability means in practice and help Power to Change (and other funders) to assess and support it. In this post, I wanted to share some of the themes and questions that I’ve been thinking about based on our work so far which includes a literature review and 10 scoping interviews.

What does community accountability mean or look like?
There will be no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Community businesses are ‘hybrid organisations’ – they include community pubs, farms, shops and regeneration projects to name just a few – that blend social and economic imperatives. As organisations that work for social benefit – often set up by local people, for local people – many are registered charities or operate in a cooperative model of mutual ownership where strategic direction is exercised through a member-owner structure.

Our work so far suggests that community businesses are using a wide range of approaches in their attempts to be accountable and that the breadth of this range is important – it reflects the mixed bag of organisations that comprise the community business sector. Both our scoping interviewees and the literature review shows that this range extends from more formal mechanisms – such as ownership and community shares – to more informal aspects of being ‘visible’ and engaging with the community. Some community businesses are even thinking about accountability through social value, local employment and procurement.

From bureaucratic accountability to popular accountability
One thing that has particularly struck me is that there is both a moral/values base and a business case for community accountability:

 

“These are often vulnerable businesses because they are difficult e.g. an area where the state won’t intervene. These are not the most profitable markets. And they mainly use their profit for social good. Good will is a life or death asset and engagement and accountability provide good will.”

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The legitimacy – and ultimately success – of a community business relies on having the support of, and a connection with, the community so that the community is willing to invest in it by contributing their skills, volunteering or buying services or products.

The idea of building a connection or relationship with the community shifts the focus, as one interviewee said, “from a bureaucratic accountability to popular accountability”. These approaches appear to be more value driven and attempt to distribute power among members, users or local people. Much of this also draws on community development and engagement; concentrating on ways that draw out and build on strengths within communities.[1] This view of accountability is underpinned by the assumption that day-to-day contact with beneficiaries is as important as formal mechanisms. One of our interviewees explained:

 

"It’s about how well they [community businesses] understand their place, really know the area ... it’s granular ... it’s not about knowing there are 700 people over the deprivation level in that area. Rather, its Mrs J at No. 55 and that she’s got a ‘gammy’ leg."

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Serving multiple masters

One tension often cited in the literature is that organisations become drawn towards accountability to funders rather than users/local people. Our findings so far raise questions about whether the real need is for a flexible, broad approach, with accountability ‘upwards’ to funders and regulators;  ‘outwards’ to the community; and ‘inwards’ to staff, members, community shareholders. Finding an appropriate model/framework for accountability that achieves this can be a challenge, especially for hybrid organisations. Indeed, for Power to Change, who fund many different types of community business, it also has implications for how it supports, measures and assesses accountability.

What next?

Between June and September 2017, we are carrying out case studies of 12 community businesses to explore some of the issues raised here and learn about the meaning, practice and challenges of community accountability. We will continue to share as the research progresses and are keen to hear your views on the questions and issues our work has raised so far, including the tensions of:

  • Managing the time and resources required to engage meaningfully with communities (and not a ‘tick box’ exercise)
  • Maintaining momentum and energy, for example, reinvigorating membership and structures – communities change over time!
  • For some community businesses, balancing efficiency with democratic decision-making processes
  • The mechanisms and skills needed to demonstrate accountability
  • Which stakeholders exercise accountability, in what circumstances and why?
  • Governance is part of accountability (not the only route to it) – how do community businesses develop governance that allows for participation and engagement?

The full research and findings will be published in Autumn. Sign up to our newsletter to receive them straight to your inbox.

[1] ‘Building on assets’ https://www.ivar.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Building-on-Assets-the-local-trust-approach-2015.pdf (produced by IVAR as part of our work with Big Local) describes and analyses what we mean by ‘assets’ and teases out the benefits and traps of an asset-based approach.