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From Action Research to Community-based Monitoring

Action Research


Action Research began development in the first half of the 20th Century and laid the groundwork for social accountability systems like Community-based Monitoring (CBM) and Community-based Participatory Research (CBPR). These paradigms prioritise collective evaluation and decision making within different communities by advocating collective involvement and local inclusion when gathering information and planning social development.


Action Research


At TOK Corporation we believe that collective inquiry is essential when building a strategy for social development. Psychologist Kurt Lewin was the original pioneer of action research. The concept was critical to his understanding of organisational development. In Action Research and Minority Problems (1946), Lewin defined action research as:


“,a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action, and research leading to action and described investigation into social practice as,for social management and social engineering.”


Lewin developed the Change Management Model (CMM) as an outline for the process of organisational development. Force Field Theory (FFT) was a critical part of the work. FFT portrayed behaviour as a product of environmental (field) factors that relate to the inextricable circumstances at the foundation of any given situation. While in equilibrium, balance was maintained between factors that drive change and factors that inhibit change. Behaviour changes when there is a reduction in inhibiting factors or increase in factors that support alternative approaches. CMM followed the pattern: unfreezing (when factors driving change outweigh the factors inhibiting change); then changing (when new ideas and methods are formulated and introduced); and finally freezing (when new behaviour is adopted and reinforced). Lewin also pioneered a Training-group (T-Groups) methodology that encouraged participants to become fully engaged with evaluation and analysis alongside researchers when studying their own behaviours, beliefs, organisations and communities. Action research has steadily grown in popularity within education since Lewin introduced the concept in the 1940’s.


In 2011 the Department of Education and Local Government Association began an investigation exploring how local authorities had adapted to growing autonomy within the education system. The researchers selected 9 broadly reflective local authorities and their investigation lasted from 30th November to 31st May the following year. During that period the number of academies (English schools funded by the DofE that operate independent of the local authority) across the country rapidly increased by 27%. The research was conducted over 2 phases and focused on 3 core responsibilities of the local authority: (1) ensuring a sufficient supply of school places; (2) tackling underperformance in schools and ensuring high standards; (3) supporting vulnerable children. Local authorities were advised to keep an activity diary and a self-assessment matrix completed at the beginning and again at the end. In the 1st phase researchers interviewed: headteachers, academy sponsors, children's services and local authority officers to build a picture of local experiences and concerns within the broad national context. The 2nd phase utilised action research in order to “,identify specific challenges arising from the new educational context and devise solutions for addressing these that can be implemented and tested.” They wanted local authorities to “,rethink some of their core systems and processes.” Local authorities were split into 2 groups based on similar interests and concerns. The agenda during the 1st meeting was to formulate strategies to address issues that had been identified in phase 1. They would then test each strategy in the following weeks in preparation for long term planning. In the 2nd meeting they would explore the results of any actions and discuss any new issues before developing a new set of actions for the next period. Local authorities noticed the positive impact of action research and “, could point to areas in which their thinking had become sharper and more defined.” The process concluded in: a reflective workshop to circulate the ideas developed during the investigation; and a report into local authorities and their role as academies increase within the education system.


Participatory Action Research


Paulo Freire began to advocate PAR in the education system early in the 20th Century. He is best known for theories related to critical pedagogy and his text Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It described the mechanics of praxis and it’s ontological purpose during humanisation. Freire argued that praxis (the process of theory, in action) was critical to educational reform. He analysed the impact of poverty on his education and that of the working class and his views attracted widespread recognition. They conceptualised a ‘traditional’ model of education built upon the authority given to educators for the transmission of knowledge from ‘superior (teacher)’ to ‘inferior (student)’. The text examined the political nature of education and argued against a ‘Banking Model of Education’ in which students equated to empty vessels to be filled with knowledge by their educators. Freire argued that to improve education you need to consider student reflections on to the practice of teaching and education while employing a problem-posing dialogical approach. In 1963 he became Director of a national literacy program. At a time when voters in Brazil were required to read and write. Freire and his colleagues pioneered adult education classes that saw students gain substantial improvement to their literacy in as little as 40-45 hours of contact time. Success was attributed to the link Freire built between the written words and the lives of his students. Freire’s teachings were considered such a threat to authority that he was forced into exile after Brazil’s military coup in 1964.


Community-based Monitoring


Participatory research is widely used to stimulate improvement in a variety of public services. The Government of India’s National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) was commissioned to address the inadequate provision of healthcare within India’s rural communities. The mission incorporated Community-based Monitoring and Planning (CBMPl) to ensure that people in rural communities were provided with adequate support by encouraging each community to influence activity through the NRHM. A pilot scheme began in 2007 for a project designed to promote the development of public accountability and the growth of demokratia (direct democracy) as a way to reinforce the centrality of the citizen in government. Historically, healthcare was provided publicly without any influence from users over what assistance was available. This issue was compounded by the degree of corruption and bureaucracy that marred the sector. CBMPl was implemented to improve the provision of services by creating a system to identify local interests and improve service. Democratization stimulates “,equalisation of power relations between the public and public servants, with recognition that the public servant as duty bearer is accountable to the public as rights holders.” The monitoring process was divided into 5 stages:

  1. Preparatory activities to create an environment amenable to monitoring: by conducting discussions with key stakeholders; and building monitoring committees.

  2. Monitoring group development: using workshops, training and orientation meetings.

  3. Community feedback: assessment and preparation of report cards.

  4. Public hearings: and Jan Swasthya Abhiyan meetings (JSA constitute the Indian section of the public health movement and have been involved since the beginning of the NRHM with a long standing commitment to social audit and community based monitoring).

  5. Periodic state level dialogue: to address concerns not resolved locally by assigning responsibility for corrective action from state level health officials.

The process identified critical concerns from local residents overlooked by healthcare officials. Some of the concerns related to basic health information that could’ve been placed on notice boards. Other issues addressed availability of water and highlighted areas of greater technical deficiency. A key insights reflected CBMP ability to empower the community and improve accountability amongst healthcare officials. The NRHM provided a degree of intervention that the community had never experienced prior to CBMP. Elected officials were compelled to act or face intervention from local service users who were not satisfied with the provision of local healthcare. The framework put health care users ‘in-charge’ of the officials responsible for developing rural healthcare. The NRHM was able to identify the potential or CBMP and led to documented improvements in healthcare for India’s rural population. The status that CBM acquired in a project endorsed by a nationally government was essential to the success of the program.


Citizen Report Cards


The Citizen Report Card was developed as a social auditing tool in Bangalore, India by an independent NGO the Public Affairs Committee (PAC). Report cards were a fundamental part of the NRHM monitoring program. The entitlements of service users gained formal recognition encouraging them to pursue better healthcare:


‘For the rural poor, who are most often locked in exploitative patron-client relationships, standing up in front of local officials and expressing their grievances is no ordinary feat. Recording of health system problems in government-supplied report cards have restored hope in people and no longer is denial of service accepted.’


Report cards are used extensively in development projects as a weapon of empowerment throughout the world. The Women’s Empowerment In Agriculture Index was built as “, a composite measurement tool that indicates women’s control over critical parts of their lives in the household, community, and economy.” The index identified: 5 Domains of Empowerment (5DE - production, resources, income, leadership, time); alongside a Gender Parity Index (household gender parity). It was designed to monitor the US Government’s Feed the Future aid program to combat global hunger and food scarcity. The program wanted to identify the disempowered and monitor any change in circumstances over the course of Feed the Future’s intervention.


Community Score Cards


The Community Score Card (CSC) is a CBM “,hybrid of the techniques of social audit, community monitoring and citizen report cards." The CSC is implemented in 6 stages:

  1. Preparatory groundwork. Initial engagement between researchers, community members, facility administration and stakeholders through which the concepts of CSC and CBM are introduced. CSC require a high degree of training, mobilisation, facilitation to be conducted correctly. Practitioners need to gather information and gain the communities trust to conduct this stage successfully.

  2. Developing the input tracking scorecard. Organise creation of input tracking scorecard as the community create a register of resources and requirements.

  3. Generation of the community performance scorecard. Organise group discussions for community to select 5-8 indicators of development that can be measured collectively using a community performance scorecard. Group scores can be made via consensus or voting alongside discussion. This stage concludes with a group discussion and improvement suggestions.

  4. Generation of the self-evaluation scorecard by facility/project staff. Facility administration create self-evaluation scorecard selecting 5-8 indicators. At this stage the administration will try to identify the communities grievances and discuss improvement suggestions.

  5. The interface meeting between community and providers. Interface between community and administration to ensure community feedback is taken into account. Both camps need preparation through sensitisation to the other groups requirements in order to facilitate a productive discussion with clearly defined outcomes. Practitioners need to ensure that the dialogue does not become adversarial to conduct this stage successfully.

  6. Follow up process of institutionalisation. Follow-up and institutionalisation are essential to the sustainability of CBM. Little value can be gained from the CSC as a singular exercise in comparison to wealth of knowledge gained through a systematic approach to collective analysis of development. Practitioners can promote the proliferation of CSC by educating communities, generating public support, building social networks and publishing results.

In 2010 the World Bank began funding the Programme for Accountability in Nepal to “,enhance the “demand side” of governance in Nepal by improving the ability of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to practice with various Social Accountability tools and to hold government accountable and responsive.” In 2011 the programme selected a selection of schools from the Nawalparasi district of Nepal to evaluate the impact of CSCs in education. Education had been afflicted by teacher absenteeism and PRAN intended to improve the quality of education and create incentives for girls and deprived communities. Social accountability in schools was restricted by: lack of qualified teachers, politicisation of school management, centralised recruitment practices, lack of transparency, inadequate Parent Teacher Associations and the exclusion of children from school management decisions. The studies biggest concern was absenteeism. Teachers were charged with poor timekeeping and accused of being distracted. During the study the participants conducted the scorecard activity twice to review the impact of the scorecard system. Both service providers and recipients documented reductions in absenteeism and some voiced concerns if the process was to be abandoned. The increase in social accountability resulted in a wide range of positive differences:

  • Recruitment of community facilitators,

  • Empowerment of parents,

  • Improved school management,

  • Increased budget transparency,

  • Build up of ‘caring’ attitude,

  • And commitment of local authorities.

The organisers gained significant insights into the impact of CSC. They were “,instrumental in establishing constructive exchange between parents and students (as service users) and teachers and school management (as service provider).” Facilitators must ensure that a constructive dialogue continues between communities and stakeholders. Parental engagement and student involvement were critical to improvements that correlated with participation. As teachers developed a more ‘caring’ attitude, students became more enthusiastic, took more responsibility and conducted student led initiatives. Although there were gains amongst deprived communities the study did not produce sufficient evidence of positive effects on people with severely limited economic opportunities. The CSC proved to be popular and cost-effective tool but facilitators recognised that they would need to invest in training and spend time building relationships with Community-based Organisations (CBO) to support sustainability. A successful program requires an extraordinary degree of commitment from any organisation intending to conduct a CSC.


In 2008 Plan UK and DFID/UKAID began funding a 4-year program conducted by 3 nationally active civil society organisations: Plan Malawi, Action Aid Malawi and the Council for Non-Governmental Organisations in Malawi (CONGOMA) operating alongside the Ministry for Development and Planning with local activity conducted by 20 local partners. The pilot involved 8 districts and 4 sectors: education, agriculture, health and water/ sanitation.


Several political events provide context for the socio-economic status and nature of public authority in Malawi at the time. After independence in 1966 President Hastings Kamuzu Banda lead the country for 30 years at first implementing policies that created enviable development year after year. Overtime political repression and economic instability grew as development declined. This lead to a referendum and multi-party election won by Bakili Muluzi. Muluzi’s victory was minor and he was forced to form a coalition government. In Muluzi’s first term corruption became decentralised as patronage and rent-seeking were ‘democratised’ with office holders who sought public authority for personal gain. His second term has been identified with the widespread misappropriation of public resources and end of the disintegration of state service provision. At the end of Banda’s regime the constitution had restricted the President to 2 terms. Muluzi made an unsuccessful attempt to change the constitution and was replaced by Bingu wa Mutharika. Mutharika leadership began positively as Malawi GDP by approximately 7% a year between 2004 and 2009. A landslide second election was followed by the oppression of dissent and consolidation of support. In 2010 the DFID had withdrawn budgetary support for the government after a political row over presidential spending. By 2011 internal and external factors had combined to disrupt Malawi from it’s positive trajectory and protests began against the continuing oppression. The Malawi Congress of Trade Unions, the Institute for Policy Interaction, faith collectives and community groups united under the Human Rights Consultative Committee planning demonstrations and producing a petition with 20 key concerns and recommendations. The protests were later cancelled following arson attacks that threatened the safety of organisers.


Malawi’s history of centralisation lead to a lack of local coordination and an inadequate structure to social support from local service providers. Features of Malawi’s political economy included:

  • Patterns of ‘big man’ rule and patronage: as a result of Banda’s regime.

  • Divergence of formal and informal rules: after continuous corruption in the civil service.

  • Patterns of traditional governance: village chiefs are a core part of Malawi’s social fabric.

  • Historical capacity for community ‘self help’: the power and accountability of village chiefs when distributing support.

Theory of Change


Investigators often build social development programs around a specific ‘theory of change’ that outlines the key: assumptions, activities, outputs and outcomes. Assumptions provoke activities with different outputs, leading to a range of different outcomes.


The Malawi program was based on three assumptions: when citizens know their entitlements they participate in collective decision making and accountability; when citizens know their entitlements they make evidence-based demands to service providers; public officials will use accurate information on the needs of citizens to improve provision of service. Activities related to the implementation the CSC include: initiating dialogue between the citizen and the state; training non-governmental and civil society organisations; implementation process. The program was designed to: improve in evidence-based planning; enhanced community participation; and enhance accountability amongst service providers. According to the ‘theory of change’, more effective delivery of public service was the programmes expected the outcome.


These circumstances set the context for Leni Wild and Daniel Harris’ report on ‘The political economy of community scorecards in Malawi’.


Their investigation selected 2 of the 8 districts studying: education and agriculture. In agriculture the Farm Input Subsidies Program (FISP) provided vouchers for fertilisers to vulnerable farmers. The program, that been able to successfully increase production beyond requirements between 2006 and 2010, as part of Mutharika’s agenda became a source of patronage. In education local direction had been restricted by centralisation and schools were left without funds to finance development. Funds in both agriculture and education were regularly distributed on the basis of patronage. The District Education Plans were seen as a sign of hope but in practice had no influence over central planning.


Wild and Harris’s report challenged the extent to which the impact of the program related to the facilitators ‘theory of change’. The greatest challenge focused on the assumed correlation between empowerment and service delivery. Consistent centralisation had lead to significant incentives for office holders to support the ruling party magnifying the impact of patronage and personal loyalties on the distribution of political equity. Village chiefs were encouraged to put the interests of the national government before their communities while members who actively reinforced the patron-client relationship were “,more motivated to access discrete and tangible goods for themselves or their families (or immediate communities) than to cultivate any wider responsibility for the provision of public goods.” The research identified distribution of FISP fertiliser vouchers on the basis of patronage. The report suggested that this phenomena had been reflected in education when CSC evaluation significantly improved without improvements in the relationship between service users and providers.


These findings were critical to understanding the nature of the CBMP. The significance of actor relations had been overlooked in the ‘theory of change’ and facilitators failed to recognise the value of ‘collaborative spaces’. In some districts this understanding gained informal recognition as facilitators attempted to build bridges between the state and society. At the beginning CSC were developed to empower citizens by identifying their needs. Now that the significance of community relations has been identified the community can use CSC to build relations by challenging the separation of supply from demand and establishing a platform to collectively manage of communal assets.

Wild and Harris’s analysis was able to identify 2 ‘dimensions of change’. Local to national: reflecting a range regional changes to multi-level changes at the national or budgetary level; Incremental to transformational: reflecting minor differences to fundamental shifts in policy, power, mindset or accountability. These dimensions relate to 4 possible outcomes.


Local transformational changes relate to changes between citizens and state as the distribution authority becomes increasingly related to service quality. The study saw little transformational change. The programme did raise awareness within organisations like the School Management Committee (SMC) and Market Management Committees of their roles and responsibilities in some cases helping them to hold others to account.


Local incremental changes were greatest when positive change had been prevented by a range of collective action problems. These situations arose when a problem best solved by two or more people remained unresolved because of concerns relating to motivation (free-riding) or management (non-exclusivity). The program recorded communities coming together to provide resources and labour for school buildings while Kasungu district took measures to reduce opportunities for corruption by changing the environment in which farm inputs were distributed.


Systemic incremental changes correspond to increases in funding or bottom-up communication within the established framework as opposed to a change of incentives. During this study as result of the political situation funding had declined with the withdrawal of international aid.


Systemic transformational change is the broadest outcome covering various areas of development as the state becomes more responsive to the citizens demand. Sanctions are imposed in relation to collective grievances. Another step would make duty-bearers directly accountable to citizens. This transformation would require support from strong leadership with vision and bureaucratic incentives. According to Wild and Harris these features were not widely available in Malawi during their report. Influence was greatest with the widest range of reforms when the program engaged with reformers, in each sector, district and chiefdom. These reformers were supported by established reputations for local support. These relationships were maintained by the wisdom and knowledge of local CBO partners.


These dimensions construct the matrix of outcomes from CBMP in Malawi. It highlights the value of collaboration and the potential of scorecards to help to diffuse political tension by supporting constructive dialogue. The process can help communities make a distinction between long term goals that require systemic change and collective action. Wild and Harris’s report also highlights the degree of flexibility in CBM as it is developed and refined by continual analysis and reflection.


During the programme “,there was significant demand for the CBMP to be rolled out more widely.” The report made a number of recommendations for the expansion of this form of action research:

  • Incorporate collaborative spaces into the theory of change,

  • Conduct thorough analysis of results from scorecard to identify issues and trends,

  • Conduct thorough mapping of key entry points for reform,

  • Boost dialogue and policy influence via public ‘agents’,

  • Evaluate pre-existing conditions,

  • Increase investment in political skills and analysis.

These examples outline our brief introduction into the history and development of community-based monitoring.

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