Caroline Harper

10 November, 2015

Yes to stronger ICSO accountability – but is real time transparency the answer?

This is the final post in our four-week series of guest blogs by influencers in the civil society sector, reflecting on ideas and topics brought up in the book The Hedgehog and the Beetle – Disruption and Innovation in the Civil Society Sector by Burkhard Gnärig. The below blog  by Caroline Harper, Chief Executive Officer of Sightsavers, relates to the book section “Turning ‘once-a-year accountability’ into ‘real-time transparency’” (pp.167-178).

Trust in international civil society organisations (ICSOs) in the UK is at a low ebb. Media are repeatedly attacking charitable organisations – from CEO salaries to fundraising methods, to administration costs and exhortations that we must ‘stick to our knitting’ and drop advocacy work.

A number of organisations have gone under – the spectacular bankruptcy of Kids Company after receiving millions of pounds from the government is still reverberating. Our sector is not immune. We have seen others (eg. Merlin) disappear for want of working capital. Kids Company had virtually no reserves, but the death knell came from accusations of child abuse – something which strikes fear into the heart of any ICSO working with children. And I now have nightmares that hackers currently attacking mobile phone companies will decide that the charity sector is a soft target…

Strong risk management which protects us and accountability systems which demonstrate that we can be trusted are essential.

The Importance of Performance

“’This is a highly ethical organisation – we do not fire our employees.’ This left me with the conclusion: ‘But if your income has been shrinking by 20% and if you haven’t cut down your staff costs accordingly, you must be spending 20% less on supporting children.’ Without a reply the manager angrily turned away and left, shaking his head in disbelief at my strange way of looking at a civil society organisation.” – Burkhard Gnärig, The Hedgehog and the Beetle, p.171

It is critical that we are high performance organisations. To gain trust we must be worthy of it. Burkhard’s comments about not shedding staff struck a chord, and.there is also an issue of tolerance of mediocrity. In my early days at Sightsavers we repeatedly renewed contracts without thinking, and there was a sense that you couldn’t expect people who worked at a charity to be as good as those in the private sector.  We have changed that culture. It is not easy, and we have had some criticism for it. Actually good staff want this – they have professional pride, are dedicated to a cause, and they hate carrying people who are not delivering or are lazy.

I have found that professionalism and wanting to be the best organisation drives our people forward, alongside the moral imperative to change the world – even without a profit motive.

Strengthening accountability

“The idea of a joint standard for transparency and accountability emerged and the INGO Accountability Charter was born… to develop an overarching framework which would secure better accountability by raising standards and a more effective framework by convincing donors to join the effort.” – Burkhard Gnärig, The Hedgehog and the Beetle, p.174

I am a fan of the INGO Accountability Charter and it is good to see more organisations coming on board. There are challenges – it is not known well enough by donors, media or any of those who ask about our legitimacy. This is its greatest issue.

Is real time transparency the answer?

“With the systematic use of digital information technologies ICSOs would be able to deliver real time accountability. This would dramatically increase the usefulness of the collected data and the interest staff and leaders across the organisation would take in delivering and drawing on accountability information.” – Burkhard Gnärig, The Hedgehog and the Beetle, p.175

This proposal sent a shudder through me. There is no shortage of data, although ensuring it is of good quality is a big challenge. Putting data “out there in real time” runs the risk of overload which will have little meaning and won’t be reliable.   Indeed one way of concealing a problem is to bury it in a mountain of data… The cost implications are enormous – look at how much is spent in the UK by organisations who deal with Freedom of Information requests. Do donors really want us to spend our money on this? How does that square with the distaste for administration costs? It may also lead to short term thinking amongst ICSOs – exactly the problem that more frequent reporting has caused in the corporate world (living from quarterly statement to quarterly statement).

The bigger challenge is helping our stakeholders make sense of the data we put out. Do we explain succinctly what we are doing and what it really means?    Stakeholders have the right to know what we are achieving and how we are doing it and that information must be honest and intelligible. That isn’t the same thing as having a plethora of real time information constantly broadcast.

Let’s remember who owns much of the data we generate and use to develop programmes – it belongs to the ministries in the countries where we work, and we don’t have the right to distribute it to whomever we choose.

I see commentators pushing us to connect our donors and beneficiaries directly – I wince at the idea of hospital patients succumbing to the indignity of having their photos texted directly to a donor. Isn’t that just a digital version of the old form of child sponsorship?

In summary I couldn’t agree more that trust in ICSOs is fragile. There is an urgent need to improve accountability, and performance is key. We must strive for excellence. Unless we are, in fact, doing that, all the data in the world won’t help.   The issue then around data is whether it is high quality, reliable, ours to share, and whether it says anything meaningful about what we are actually achieving.The Hedgehog and the Beetle book cover



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