BLOG     18 | 04 | 2019

What is co-accountability and why is it important for multi-stakeholder initiatives?

Traditional forms of accountability and accounting are primarily addressed to the shareholders (or owners), who are rational economic actors with interest in the economic and financial dimension of the transactions between the organization and society. Social and environmental accounting enlarges these perspectives and it considers a plurality of dimensions, i.e. economic, financial, social, environmental, political and cultural to multiple stakeholders— not only the owners but also the customers, the employees, the suppliers, the funders and, in general, society at large. According to this broader view, accountability is thus considered as the duty of being accountable for organizational actions and impacts to different typologies of stakeholders. In this sense, accountability implies a relationship between two or more stakeholders who are required to give an account for their actions. This relationship highlights that information is crucial for accountability not only as a right of the person who receives the information (power holder) but also as a duty of the person that provides the account (account holder).

Whenever multi-stakeholder initiatives are put in place, power holder and account holder are simultaneously present in the accountability relationship and, therefore, a more complex and multi-faceted form of accountability is required. However, the existence of power holder and account holder within the accountability relationship does not automatically imply that this relationship is democratic and participatory. Indeed, within these multi-stakeholder initiatives, there has been an increased need of a “new form of accounting” and accountability that promotes and facilitates more participatory forms of decision-making. Various initiatives (such as the idea of dialogic accountability) have indeed promoted new attempts of explicitly dialogic accounting and forms of engagement, which can foster democracy and facilitate social change. 

Within this debate, co-accountability represents a new form of democratic and participatory accountability, where a process of negotiation of interests and information is required. Consistent with a Post Normal Science epistemic approach, co-accountability is not aimed at identify or reach an institutionalized reality, but it supports the idea of negotiating different flexible solutions, which can be developed in different multi-stakeholder initiatives. Therefore co-accountability avoids standard and non-customized solutions and it promotes “multi-voiced” and tailored solutions, which can include the diversities of stakeholders’ value and interests. The “voice” of these different stakeholders form together a multiplicity of expert knowledge, which is thus oriented at supporting progressive change through the democratization of accounting.

We propose and support the co-accountability framework for multi-stakeholder initiatives for four dominant reasons:

First, the co-accountability framework supports a plurality of perspectivesbecause all stakeholders gradually become both account and power holders; their interaction expands each individual’s potential for social understanding and action and allows them access to more information about partners’ behaviour. In other words, within multi-stakeholder initiatives, where different points of view exist, all the multiple stakeholders share rights and responsibilities, and ideally have a balanced distribution of power to exercise them. This plurality of perspectives improves the relationship between quantity and quality of information, which can change over time. Under these conditions, the co-accountability framework is oriented to problem solving and therefore it recognizes and respects multiple perspectives because different stakeholders’ viewpoints can contribute to understand better the problem and find faster and more effective solution(s). Furthermore, all these engaged stakeholders co-responsible of the whole process of co-accountability, i.e. not only in the definition of metrics, but also in its following measurement (therefore in collecting together data and estimating measurement) and along the overall continuous process or assessment and redefinition of strategies in the long term.

Second, the co-accountability framework promotes customized qualitative and quantitative performance indicators, compared to the old paradigm based on standardized financial information. Because co-accountability neglects and refutes the focus on monetary information, it considers a broader and holistic perspective. By following a Post Normal Science epistemic view, the co-accountability framework considers that although quantitative and financial indicators may provide useful information about economic performance, however, it is no longer possible to reduce co-accountability to financial measures and quantitative arguments. Instead, indicators go beyond quantitative indicators and focus on measuring the accomplishment the multiple-stakeholders priorities. Additionally, in order to find indicators that are able to find customized and effective solutions, the set of indicators is not static but subject to change across time in order to properly respond to the changing environment and to the changing stakeholders needs. 

Third, the co-accountability framework is co-produced and co-implemented by the multiple-stakeholders. The process of co-production of co-accountability is not linear but on the contrary, it implies the interaction and interdependence of different steps as part of a circular chain where each step is fed and feeds back into each other. In order to co-produce and co-implement the co-accountability framework, it is necessary that collective intentions are reached, not as a simple sum of individual intentions, but as a distinctive mode of practical reasoning and team reasoning, in which agency is attributed not only single stakeholder but to all of them and the whole of them as a community.

Fourth, co-accountability leads all stakeholders to co-responsibility. According to this view, co-accountability supports an approach of shared rights and responsibilities on an individual and collective level that offers guidance in reshaping long-term strategies. More in detail, in co-accountability, collective power and individual power should be complementary. Therefore, the co-responsibility of co-accountability represents simultaneously an evaluation tool and a strategic redefinition enabler at a dual level of individual stakeholders and stakeholder network. In this sense, co-accountability should be helpful to guide the redefinition of individual strategies (each stakeholder) and multiple strategies (stakeholder network) towards the achievement of its goals and missions. 

In summary, where multi-stakeholders initiatives are put in place, co-accountability offers the opportunity to manage different stakeholders in a collective way because itblends the traditionally separated roles of account holder and power holder into one role of “account-power-holder” and accepts that relevant stakeholders can change across time. In order to address multi-stakeholder initiative in a collective way, the co-accountability idea refutes a monetary reductionist approach and it encourages a holistic view of economic, financial, social, cultural performance indicators. Moreover, these multi-voiced and multi-faceted indicators will be co-selected by the stakeholder in order to describe how problem-solving activities are performing. In order to be problem solving oriented, the co-accountability process is dynamic and ongoing, given that in real life context, conditions, multi-stakeholders and issues to be solved change constantly. The adoption of a multiple voice, management changing situation, also allows for the distribution of different responsibility to different stakeholders; in other words, although rights and responsibilities are shared among the account-power holder under the co-accountability framework, this does not imply the disappearance of individual rights and responsibilities but, on the contrary, the need of complementing each other in the most collective way.

To sum up, the co-accountability framework proposed in the MULTI-ACT project is thought to have deep practical implications and to be used as a road map in contexts in which accountability needs to produce useful knowledge deriving by a process of negotiation of interests and information. This is consistent with Post Normal Science epistemic view, which is not aimed at identify or reach an institutionalized reality, but it supports the idea of the negotiation of different flexible solutions which can be developed in different context. 

MULTI-ACT Blog #2 was written by the UNITN Team:
Michele Andreaus, Ericka Costa, Carla Antonini