'Ambient Accountability' - Fighting Corruption When and Where it Happens

41 Pages Posted: 29 Oct 2012 Last revised: 16 Nov 2012

Date Written: October 29, 2012


I propose the concept of ‘ambient accountability’ as a new, nimble, yet very promising addition to the research program, policy debate and most importantly practical toolbox of accountability mechanisms.

As a first working definition ambient accountability can be broadly described as all efforts that seek to shape, use and engage systematically with the built environment and public places and the ways people experience and interact in them, in order to further transparency, accountability and integrity of public authorities and services.

The concept provides a fresh perspective to think about accountability mechanisms as strategic spatial interventions that empower people right in the place, right at the time when they have to deal with potentially corrupt public officials and service providers, or when they happen to pass by project sites or institutions where corruption issues may surface. Ambient accountability has several qualities that make it an ideal complement to the existing toolbox of accountability mechanisms and it can help address some of the key challenges and shortcoming that have found to plague many social accountability innovations.

I develop a first typology of ambient accountability with three interlinked clusters of mechanisms that respectively focus on helping citizens to better understand ‘what ought to happen’ (their rights, entitlements), what is actually happening (the performance of the official, institution etc.) and what to do, if things go wrong (who is responsible, how to complain effectively). Examples from all over the world are provided for all these three clusters, demonstrating the incredibly creative and diverse spectrum of ambient information and design interventions that can provide inspiration. However, so far these mechanisms have not been systematically explored, evaluated and adapted in a targeted manner by the governance community for the purpose of fighting corruption.

Ambient accountability provides a very exciting new lens to understand an important segment of corruption risks and develop new ideas for tackling them. It provides a common frame to bring together a new accountability alliance and tap into the expertise, experience and creativity of many stakeholders that are usually not an integral part of the anti-corruption conversation -from architects and city planners to public space designers, signage experts, as well as urban activists and artists.

And ambient accountability provides a particularly elastic framework for this brainstorm, experimentation and action agenda, as it covers possible interventions that mix the very simple bumper sticker with the very high tech urban screen, that cover official institutional initiatives just like bottom-up, artistic interventions, that range from micro tactics that work with placards and fly posters to macro-strategies that think about how to design entire buildings and public spaces.

What’s more, insights and lessons on the information-to-action transmission belt from a wide variety of disciplines confirm the potential and promise of ambient accountability. From the vantage point of cognitive information science, political communication or social movement studies to insights from sociology of corruption, knowledge management or environmental psychology, ambient accountability looks like a very promising concept to explore and enrich the fight against corruption.

The article proceeds as follows:

The following chapter 2 briefly takes the pulse of the current practice and discourse on accountability, its drivers, lessons learned and identified challenges. It puts a particular focus on the increasingly concept of social accountability and summarizes some key challenges to its effective implementation as arise from a first set of assessment reports.

Chapter 3 then introduces and defines the new concept of ‘ambient accountability’ as a rather simple, but potentially very useful and creative addition to the practice and debate on accountability. It provides a first definition and Chapter 4 elaborates the concept further by offering a first typology of three interrelated cluster of ambient accountability mechanisms and it provides a number of examples for each of these that highlight the diversity and broad spectrum of possible ambient accountability interventions.

Chapters 5 and 6 discuss why ambient accountability can reasonably be expected to make a big impact. They explain the complementary role that ambient accountability plays in the context of more conventional accountability mechanisms and also draw on insights from a wide range of related disciplines that make this high potential even more plausible.

The scale of expected benefits and impact, however, stands in stark contrast to the lack of systematic research, idea incubation and strategic practical focus on ambient accountability.

Chapter 7 directly picks up on this disconnect and outlines an extensive list of practical suggestions on how ambient accountability could be further developed and what types of new stakeholders could be brought into this conversation. As this first exploration of potential next steps and future coalitions further confirms, ambient accountability dovetails ideally with several interesting developments in the field of governance, urbanism, technology, activism and even art. It is high time to get started.

Keywords: governance, accountability, transparency, social accountability, urbanism, corruption, ICT, empowerment, corrutption, built enviornment, ambient technologies, urban computing

JEL Classification: P16

Suggested Citation

Zinnbauer, Dieter, 'Ambient Accountability' - Fighting Corruption When and Where it Happens (October 29, 2012). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2168063 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2168063

Dieter Zinnbauer (Contact Author)

Copenhagen Business School ( email )

Solbjerg Plads 3
Frederiksberg C, DK - 2000

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