On Accountable Objects: Designing and Deploying Accountability Tools for Charities

Matt Marshall

1 Introduction

1.1 Background and Motivation to the Study

In August 2015 the charity Kids Company made headline news for coming under investigation for financial mismanagement (Grierson, 2015). Founded in 1996, it was one of the most recognised and celebrated charities in the UK at the time, and was set up to provide support to deprived children and its founder Camila Batmanghelidjh regularly featured in lists of influential people and her portrait hung in the national gallery (Renegade Inc, 2017). Its financial activities were widely publicised, and the organisation closed its doors soon afterwards (Elgot, 2015).

Kids Company was an incredibly wealthy charity, attracting ~£23m in 2013 (Charity Commission for England and Wales, n.d.; Bright, 2015), and the UK government had recently granted it a single grant worth £3m which it was now seeking to recover. The Guardian reported that Kids Company had burned through two financial directors in less than three years (Laville et al., 2015). The BBC reported that the organisation had received up to £46m of public funding, including 20% of the Department of Education’s grant programme in 2008 (BBC News, 2015). Camila Batmanghelidjh has since stated that the charity was actually audited 46 times since its inception, and that they were short of money because they’d built a solid reputation with the kids on the street that they helped which lead to surges in numbers (Renegade Inc, 2017). Kids Company itself was set up to address deprived inner-city children and the charity has claimed a high volume of direct beneficiaries within the region of 36,000 children per year, although that number was disputed (Ainsworth, 2015).

Kids Company serves as a very public example of contemporary opinions around charity and non-profit work and spending. Charities are asked to be “Transparent and Accountable” (Oliver, 2004; Dhanani, 2009) for both their actions and their spending. Charities find themselves playing an important role in society taking up the slack in areas where the private sector and government can either not be trusted or simply do not care to spend attention (Hansmann, 1980), and their actions are critical to generating and sustaining ‘Social Capital’ (King, 2004; Wang & Graddy, 2008); the shared skills, trust, and relationships within society which can determine its efficiency and character (Field, 2003). Operating in this space means that they are often trusted with grant money from both public bodies and philanthropic trusts, and often work with vulnerable people and groups in sensitive contexts. This can lead to things going wrong in ways that are potentially far worse than mis-spending project funds (Ratcliffe, 2019).

In the UK’s age of austerity the performance of this work is essential; Local Authority budgets have been continuously slashed and charities have stepped in to fill the gaps in service as the government withdraws its support. Any charity trusted with public funds has a hard job to do; making every penny count while trying to provide services on-the-cheap that have traditionally been the remit of Local Government. All of this places charities at an interesting, and precarious, intersection of being Accountable to large swathes of the population and a variety of stakeholders. Each of these stakeholders then demand their own forms of Transparency and Accountability (Koppell, 2005). Transparency and Accountability, however, are words that are often invoked but rarely defined (Hood, 2006) and these two seemingly simple terms each hide multifaceted, complex, shifting, and interrelated concepts that ultimately mean different things to different people. Charities, and similar Non-profit organisations across the world, thus find their daily work to consist of socially important (if not critical) tasks which they they then must work to account for in a variety of ways to a variety of people. They operate on limited resources as grant funding is increasingly difficult to come by and are increasingly forced to compete for shrinking funding pots (Radojev, 2018). This forces many to twist into new shapes and undergo transformations into ‘Social Enterprise’; a process which risks exposing them to market forces and losing their ability to generate Social Capital by cutting non-profitable services and transforming their beneficiaries into customers (Eikenberry & Kluver, 2004). It is thus the Sisyphean task of charities to perform crucial work on small budgets while wrestling with the hydra of being Transparent and Accountable for every action and every great-british-pound; one slip up could mean public outcry, defunding, and collapse which exacerbates the social conditions that gave rise to them in the first place.

It is during the collapse of Kids Company that I was part-way through the first year of my journey in the Digital Civics programme, and drawing up the plans for my Master’s dissertation study. I now turn to describe how this setting influenced my personal motivations for the study

1.1.1 Personal motivations for the study

My personal motivations for this research are the synthesis of the material conditions that were present during my year of MRes study immediately preceding my PhD. These were namely: the collapse of Kids Company and the questions it raised about the role of charities in civic society; and my growth from a Liberal idealist into a dedicated Socialist. I will discuss each of these in turn.

When I began on the Digital Civics programme as an MRes student in 2014/15 I went into the studies with an interest in HCI and Design processes, which were ignited from my undergraduate studies at Newcastle University. I also carried with me a personal dedication to concepts of “openness” which was born of my formative years engaging with the Free Software movement. Throughout the studies of the ‘MRes in Digital Civics’ these interests were refined through engagement with the course material and the contemporary literature. In one interaction my soon-to-be supervisor, David S. Kirk, recommended that I read The Open Source Everything Manifesto (Steele, 2012). I obliged and while I found it a bit new-age in places, I found it lent credence to the idea that open information and Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) could provide the foundation for a strong civic life. This seemed a natural fit for my passion for openness, participatory practices, and the arena of Digital Civics.

Stemming from this, my MRes dissertation originally focused on the consumption, analysis, and presentation of Local Authority data. This broadened my academic focus from the idea of “open” to that of Transparency and Accountability, as it pertained to government spending. By 2015 the citizens of the UK had experienced half a decade of Tory austerity politics which had slashed Local Authority budgets dramatically (Lowndes & Gardner, 2016), and I thought that developing systems to promote use of mandatory spending data to the otherwise-absent “armchair experts” (Cornford et al., 2013) would be a good way to flex my newly-acquired Digital Civics muscles. When Kids Company made the news its presence in the zeitgeist triggered conversations between myself and my supervisor around investigating people’s interactions with charity spending data. Charities are a prime example of a civic space, they do important work, and clearly people feel strongly about how they spend cash and perform work. We thus shifted the focus of the MRes dissertation and I sought participants from within the Charity sector in addition to those with a stake in Local Authorities.

The performance of that initial research made it clear that the local Charity sector were far more willing, and/or capable of engaging with me constructively than actors within the Local Authority. This presented me a much more interesting and fertile space for HCI and design research to effect real change in the lives of communities that had been so adversely affected by austerity. The paper stemming from that initial research (Marshall et al., 2016) showed a sector where various forms of Transparency and Accountability were at odds with each other; and there were opportunities to develop newer, more effective, interfaces and practices around communicating that I was keen to explore.

Throughout this year and study I was also developing my own citizenhood, and growing in my understanding of political economy and democracy. As I hope to have made apparent throughout this section; both the collapse of Kids Company as well as my induction into Digital Civics are events that were set against the backdrop of austerity. I either saw about me or continued to read about the continued effects of austerity in the UK: people not being able to eat (Dowler & Lambie-Mumford, 2015) and the subsequent rise of food-banks (Loopstra et al., 2015; Garthwaite, 2016; Garthwaite et al., 2015);1 devastatingly widening inequality in already neglected areas (Greer Murphy, 2017); and the worsening health of the UK population (Stuckler et al., 2017). At the same time the climate crisis rages on (Chakrabarty, 2014; Dawson, 2010; Frank, 2009; Guerrero, 2018), and the disproportionately wealthy increase their share of our wealth with each new crisis (Woods, 2020; Kentish, 2017; Davies et al., 2017; Zucman, 2019). Through engaging with the works and analyses of political economy by writers such as Marx (Marx et al., 1974) and Lenin (Lenin, 1917) I could make sense of these systems and saw them not as disconnected, chaotic, results of a system gone awry; but the natural effects of capitalism.

The conditions of austerity and my subsequent readings of political economy coupled comfortably with my newfound academic interest in the Transparency and Accountability of charities and other ‘Third Sector’ organisations. I saw further evidence of the appropriateness of a focus on the third sector, as Marxist analyses of the sector (Livingstone, 2013; Bhai, 2005) gelled with the academic literature that the entire existence of these organisations was a result of the systemic failures of a political an economic mode that neglected or could not be trusted with key activities (Hansmann, 1980; Salamon, 1994). This solidified in my mind the notion of front-line charities as sites of struggle, and the appropriateness of following the thread this of working within charities in my research in order to lend my resources and (hopefully) insight into how to improve their efficacy or make their lives easier.

1.1.2 Statement of Research purpose

With the above in mind the aim of my research in this thesis is to explore how digital technologies may be designed with, within, and for charities (and related Third Sector organisations) in order to assist them with becoming more Transparent and Accountable. In doing this I hope that I may help them find ways to not only address their critics’ concerns over their work and spending, but better account for their impact on civic life in attending to the matters ignored by the state or exploited by the private sector.

This will, necessarily, cover an exploration of what it means to be transparent and accountable as or within such an organisation. Or more accurately, what it takes to do Transparency and Accountability. From this I wish to explore what the system and interface requirements are for supporting this work and making it more straightforward for a charity to demonstrate the appropriateness of its work and spending to its stakeholders, as well as civil society at large.

Owing to this research’s performance as part of the Digital Civics programme, and the fact that the on-the-ground work of charities is labour performed by members of the working class; I will also be reflecting on design practices in this space. Charities and their related organisations are an inherently civic space, and one with particular characteristics. Any act of designing technologies in, with, or for the workers in this space will need to attend to ensuring that the members of that setting have an adequate stake in design. Therefore, it is also an aim of this research to explore the performance of design work in this space both as it relates to designing tools for Transparency and Accountability, as well as how design may operate in charities as a matter of concern for Digital Civics work. This aim also aligns with a history of workplace studies within HCI and CSCW (Anderson, 1994); which have by their nature of forefronting work practice made matters of ‘accountability’ within the workplace a matter of study (Button & Sharrock, 1998). This traditional notion of accountability of work (or account-ability, as it is sometimes conceived) within ethnomethodological studies of work practice should be leveraged to frame the design of technologies which in turn provide the foundation for new forms of Transparent and Accountable practices beyond the immediate workplace and thus underpin the relationships between charities, their workers, and their stakeholders.

I now turn to forefronting the nature and contributions of this thesis and make explicit the research questions that, in answering, achieve the aims of purpose of this research. I also explicitly state and label the individual contributions that this thesis makes in answering these questions.

1.2 Nature and Contributions of the thesis

This section delineates the areas of work which this thesis sits at the intersection of and makes explicit the research questions that I am seeking to answer in this research in each case. I also highlight and explicitly label the contributions of the thesis in resulting from answering each question.

1.2.1 Accountability Work

R1: How are the financial practices and transparency obligations of a charity manifested in daily workplace practices?

As readers will discover in Chapter 2 there is a multitude of writing around the nature of Transparency and Accountability and how these interact in charities and the Third Sector. This does not account for how these obligations are present in the ground and experienced by the community surrounding organisations such as charities.

In order to begin designing for conceptual goals such as Transparency and Accountability there must be a study of how these concepts affect the daily work practices within organisations and settings where they’re important. Any systems designed to be used must consider the daily performance of workplace activity and how Accountability Work is organised as a result of this.

I address this question in Chapter 4 where I present my account of a field study of work practice inside a small charity. In this chapter I explicitly outline how Accountability Work is organised and performed, and put forward design recommendations based on this. In Chapter 6 I expand on this and illustrate how Accountability Work is underpinned by interactions with Accountable Objects.


1.2.2 Data and Interfaces for Transparency and Accountability in Charities

R2: How may data be structured to represent the work and financial life of a charity?

This thesis is concerned in part with the design and implementation of Open Data systems as a means to support Transparency and Accountability in charities. This requires attention on what is captured, how that is structured, and how well this represents the work of charities for achieving their aims in being Transparent and Accountable. In the realm of Open Data standards there has been work to model both government procurement and grants given to charitable organisations. My research seeks to add another piece to the puzzle around representing both work and financial practices on the ground in charities.

I address this question in two places. My first attempt at a model to capture and represent charity work and spending is documented in Chapter 5 where the first draft of the Qualitative Accounting data standard is designed with participants. The systems using the standard are then put to the test in Chapter 6 where I then further elaborate on these requirements based on lessons gathered from the field tests.


R3: What are the interface requirements for systems that interact with data concerning the work and financial life of a charity, such that it is simple to capture, curate, and make use of this data?

Building from R2, R3 explores the requirements for interfaces that support interactions with data as they pertain to charity work and spending. This question is situated in existing research into Human-Data Interaction (HDI) which has explored the use of data as a boundary object (Mortier et al., 2014) as well as interesting ways of engaging with personal data (Elsden & Kirk, 2014). If a model for representing charity work and spending is produced then it will require interfaces that allow people to capture this data, curate it, and engage with it in some way. I therefore contribute to this work by explicitly addressing the requirements of interfaces that interact with data with notions of Accountability and Transparency

Similar to R2, I address this question in both Chapter 5 and Chapter-6. In the former I engage in a design process that results in several systems for collecting, curating, and presenting data whereas the latter chapter field tests these and I evaluate their effectiveness and forefront lessons learned from this.


1.2.3 Designing digital technologies in charities

R4: How should design work be performed in civic organisations such as charities so that they can participate in design while operating with limited resources?

Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 each discuss this thesis as being performed within the context of the Digital Civics programme of work within HCI. Within Digital Civics, HCI, and related fields such as CSCW there is often reflections and research on the subject of design’s application within given settings e.g (Strohmayer et al., 2019) and (Bellini et al., 2019). The research performed in this thesis took place within small, front-line, charities in the UK; of which there are many. Lessons from this experience are also applicable to settings which experience similar struggles and where the relationship between the researcher/designer and the members of the setting is not necessarily clear-cut.

I begin addressing this in Chapter 5 where I discuss the challenges of performing design work in charities and conceptualise Vanguard Design as a model for dealing with these challenges. Chapter 7 continues this reflection based off of experience performing the research as a whole and contributes lessons for HCI and Digital Civics researchers seeking to engage with charities and other Third Sector organisations.


1.3 Publications arising from this research

This research has resulted in two publications to date. The first of these is was “Accountable: Exploring the Inadequacies of Transparent Financial Practice in the Non-Profit Sector(Marshall et al., 2016), published at SIGCHI in 2016. This was an output from the first year of the Digital Civics programme as a result of my MRes. I have included it here because it motivates the work encapsulated in this thesis and I draw upon it early on for directing my early investigations.

The second of these is “Accountability Work: Examining the Values, Technologies and Work Practices that Facilitate Transparency in Charities(Marshall et al., 2018), which represents a publication directly related to Chapter 4 of this thesis and thus R1, C1a, and C1b. I have not yet made attempts to publish any further papers from this research but it is my intent to do so after this thesis has been appropriately examined and amended.

1.4 The structure of this thesis

This thesis is structured to account for a research project that had the shape of a single long-term engagement or case study, which sought to design for and explore the implications of digital technologies in the realm of charity Transparency and Accountability. It starts with situating my research, outlining my methods and practices used to organise the research itself, provides empirical accounts of findings from fieldwork, design processes, and evaluations of technologies and presents a series of findings from each of these stages of the research. Finally I draw together these findings along with final reflections on the performance of the research in order to present contributions in the form of answers to the research questions outlined in section 1.3 of this thesis.

Chapter 2 provides the necessary background and academic literature necessary to engage with the remainder of the thesis. I first situate this research as being performed within the context of the Digital Civics programme of research, particularly as it was conceived within Open Lab at Newcastle University in the UK and elaborate on my place within that space. This chapter then introduces Third Sector Organisations (e.g. Charities, Non-Profits etc.) and explores their unique place within civic life, their importance to society as a whole, and their unique organisational challenges and pressures. Chapter 2 continues by exploring the challenge of Transparency and Accountability experienced by charities; and unpicks the dimensions of these terms so that this understanding may be applied to my research questions and analysis throughout the thesis. This chapter then explores existing research that explores the use of digital technologies in this space touching on notions of Open Data and Open Source technologies as a form of accountability, and interactions with data and finances that are supported through digital interfaces. Finally, I explicate the opportunities for research in this space at the intersection of digital technologies, the Third Sector, and Transparency and Accountability.

Chapter 3 outlines in detail the methodology and analytical heritage of the research that is presented in the thesis’ remaining chapters. I first outline this thesis as sitting within a tradition of Workplace studies and state how the setting and performance of the research fit within this tradition, as well as elaborate on how this framing is particularly appropriate for the research’s aims and objectives. Following this, I discuss the analytical orientations that were taken in this work: namely an Ethnomethodological approach to fieldwork and the study of work practice; as well as an applied Marxist-Leninist stance on the sensitivities of political economy, labour, and dialectical materialism. In elaborating on these orientations I spend some time presenting them in context to explain why these are complementary approaches and how they each benefit the research in appropriate ways. I then present an overview and timeline of the research to situate it in the reader’s mind, and discuss the practical methods that were applied for the performance of fieldwork, design work, and the later evaluation of systems.

Chapter 4 presents the first empirical findings of the research as a study of work practice in a small charity. I first introduce the physical setting of The Patchwork Project (Patchwork) as well as the staff who made up my collaborators during the bulk of this research. As part of my reporting on the setting and work practice I ensure readers of this thesis are aware of Patchwork’s broader aims, activities, and organisational structure in addition to their local setting within the West End Newcastle upon Tyne. The chapter then turns to reporting the work practices that make up Transparency and Accountability as it is manifested on-the-ground in the organisation. These are then used to derive early insights into the design requirements and characteristics of systems that operate in this space, describing the values that need to be embedded in their design as well as the architecture and characteristics they require to better enable Transparency and Accountability.

Chapter 5 provides a description the second empirical section of the research. This chapter covers the practice and output of the design work that immediately follows the fieldwork covered in the previous chapter. First I present an overview of the performance of the design work, going into detail about the activities that made up this phase of work such as the performance of design workshops, followed by a cycle of user-centred design. The chapter then goes into detail to convey the design and development of digital systems that were built to embody the lessons from Chapter 4 and address the challenges of the design space. I take care to present the design rationale for each major feature or design decision “in-situ” throughout this chapter so that it is clear where contributions of participants as well as insights from Chapter 4 were applied to the design. This chapter finishes with reflections on the performance of this design work; proffering lessons for the design of open data standards and infrastructure, as well as proposing a practical configuration of how to frame perform design work in a participatory and radical way in settings where participatory approaches may otherwise struggle to be applied.

Chapter 6 details an empirical study where evaluate the systems that were designed and built Chapter 5 are evaluated to determine their appropriateness and illuminate further design considerations. First I present an overview of how the evaluation was conducted across several stages in order to adapt to the material conditions of the participant organisations, as well as several new stakeholders that were approached for additional perspectives. I then present a series of grouped findings that illuminate the experiences and commentary of the participants who used the tools, and the stakeholders who reflected on the designs separately. Finally, I discuss future implications for system design in this space, demonstrating that data needs to strike a middle-ground between flexibility and openness and a need to tie actions to commitments as well as the implications for the interfaces that make use of this data, and how different forms of transparency may benefit from this.

Chapter 7 accounts for all of the work collected in the previous chapters of this thesis. First I account for each of the research questions that were outlined in Chapter 1 and answer each of them using examples from the research. In doing so I demonstrate a contribution of knowledge in each case. Following this I then discuss the broader implications of the research in this thesis as situated within both the Digital Civics programme and within the context of Open Data, Transparency, and Charities. I draw on the issues faced by both myself and my contemporaries at Open Lab and provide a critique of Digital Civics’ initial framing and motivations. In doing so I highlight ways in which the performance of HCI research within civic spaces, especially the Third Sector, may contribute more impactfully to civic life.

Chapter 8 concludes the thesis. In this chapter I summarise research as well as and insights that have been contributed throughout the rest of the thesis. I use these contributions to frame the importance of doing additional work and suggest the immediate concerns that should be forefronted in successive research.


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  1. As I write this it hasn’t yet been a week since the radical conservative government voted to deprive children of food, and refused to change their course (Lazenby, 2020).