On Accountable Objects: Designing and Deploying Accountability Tools for Charities

Matt Marshall

8 Conclusions

This chapter concludes the thesis. I first present a summary of work that was described in the previous chapters and remind the reader of my contributions. I then reflect on the performance of this research as a whole and its limitations, and what might have been done done differently, before discussing opportunities for future research. Finally I make some closing remarks.

8.1 A summary of work presented in this thesis

In this thesis I have presented a research project which aimed to explore, and design for, the realities of ‘Transparency and Accountability’ as they were experienced on-the-ground in charities in the UK. I did this by first situating my research as related to Digital Civics and HCI, Transparency and Accountability, Charities and Third Sector Organisations, and digital technologies such as Open Data (Chapter 2). I then presented my research methods and epistemic framework with an overview of how the research was conducted (Chapter 3). The research project was discussed in three chapters which detailed the initial investigations into work practice (Chapter 4), the design process that followed this and resulted in the development of some digital systems (Chapter 5), and then evaluated with charity partners and stakeholders (Chapter 6). Finally I presented a discussion of these in context with the research as a whole and took account of the contributions this work makes (Chapter 7).

This thesis was framed around the following research questions, and makes the following contributions:

8.2 Reflections on the performance of this research

It is traditional to reflect on the limitations of the research and suggest ways that I could have performed it differently if given the opportunity. It’s difficult to imagine this, as having ended in a place where I continue to be close to my main partners, following the conclusion of the research I do not think I’d want to be anywhere else. This said, there are several pragmatic decisions that could have shaped the research and worked around some of the limitations of my methods.

One of the key characteristics of the research was that Patchwork, a single charity, formed my main research partner thanks to the longitudinal nature of their involvement and my early ethnographic work inside the organisation. This meant that all of the initial findings were focused, quite rightly, on their work practices and needs. Therefore the design and later evaluation stages focused on their experiences with the technology alongside GOPA and the other stakeholders (funders, accountants) seeing the technology for the first time. This was an explicit decision on my part to forefront the needs of charity workers, however it would have been undeniably useful to engage funders in a dialogue during the design work. This could’ve potentially made some of the findings from the evaluation stage available at an earlier time, and driven use of the system by getting ‘buy-in’ from a funder earlier on. The funder could then have perhaps stipulated use of the systems as a condition attached to a smaller grant.

Another opportunity for adjusting the way this research could have been performed would have been to curate a team of charities at the beginning of the research. This may have drastically altered the methods used to engage in the initial ethnographic work as I would not have been able to get as ‘deep’ into Patchwork as I have done. This would’ve presented the opportunities to see more examples of Accountability Work in other organisations and within the context of Charity Partnerships (groups of charities bidding and working collectively), but the nature of investment required for ethnographic in this research was such that if I had tried to scale this to multiple partner organisations this would have been challenging. A consequence of this is that the thesis may have focused simply on understanding Accountability Work in multiple organisations and this would have meant sacrificing the prototyping and deployment of the tools documented in Chapter 5 and Chapter 6. This would have also meant sacrificing the insights into Vanguard Design and the nature of Accountable Objects which are documented in this thesis as it stands; meaning a large amount of current practice around charity work and designing in charities would have been omitted and this would make for a poor example of a Digital Civics thesis.

8.3 Opportunities for future work

The conclusion of this research presents several opportunities for future work to be performed in this area, either under the banner of Digital Civics or more broadly as a concern for HCI, CSCW, and system design.

The first and most obvious area for future research is the engagement of charity funders to understand more dimensions of Accountability Work. I would recommend that work in this space is started by understanding the work practices of a funder around charity data; which should be addressed with an ethnographic study of work practice. However, any systems designed to address this should be done collaboratively and ideally involve charity workers and workers in funders both. This would ensure that new systems for Transparency and Accountability do not simply represent “more hoops to jump through” for those engaging in Accountability Work in charities. This also fosters a more collaborative and co-operative relationship between funders and charities, which can only be a good thing and would move this work one-step closer to being in touch with the original funders and donors of the money. Finally, I have noted at several points that I have only worked within charities as an example of organisations within the Third Sector and Social Economy; there are a multitude of different organisations which may be described in these terms and work should be performed with them to understand and address their needs as they may differ from UK charities in several places.

Another key area to explore is whether either Qualitative Accounting or a successor to it which embeds lessons from the Commitment-Action Model is viable as a data standard to collect and share data about charity work and spending. This presents opportunities not only to researchers interested in Transparency and Accountability, or in charities, but to those interested in Human-Data Interaction, open data, and data standards more broadly. I note in Chapter 7 how there are opportunities to draw connections to existing open data about charity funding published in the 360Giving data standard. This should be factored into future work to open up cross-standards and linked data opportunities in the sector.

There are further opportunities still when considering the relationship between Digital Civics research and charities. I am still a trustee of Patchwork and speak with them regularly. It is not infeasible that, should opportunities for future research be presented, that I am in a position to continue to support them. It is my intention to develop the systems further and make them more useful to Patchwork anyway, as they’ve expressed interest in this to me since 2018. I am keen to help support their work regardless. The application of Vanguard Design should also be explored further both within the charity context and outside of it, to further develop its theory and practice through continued application. The political nature of Digital Civics research both in charities and more broadly should also be fore-fronted. There are other HCI researchers performing work in charities, and I worked with many of them during a workshop we hosted at CHI’18 (Strohmayer et al., 2018); it should be explored whether work within charities makes something inherently Digital Civics research, or whether the domain of ‘Third Sector HCI’ needs to be mapped and defined more thoroughly.

8.4 Closing remarks

This work began in the midst of tense austerity politics in the United Kingdom, while the charity sector was experiencing large amounts of strain as they struggled to fill the gap left by retreating government services. Since then things have become increasingly complex at both national and global scales as major political changes have come to the UK, and beyond, over the last few years; with many more still to occur. As this change occurs, Transparency and Accountability will be more important than ever before.

Open Data is currently in the zeitgeist, with many international efforts to produce good open data around many topics. These include Third Sector funding with 360Giving but also around government procurement with the Open Contracting Partnership and company ownership steered by Open Ownership. This is great news, and something that bears well for Transparency and Accountability in general if the trend continues and open data can overcome its data-use problem to become part of everyday life. I hope this is the case, as the era of COVID-19 has seen massive amounts of emergency procurements made under measures which bypass current procurement regulations, leading to opportunities for corruption (see this Guardian report). Amidst this, the charity sector has been hard at work but is also facing unprecedented challenges both to charities’ funding security and the ways in which they perform their work. From my vantage as a trustee at Patchwork I have seen them engaged tirelessly in food distribution, taking measures to combat the loneliness in their community, and ensuring that the young people of Benwell stay safe and socialised.

I hope to have shown you through this thesis that charity work is important work, and that helping charities become more ‘Transparent and Accountable’ has a multitude of benefits. Not by holding them against the wall and demanding where your £10 donation has gone, but by understanding the ways in which their work is performed and accounting for their role in addressing the gaps left by the state and the market that impact so negatively on the lives of our communities.

Bibliography

Strohmayer, A., Marshall, M., Verma, N., Bopp, C., McNaney, R., Voida, A., Kirk, D.S. & Bidwell, N.J. (2018) 'Untold Stories: Working with Third Sector Organisations', in Extended Abstracts of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. CHI EA ’18. [Online]. April 2018 Montreal QC, Canada: Association for Computing Machinery. pp. 1–8.