On Accountable Objects: Designing and Deploying Accountability Tools for Charities

Matt Marshall


Charities, Non-Profits, and other Third Sector Organisations are important elements of our civic society; operating in areas where the government (both Local and Central) have either under-served or are not trusted to operate. They are often funded through combinations of private or public grants and have legal protections excusing them from tax obligations. Due to their tendency to work with vulnerable and marginalised groups, and their financial status they are often required to be ‘Transparent and Accountable’ in both their work and spending.

This thesis presents an ethnomethodologically-informed ethnographic account over three years of investigation embedded within a charitable organisation in Newcastle upon Tyne, and additional engagements with other charity sector actors. I outline how ‘Transparency and Accountability’ are accomplished in everyday work practice and chronicle a design process leading to the development of novel, inter-operable, accountability tools. These tools were trialled across two charities and discussed with key financial stakeholders to critically evaluate their efficacy and present further implications for designing for charity ‘Transparency and Accountability’.

Adopting a Marxist stance on the political-economy of charity work, labour, and their relation to technology; I provide the following contributions. Firstly; an understanding of ‘Accountability Work’ in workplace practice and design requirements for digital systems in these environments. Secondly, a model for the structured representation of everyday charity activities, first as the Qualitative Accounting Data Standard and then, through the implications of its deployment, in modelling commitments and actions. Thirdly; a set of design requirements for systems and interfaces to support the collection and curation of, and interactions with, this data in charities. Finally, I present Vanguard Design as an implementation and critique of participatory design principles in the environment of small front-line charities and contribute lessons for Digital Civics researchers in these contexts.


This thesis is dedicated to Andi, Carl, Dean, Lynne, Mick, Owen, Sonia, Sydney, and the young people of the West End of Newcastle upon Tyne.


It goes without saying that thesis-writing does not occur in a vacuum. Despite a few substantial bumps in the road, I am very glad to be in a position to submit this work and the only reason I am here now is because of the collective efforts of many in helping me. It is impossible to capture in words the deep well of gratitude I have for all mentioned and beyond.

First and foremost; special thanks to my collaborators and participants who took part in this work. Working within the context of The Patchwork Project made me a better researcher, and ultimately made me a better man. I started working there when I was 24 and thus the same age as many of the service users. I am not sure whether Patchwork intended to “do Youth Work” on me, but they did. They made me more collaborative, less anxious about how I appeared to others, and gave me more support than any other single institution involved in this thesis. This thesis is dedicated to them. If I named every young person who made me smile I’d never finish this work, but the 8 - 12 group at Patchy 2 formed some of the warmest and most treasured memories I own. Further thanks to Gateshead Older People’s Assembly and Edbert’s House for participating in the design and deployment. Especially to ‘Heather’, who furnished me with more tea and cake than I could handle during our visits. I cannot thank any of you enough, and I love you all dearly.

Next I wish to thank colleagues and collaborators within Open Lab. Dave Kirk’s herculean supervision efforts in getting this thesis even remotely close to submission cannot go understated. A true mentor and guide, thank you so much. My Digital Civics contemporaries, across the whole CDT, have provided immeasurable laughs and phenomenal guidance across the years. Special mention here must be given to Angelika Strohmayer, without whom I would not have made it through several key challenges. Thank you, Angelika, for being the best desk-mate in the world, helping me through it all, and for sharing my passion for tea. Rosanna Bellini must also not go unthanked. First in her capacity as colleague and Digital Civics researcher she has provided frankly stupendous inspiration and has set the bar very high, it’s truly been an honour to witness her work and share a lab with her. Her second capacity is as a confidante, flatmate, and surrogate sister. In this role she has provided a home for me in every sense of the word. This has involved unceasing support, patience, and familial care. Our kitchen table has been the site of many shared laughs, mutual care, and shared meals. If I had to thank a single person for helping me with this thesis, it’d be Rosanna Bellini.

My comrades in the Communist Party of Britain (Northern District) also need to be thanked; for embodying the importance of practice and disciplined militancy. This taught me much about sitting down and getting the work done. I especially wish to thank Martin Levy and Margaret Levy for the years of hard-learned lessons you manage to make enjoyable and accessible and for improving my reading of key texts and fundamentally making me a better Marxist. I must also thank Emma, alongside whom I’ve waved flags and clashed with fascists on many a rainy Saturday; and whose work as vanguard in the UCU stands as example to all.

My research ended in 2018 and the last two years, while writing, I have found a place and a home with my colleagues and co-operators at Open Data Services Co-operative, who’ve granted me the stability to finish this thesis and meaningful work alongside it. This small group of people have materially enriched the lives of so many, and given me the purpose, flexibility, and stability I needed to get well again and pick up this thesis to finish it. To mention one would be a disservice to all, but thank you all so, so, much.

I have also been lucky enough in the last few years to be surrounded by good friends, extended colleagues, and surrogate family, who have put up with me missing gatherings, and have fed both my body and soul in numerous ways to get me over the finish line. In no particular order thanks must be given to: Stacey McGeorge, Alice Adams, Karen Watson, and Jason Hussein at Goodspace Newcastle; Jack, Hannah, and Maia each of the family Arnstein; Kat da Silva Morgan and Feral Noir; Aga Czarny; Bernadine Fernz; and Alexandra Dent (who has been very patient with me and very supportive these last few months).

It would be wrong of me on many levels not to thank Bethany. You never stopped working to make me feel better, even when I couldn’t see it. I am eternally sorry and grateful, and you deserved so much better.

Finalmente, para Valentina gracias por la orientación, la paciencia eterna y por creer en mí. Te amo.

Lists of Tables and Figures

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