What is a Social Audit?

A social audit is a community-led process of reviewing of crucial documents to determine whether the public expenditure and service delivery outcomes reported by the government really reflect the public money spent and the services received by the community. Members of the community collectively participate in a process of verifying government (or private company) documents by comparing them with the realities on the ground and the experiences of the community. Evidence collected during the audit is then reported to the responsible authorities at a public hearing. Community testimony, knowledge, and experience are a legitimate and central part of this evidence. Government documents may include budgets and reported expenditure, tenders or contracts, invoices and receipts, as well as supporting laws, reports, policies, plans, or norms and standards.

A social audit provides a way to build effective and meaningful public participation in poor and working class communities by providing a means for the community to engage with the governance processes that affect their lives. Social audits empower communities to gather and legitimise evidence of their experience of service delivery, and through this process enables them to claim and realise their constitutional rights to democratic participation and accountable government. Social audits build community power, deepening the culture of participatory democracy and public deliberation. They provide an opportunity for vulnerable and marginalised voices to be heard, and a space for people who have been excluded and discriminated against to achieve a measure of justice and hold government to account. 

What are the principles of a Social Audit?

They are led by the community

Social audits are conducted by residents living in a community and are concerned with issues identified by that community. They are conducted in the language of residents and are inclusive processes in which everybody, especially women and young people, can participate and make a contribution.

They help to realise Constitutional Rights and build community power

Social audits promote active citizenship and help those who are most vulnerable to exercise their constitutional rights. In a highly unequal society, where so many live without access to decent health care, employment, or education, social audits create opportunities for communities to organise themselves and build community power. They are a way for the marginalised to make themselves heard. In the face of unfulfilled promises of justice and equality, social audits allow communities to claim their constitutional right to participate in governance and improve government accountability and performance. In this way, community-led social audits can help poor and working class people contribute to deepening democracy and improving the lives of all people.

They should be part of a broader advocacy campaign

Social audits are typically carried out as part of a broader advocacy campaign and cannot be used as an isolated strategy for social change. Social change takes time and single events seldom make a significant and lasting impact. Social audits are most effective when used alongside other advocacy tactics, to draw attention to problems and to build legitimacy for demands.

They gather evidence and legitimise community experience

Social audits aim to legitimise the experiences and knowledge of the community as forms of evidence. Personal stories and testimonies are central to the evidence base of a social audit. They challenge the hegemonic and technocratic approach of government administrations by placing community experience and knowledge at the centre of participation and deliberation. This is an important element of community empowerment which lies at the heart of the social audit methodology. It is also one of the key differences between a survey of a community by outsiders, and a community-led social audit.

They examine and verify government documents

Social audits require access to official government (or private company) documents. This may include budgets and reported expenditure, tenders and contracts, invoices and receipts, as well as supporting laws, reports, policies, plans, and norms and standards. By gathering evidence and forming an understanding of what to expect from government, communities can verify official obligations and commitments against their own experiences of a particular service. Verification of official records includes interviews with community members about their experiences of a particular service and direct observations of infrastructure and service delivery.

This process can require a significant investment of time and resources from community organisations and community members.

They hold Government accountable through Public Hearings and follow up

Social audits include a public hearing where community members can present their findings and experiences, and where government officials have an opportunity to respond. This creates a forum for residents to openly raise and deliberate on the issues that affect their everyday lives in the presence of the government officials who are responsible for service delivery. This process can promote government accountability and bring about justice for people whose rights have been violated. Ideally it should be a space for community and government stakeholders to engage constructively about issues and come up with solutions.

Government officials are held accountable at the meeting by being pressed to make committments to take remedial action and to report back to residents within a specified timeframe. This most often requires follow-up strategies to ensure that officials are held to these commitments and that those who took part in the process are regularly informed of progress.

They are nonpartisan

Social audits may be political but are explicitly not based on party politics. They should facilitate broad public scrutiny of local, provincial, and national government, irrespective of which party is in power. Being nonpartisan is crucial if the social audits and public hearings are to be open spaces that are free of coercion. Being open and clear about this will also help to counter claims by political leaders that the social audit process is a witch-hunt or driven by organisations with political party affiliations or agendas. 

Download the Social Audit Guide