This article is part of the supplement: Social audit: building the community voice into health service delivery and planning
Building the community voice into planning: 25 years of methods development in social audit
Centro de Investigación de Enfermedades Tropicales (CIET), Universidad Autónoma de Guerrero, Calle Pino, El Roble, Acapulco, Mexico
BMC Health Services Research 2011, 11(Suppl 2):S1 doi:10.1186/1472-6963-11-S2-S1Published: 21 December 2011
Health planners and managers make decisions based on their appreciation of causality. Social audits question the assumptions behind this and try to improve quality of available evidence. The method has its origin in the follow-up of Bhopal survivors in the 1980s, where “cluster cohorts” tracked health events over time. In social audit, a representative panel of sentinel sites are the framework to follow the impact of health programmes or reforms. The epidemiological backbone of social audit tackles causality in a calculated way, balancing computational aspects with appreciation of the limits of the science.
Social audits share findings with planners at policy level, health services providers, and users in the household, where final decisions about use of public services rest. Sharing survey results with sample communities and service workers generates a second order of results through structured discussions. Aggregation of these evidence-based community-led solutions across a representative sample provides a rich substrate for decisions. This socialising of evidence for participatory action (SEPA) involves a different skill set but quality control and rigour are still important.
Early social audits addressed settings without accepted sample frames, the fundamentals of reproducible questionnaires, and the logistics of data turnaround. Feedback of results to stakeholders was at CIET insistence – and at CIET expense. Later social audits included strong SEPA components. Recent and current social audits are institutionalising high level research methods in planning, incorporating randomisation and experimental designs in a rigorous approach to causality.
The 25 years have provided a number of lessons. Social audit reduces the arbitrariness of planning decisions, and reduces the wastage of simply allocating resources the way they were in past years. But too much evidence easily exceeds the uptake capacity of decision takers. Political will of governments often did not match those of donors with interest conditioned by political cycles. Some reforms have a longer turnaround than the political cycle; short turnaround interventions can develop momentum. Experience and specialisation made social audit seem more simple than it is. The core of social audit, its mystique, is not easily taught or transferred. Yet teams in Mexico, Nicaragua, Canada, southern Africa, and Pakistan all have more than a decade of experience in social audit, their in-service training supported by a customised Masters programme.