Matt Marshall

2 Posts with Tag civics (All tags)

Accountability Work: Examining the Values, Technologies and Work Practices that Facilitate Transparency in Charities

This is the paper we submitted and had accepted into CHI 2018. I've converted from LaTeX src to markdown, but for some reason it won't generate a bibliography skeleton :-/ I'll try my best to fix it. Anyway, hope someone finds this useful

Authors: Matthew Marshall, John Vines, Pete Wright, David S. Kirk, Toby Lowe and Rob Wilson


Charities are subject to stringent transparency and accountability requirements from government and funders to ensure that they are conducting work and spending money appropriately. Charities are increasingly important to civic life and have unique characteristics as organisations. This provides a rich space in which HCI researchers may learn from and affect both held notions of transparency and accountability, and the relationships between these organisations and their stakeholders. We conducted ethnographic fieldwork and workshops over a seven month period at a charity. We aimed to understand how the transparency obligations of a charity manifest through work and how the workers of a charity reason about transparency and accountability as an everyday practice. Our findings highlight how organisations engage in presenting different accounts of their work; how workers view their legal transparency obligations in contrast with their accountability to their everyday community; and how their labour does not translate well to outcome measures or metrics. We discuss implications for the design of future systems that support organisations to produce accounts of their work as part of everyday practice.


This paper discusses the role of data technologies in Charitable Organisations (charities) as they are required to adhere to transparent and accountable standards in their work and their financial practices. Charities play an important role in society, often addressing issues of importance to populations and communities where both the private and state sectors have not engaged or lacked resources @salamon_rise_1994. Due to the nature of much of their funding - through grants and public donations - charities across the world are often required to demonstrate to their stakeholders a commitment to their aims and a competency in their financial practices @macmillan_relationship_2005 [@oliver_what_2004]. Modern technologies that enable large scale production and consumption of data play an increasingly important role in mediating transparency for organisations by supporting the online reporting and publishing of financial data @meijer_understanding_2009, while the production of open data is widely claimed to be synonymous with transparency in dialogues around government and business @coleman_lessons_2013 [@goldstein_open_2013; @gordon_making_2013]. Recent work within HCI has examined the use of open data by charities for constructing narratives @erete_storytelling_2016, the use of data for metrics for reporting and understanding organisational finances @elsden_resviz:_2016, and has provided insight into how digital systems can provide more comprehensive forms of transparency in these organisations @marshall_accountable:_2016. However, thus far there is little understanding of how technologies like these, and more commonplace data technologies, and data work, integrate into the daily, lived, work of charities.

Our research sets out to examine this gap in knowledge, aiming to understand how transparency and accountability are manifested through the practices of charity workers. We report on a qualitative study of work practices in a charity that conducts youth work for economically deprived and migrant communities in the North of England. Over a period of seven months the first author engaged in ethnographic fieldwork at the charity’s main community hub and office, participating in both delivery of community-facing activities and administrative work. The fieldwork was oriented towards developing a praxeological account @crabtree_doing_2012 of how financial work is performed within the organisation and how they account for their spending and activities. The findings from our fieldwork provide insight into the tools and processes used by members of such a setting to organise and make sense of their activities and finances and, more crucially, the work that is required to make this transparent and accountable to others. We also discuss the tensions that exist between the everyday execution of charitable work and the legal or contractual obligations to account for it in particular ways. In doing so we highlight how organisations can navigate these issues in order to make themselves accountable not only ‘on paper’ but to those who rely on their projects and services.

This paper contributes to HCI by providing an in-depth understanding of the everyday work practices in charities and the ways in which social technologies are supporting, or could be designed to better support, transparency and accountability. We demonstrate that transparency and accountability are complex and multifaceted, and their manifestation in charity work practices presents a rich space which we explore in this paper. This is an important concern for the HCI community as it strives to better support the needs of communities and organisations that serve civic and social needs whilst facing barriers to their work. Through understanding the communication needs of charities, HCI may address the ways technologies may be designed to better facilitate and enhance the work and relationships that are key to sustaining an organisation’s efforts in producing value for civic society.

Charities, Transparency, and HCI

It is generally understood that charities play an important role in society. They perform work in areas and matters generally left unattended by state or private sectors. This includes driving grass-roots development and social care @salamon_rise_1994, the creation and sustenance of Social Capital @field_social_2003 [@mendel_doing_2014] within communities and for particularly marginalised populations. It can be said that a charity’s very existence indicates a substantial need for its model of service delivery, due to the failure of the market to regulate for-profit entities which may engage in potentially harmful or exploitative practices @hansmann_role_1980.

Accountability is a cornerstone in the public’s relationship with organisations, but this is more pronounced in the context of charities for at least two reasons. First, due to the impact a charity can have, making an organisation accountable for actions it takes ensures that it is true to its mission and does not abuse the trust of the public and other stakeholders who might support its cause @frumkin_accountability_2006 [@jacobson_lifting_2005]. Second, since charities are mostly financed through public funds via government grants or direct donations from citizens, it is often argued that they should be held accountable and act transparently in regards to their financial practices. This is to ensure that they are seen to be using funds both appropriately and efficaciously. Furthermore, due to the nature of charitable funding, this means having multiple and diverse stakeholders to which they must be accountable @krashinsky_stakeholder_1997 [@macmillan_relationship_2005].

Literature in Public and Voluntary Sector Administration discusses multiple ways in which an organisation can be said to be accountable. This can include: the extent to which its stakeholders can direct its activity @koppell_pathologies_2005; how it can be called upon to justify its actions @fox_uncertain_2007; and how it can be made to adhere to responsibilities through legal frameworks @koppell_pathologies_2005. These theories of accountability impact the way that charities conduct their everyday operations regarding work and spending. Accountability shares a complicated relationship with financial transparency; the latter often being cited as means to provide the former @hood_accountability_2010. Koppell describes transparency as the foundational element for accountability upon which all of the other forms are built @koppell_pathologies_2005. Fox conceptualises an intersection between the two called ‘answerability’ @fox_uncertain_2007. For organisations there are many ways to be transparent such as passively revealing information or actively engaging stakeholders @oliver_what_2004 [@schauer_transparency_2011], or choosing to focus on outcomes or spend @heald_varieties_2006. The position of this paper is that all forms of transparency share a concern over the dissemination and consumption of information. The purpose of being transparent, therefore, is ultimately to facilitate interactions between an organisation, its work, and stakeholders (such as funders or the wider public). The provision and interrogation of data through digital technology is an increasingly used mechanism to facilitate this interaction, and therefore to achieve accountability @meijer_understanding_2009 [@oliver_what_2004].

Recent years have seen HCI researchers examining the role of data in everyday interactions, and the ways in which people interact with data itself. This includes data visualisations and interactions with data supporting personal goals, individual reflection, and shared awareness in social networks. At an organisational level, studies have demonstrated how charities have used open data to form narratives around local conditions @erete_storytelling_2016, while others have highlighted how visualisations around organisational metrics (including funding) support the use of data for reporting, understanding, and providing insight within highly politicised environments @elsden_resviz:_2016. In the personal sphere, concepts of data lockers allow external processors to interact with one’s data while maintaining personal control @mcauley_dataware_2011 and data itself is likened to a boundary object forming part of the infrastructure of everyday life @star_institutional_1989 [@crabtree_human_2015].

Most nations have legislation that stipulates a degree of transparency by ensuring that charities and other Non-Profit Organisations (NPOs) submit documentation for auditing and, subsequently, public consumption. Examples include the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) @internal_revenue_service_annual_2016 and the Charity Commission @hm_government_charity_nodate. The focus of these systems is typically on input transparencies i.e. the money a charity spends. This is, in part, due to its ease of measurement; however such input transparencies have been shown to be ineffective when determining how appropriate a spend is @heald_varieties_2006. Previous work in HCI has critiqued such systems for lacking detail and context about the work of organisations, and failing to represent non-monetary elements such as the efforts of those who volunteer for a charity’s projects and cause. The recommendations from this prior work are for new digital systems and processes that provide a more comprehensive and value-driven alternative to simple financial accounting @marshall_accountable:_2016. Additionally, imposed or expected transparency measures are often seen to be in conflict with effective practice regarding to organisational independence, confidentiality, and privacy @cukierman_limits_2009 [@schauer_mixed_2014]. In this way, the concerns of charities around transparency can often reflect privacy issues discussed as concerns around the use of personal informatics that are discussed by McAuley et al @mcauley_dataware_2011. This is because charities may wish to communicate an accurate view of their work and its value but may have concerns presenting data about activity or spend that can be misinterpreted by others who may not understand its context. Furthermore, on a pragmatic level, being transparent can create additional work for organisations due to the effort involved in audits, monitoring and reporting that they are legally or contractually obliged to perform. It also means charities have to expend further effort to communicate their practice and value (as opposed to values) in order to maintain a relationship with their stakeholders @macmillan_relationship_2005.

The work reported in this paper builds upon previous research in HCI around the design of systems to facilitate transparency and accountability in charities @marshall_accountable:_2016, and work that discusses the use of data for interaction by and between individuals and organisations @crabtree_human_2015 [@elsden_resviz:_2016]. Where previous investigations focus on the design for interfaces to interact with data, or the ownership and processing of the same, it typically fails to account for the work needed in organisations to compile this data in the first place. As such, our research set out to ask: how is work performed and money spent; how is this accounted for in a charity; and what are the processes that make these accounts available to others? In asking and examining these questions through ethnographic fieldwork, this research seeks to provide insights around the ways in which digital systems can be designed to better facilitate the work of ‘being transparent’ as part of everyday practice in charities.

Research Approach

Our fieldwork was conducted over seven months with a small charity, ‘’ (a pseudonym), in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. The organisation has three full-time and four part-time staff (pseudonymised for reporting): Martin (Manager, full-time); Andrea (Senior Youth Worker, full-time); Danny (Youth Worker, full-time); Lydia (Administrator, part-time replacing Charli who had the role when fieldwork began); Sofia (Youth Worker, part-time); and Ludoslav (Youth Worker, part-time). The charity has an annual financial turnover of approximately 130k, and operates across two buildings: ‘The Project’, a community hub and central offices; and ‘The Play Centre’, a building designed for young people’s play. We approached for this research on the recommendation of a collaborator who represents Charities across the local region; they were presented as an organisation who have a significant presence in their community, whose work is value-driven, and are exemplar of small charities with flexible funding. They were also presented as being enthusiastic about becoming involved in research of this subject and scope, which was confirmed upon initial discussions with the lead researcher.

Fieldwork and data collection were primarily ethnographic in nature @crabtree_doing_2012, formed of participatory-observation activities at . This involved shadowing, assisting with accounts preparation, and interviewing staff, volunteers, and service users in-situ.

Our fieldwork began in early 2016. Initially, this came in the form of weekly visits by the lead author to in order to participate in their daily administrative and planning sessions. These were targeted to coincide with the shifts of the part-time administrator so that the researcher could engage with their work as well as that of other staff members.

After several visits, fieldwork expanded to include participating in the organisation’s work as a volunteer youth worker on a weekly basis. This further facilitated the lead author’s integration into the charity, and provided opportunities to participate in and observe performing their work in order to develop a deeper understanding of their practices. Through this participant-observation, the lead author was able to develop a vulgar competence @crabtree_doing_2012 of organisational processes from which to learn from and reflect upon. At this point, visits became more frequent and occurred several times a week with days being spent partly participating in administration and planning, and partly in the performance of a volunteer role in community sessions and projects.

During this time the researcher was given a range of duties to perform such as: everyday purchasing of equipment for activities; attending meetings with stakeholders; being involved in strategy meetings with partners; creating monitoring materials such as questionnaires; and compiling financial accounts. They were also given copies of the yearly accounts spreadsheets to inspect, with instruction to ask any questions as required. Informal interviews often occurred in-situ, either when the researcher was seeking clarification of an activity as it occurred in-the-moment, or when reflection on fieldnotes lead to a question which could only be answered by the setting’s members. These informal interviews were not audio-recorded, but were integrated into the data corpus through fieldnotes and fieldwork diaries.

At later stages of the project, the researcher engaged workers in focus groups that were centred around a structured discussion whilst performing an activity. Three of these events were held, approximately 3 weeks apart and lasting an average of 105 minutes. The purpose of these activities were to provide a space during fieldwork to give participants an explicit opportunity to reflect on the researcher’s findings together, and to discuss their held notions of transparency and accountability as well as how potential future technologies may affect their working practices with regards to this. With the consent of participants, the sessions were audio-recorded and then transcribed. Further to this the researcher produced entries in their fieldwork diary which incorporated photography and reflections on the event.

In total, the seven-month ethnography comprised 49 unique visits and engagement in 27 volunteering activities. After each field visit the lead author would transform relevant field notes into a fieldwork diary entry which was examined by themselves and other authors prior to and during analysis, and elaborated on using discussions with setting’s members as fieldwork continued. This resulted in 70 pages of fieldnotes and fieldwork diaries.


Our findings are compiled from field notes and diaries collected during the lead researcher’s immersion in the organisation, as well as transcripts from the audio recordings made during focus group events. These were used to develop praxeological accounts of interactional work @crabtree_doing_2012 regarding the organisation’s activities around reporting their work practices to others. These accounts focus on how members of the setting achieve their goals through interactional work and are grouped based on the activities they relate to: Accounts of Spending; Accounts of Activities; and Accounts of Hidden Work.

Accounting for Spending

We describe here how the charity spends money, and what is involved in producing the accounts required by legal processes. Spending occurs in two ways: core organisational costs (salaries, building rental, etc.); and spending which is based in the activities of a given working day. These each have distinct mechanisms through which money is spent, and accounted for.

Everyday Spending

Everyday spending is made accountable internally by funnelling spend through two senior staff members. Charli, the charity’s part-time administrator, described this:

Charli: “The staff get paid back through expenses, and only Martin and Andrea are allowed to make expenses claims which they’ll make generally when they notice their bank accounts are getting low”.

Charli’s comment tells us two things. The first is that two senior workers, Martin and Andrea, are the only ones allowed to make expenses claims for purchases. This allows them to ensure that all claims are deemed appropriate since they may monitor purchases and remove the possibility of abuse by other staff members. Their personal practices are also indicated by Charli – they only make claims when they “notice their bank accounts are getting low”. That this is possible to do also indicates the practice of storing transaction records for compilation and reimbursement. While this may initially seem restrictive, we observed practices involving the devolution of purchasing work to other staff members, allowing multiple workers to make necessary purchases. We observe that this devolution of responsibility could occur in two ways. We describe both of these in a vignette below, which details events that occurred across two days of fieldwork:

Whilst helping prepare for a ‘Community Activity Day’, Sofia and I were tasked with producing a grocery list for the BBQ. While walking to the store we were approached on the side of the road by Martin in the minibus. He asks us if we’re “off to buy food?”. Sofia affirms and Martin replies “Here, take this” handing her his bank card, “Do you know the PIN?”. Sofia nods and Martin chuckles, saying “Aye. Half of [district area] know that PIN now” and driving off. When shopping, we explicitly choose the cheapest possible store-brand products. I ask about this and she tells me “We can’t be seen to be buying brands really”. We use Martin’s card to pay and later, Martin returns around an hour later and retrieves his card and the receipt of purchase from Sofia, checking over it briefly before putting it in his wallet. The next day, I was walking to the Play Centre when Martin pulled up in the minibus heading in the opposite direction at speed. He stops only to hand me 20 and tells me “We need toilet roll for the Play Centre. Go get some from [convenience store] across the road, the cheap pack at the back of the shop”. After making the purchase I head to the Play Centre which is already full of activity. I find Andrea and hand her the money, which she takes and asks me for a receipt. She stores the receipt together with Martin’s cash in her back pocket.

This illustrates how spending is funnelled through the senior staff whilst still allowing the organisation to distribute the labour of purchasing by devolving responsibility. Sofia is handed Martin’s debit card so that it is his money that is spent, and this acts as a buffer between the member of staff and the organisation’s finances. This buffer is also present when Martin hands cash to the researcher so that they can participate in spending. There is also both evidence of an immediate internal checking process and an awareness of wider notions of being responsible with spending. Martin checks the receipt that Sofia presents to ensure appropriateness, and Sofia does not wish to be “seen to be buying brands”. Sofia may have to justify purchases if called upon by Martin, and in context of the charity’s overall budget – this is due to the perceived appropriateness of a spend. This is also seen when Martin explicitly provides the researcher with instructions to purchase the “the big cheap pack” of toilet roll. Overall, these internal measures show that the organisation may attest to being responsible with money when able to present context but this is unaccounted for via formal means.

Staff Salaries

In meetings with Charli during fieldwork, the researcher discussed with her how staff are salaried at :

Charli: “Danny and Andrea get paid full time, I get paid part-time. Martin works full-time but he’s only paid part-time.”

Charli lists several of the staff and their pay-schemes, but noticeably says here that Martin is working full time but only paid for part of his work, indicating that his salary is variable even though his role is central to the organisation. During a subsequent fieldwork session, Martin elaborated on this:

“It’s what’s best for …I don’t care how much I get paid, and it’s money that I have to end up looking for. I put salaries down for the last few years, and it took a while to put Danny up to 20k when he started because of money. With the [Large Grant] coming in now we can start thinking about putting the salaries back to normal.”

Martin’s discussion of the staff accepting lower pay provides insight into the values of the organisation. The staff are dedicated to the organisation’s work, and are aware of their impact on its finances; accepting lower pay in order to “keep things going”. Where Martin discusses having to look for the money to pay staff, he also touches upon how raising pay creates an increase in labour as he is required to expend effort sourcing funds to make up the difference. Further into fieldwork, Martin provides additional insight into this during discussion about staff salaries and standard pay increases amid the adjustment:

Martin: “We’re putting salaries up which is a big relief for everyone. I’ll be on 30k, but not really because that means more tax so you have to judge it carefully. Because of the tax brackets, past a certain point it makes no sense to give me a pay increase because of how much it’ll cost. An extra hundred to me per week will be several thousand a year to the charity which I have to find and justify finding. This way everyone still sees their pay increase, including me, but I’m not too worried about finding the extra cash. It’s still the least you’ll ever see another project manager get paid round here though. Some larger organisations have six or seven heads on about 100k; nearly a million you need before you even get anything done.”

This emphasises Martin’s awareness of how staff salaries impact the organisation; he is willing to keep his salary lower than that of comparable positions in the area (“round here”) and demonstrates that he would need to justify to others a pay increase that required searching for a disproportionate amount of further funding. Martin also mentions how the staff will be relieved that the salaries are being brought in line with standard pay rises; illustrating that the salary cuts have tangible effects on staff and further defining their position as a value-driven cohort. When Martin discusses the salaries of larger organisations he also reveals his views on what money and people are supposed to do in an organisation; they are supposed to be put towards the organisation’s work and paying head staff large salaries creates pressure from extra work and financial requirements “before you even get anything done”.

Compiling Accounts

All income and spending must be accounted for formally through compilation of ‘the accounts’; records of financial transactions that must be produced, audited and presented to bodies such as the charity’s Board of Trustees (like a corporate executive board who act in a supervisory capacity for a charity) or the Charity Commission (UK governing body). Compiling accounts was an activity the researcher was involved in during fieldwork, generally performed alongside the administrator (Charli, and later Lydia). When initially instructed in the task by Martin, we were given insight into the role of financial accounts in the organisation and what is involved in the task:

Martin: “We have this budgeting tool. It’s an Excel spreadsheet really [...] this lad who used to work for us set it up, we can add funders and add spending and stuff and we can use it to see how much we have left in each budget. At the end of each financial year this gets sent to the accountant so they can sign it off for us.”

This encapsulates two things about how this work is performed. First, we see that it may be performed by several people, and that this role may be more transitory than others in the organisation. During the course of our involvement, the role of Administrator changes from Charli to Lydia, and was previously occupied by another prior to research beginning (the “lad”). This brings into question how well administration tasks fit with the value driven nature of the organisation’s other activities. It also reveals how the organisation views using the spreadsheet when doing budgeting; Martin refers to it as a tool, with which he can present an account of the budget to himself, and can be used to generate another account to others (one which is legally or contractually stipulated). Other features of the tool are brought to light when Martin details the process of ‘Costing’ to the researcher:

Martin: “This lets us see how much money we have in each fund, and then in the other screen here I can assign it to a funding pot and then this updates.”

At a later point in fieldwork, Martin elaborates on this practice, and how the organisation benefits from it:

Martin: “I do this when someone tells me that a report [to a funder] is due. I’ll see what the fund says I can spend it on, and then I’ll cost things to it and move things around so that each fund is happy. Sometimes I do it when we need to spend money from a fund that’s due and I can go back and move things so it’s used up, then there’s loads to put in the report. Or sometimes if we need money for something, I’ll go and free something up from a fund by moving things to other funds.”

As shown, costing work is related to the reports that funders stipulate as part of their funding arrangement with the charity. Martin shows that the organisation has some flexibility in the way that it costs things, and uses this to justify spending that may have been outside of the original proposed use for the funding.

We did, however, witness that there is an inherent tension when presenting accounts for auditing; a legal requirement for charities. Auditing processes require accounts to be ‘ratified’ (checked and signed) by an accountant, and often experience conflict when engaging with commercial accountants. We describe this below:

During a meeting, Martin asks to speak to me about the accounts. “I’m not happy with the accountants at the moment, they’re being problematic”. I ask why and he responds “They just want us to use [commercial accounting software], do you know [that brand]? The accountants don’t like that we don’t use [brand], and I think that’s because they can just import it and have it do their job for them.” At a later meeting with trustees Martin speaks again on the issue, “We’re thinking of scrapping [accountants]. They’ve upped the price to 1300 …, and they’re trying to force us to use [a brand] so we do their job for them. We’ve spoken to a woman we found on [a listing] who says she’ll do it for 20 an hour and she’s happy to do them in whatever format we want. She’s been in and looked already and she’s told us that we’ve already done the job, and all she’ll need to do is double-check a few things and sign it off. We have to make sure she’s got the right, y’know, qualifications, to do that but aye it looks much better.”.

Here Martin shows us that there is an explicit point of contention that arises when commercial accounting models are misapplied to charities. The accountants use expensive commercial software and apply it as a de facto standard, presenting a barrier to the charity engaging with the auditing processes required of them. These attempts to influence ’s toolkit and thus their accounting practices demonstrates a conflict that, in order to become transparent in a particular way, they must use methods imposed upon them that do not support their own practices of accounting for money.

Accounting for Activity

As well as having to account for financial spending, are also required to account for their work activity. Accountability here is notably experienced through both formal procedures and more interpersonal interactions with the community. We outline below how the organisation navigates this, in order to explicate the work practices that support communicating the organisation’s activities to others.

Curating qualitative records

We observed the workers engaging in the production and curation of qualitative records that assisted them in presenting an account of their work. Some forms of record were stipulated as legal requirements, whereas others were produced at the prerogative of workers:

During a session, I observed Andrea taking photographs using her phone. She would often approach participants to take a photograph of them. Whenever possible, Andrea would call to another youth worker and ask them to get into the photograph as well. The next morning, I have been tagged in photographs by ’s Facebook account alongside the other workers and young people in the photographs.

Andrea’s behaviour shows her producing a qualitative record of the event and activity that occurred. She can be seen collecting photographic evidence of their attendance in-situ, and using this to elaborate on the context of their work. The practice of uploading these to a social media profile produces an account of their activity for others, and tagging people in photographs on the platform encourages those tagged to look at them and potentially allows others (such as parents) to glimpse the activity as well. As well as on social media, print out a selection of photographs in a poster format, which are displayed around their main community hub. The workers reflected on this practice in a group discussion:

Andrea: “Part of it’s capturing that moment in time because it’s gonna be gone. Y’know, and it would be very easy for them to forget [...] So you’re capturing it for them, you’re capturing it for their parents to see what they’ve achieved, or for the [Young People’s Award] so they can prove whatever it is they’ve done. You’re putting on the wall as a celebration, you’re putting it in the annual report for funders to see and also for young’uns to see [...] Like loads of kids will be like ‘will this be going on the wall?’.”

Martin: “We just take lots of pictures because it becomes a resource for us as well. The ones on the wall are of the *Young People’s Award because they’re positive images. Sitting down two people and talking one to one and that — it’s not very entertaining.”*

We see here how the organisation use a resource bank of records built up by photographs for different types of accounts, to different people. This illustrates the elasticity a record may possess; Andrea relates how photographs may be used as evidence for participant’s involvement in an award, whereas Martin conceptualises them as “positive images” and a resource for the organisation’s future needs. Andrea also explicates how the photographs are shown to parents in order to provide an account of their child’s activity with . We also see how the photographs are repurposed to provide an account of value in the annual report, and to provide a personal record for the young people when it’s placed on the wall in “celebration”. The ability for these records to form a resource from which different accounts can be derived also sits in contrast to other forms of work that perform that, as Martin indicates here, are more difficult to account for (“Sitting down two people and talking one to one and that — it’s not very entertaining”). We observed this first-hand during fieldwork when Martin expressed frustration at the records that are required to keep of their meetings with service users, and how it is difficult to present these to others:

I followed Martin to a filing cabinet that was unlabelled. He took out a folder to show me an example, “Here. This is a monitoring form we have to fill out every time we have a chat with someone. You say who it was, what you chatted about and what the outcomes were. Standard ticky-box stuff. We’re meant to keep this, and we do by the way, but nobody ever asks to see it. I’ve got files here from ten year ago which haven’t seen the light of day. People complain at us that we’re not doing our job and ticking boxes but we are, but nobody ever comes in. Nobody ever asks.”

Martin’s frustration indicates that while he is fulfilling legal and stipulated obligations designed to make accountable for their work, they are not given the opportunity to demonstrate this properly. When Martin describes how photographs of these chats would be “not very entertaining” we also see that whilst could theoretically generate records of these, the effort required to do so would not result in a substantial gain for the charity when trying to demonstrate their value.

Accountability of activity in the community

In contrast to the perceived indifference of regulatory bodies, we found that the workers at saw themselves as being highly visible and thus accountable to their local community both in their roles as youth workers, but also as individuals within it due to an inherent visibility of their presence. This is characterised by Danny’s conception of accountability during a group discussion:

Danny: “There’s the visibility in and out of work. It’s not a one-way thing, I’m not Danny the youth worker during the day and I’m not Darts-Danny at night I’m both and I’ve got to be very aware that young people and the families that I work with, [...], I live in the same area as them and they are watching me constantly. In and out. I’ve got to be visible. It’s... an awareness of your role within the community. And I think another one for me, being accountable is remaining humble and just thinking that I’m very much where I’ve come from and I’m very like the young people I work with and they know my family.”

With this, Danny shows us how he sees his role in the community by living and working in the same area. Danny provides a view that accountability for his actions as a youth worker is lived in each moment. He is constantly watched by those around him, even when outside of work during his recreation activities and can therefore be seen as a whole, rather than only through a lens of his output at . The researcher saw this value in practice through the way that configures their Social Media presence:

Andrea: “We didn’t like having a Facebook ’Page’ because it treats you like a business and wants you to pay so everyone sees your posts. We want to be seen in the community. So we made the account a person instead and everyone is our friend and the kids message us at stupid hours …When Facebook changed it so that you couldn’t have a company name as a person, we changed our name to ‘Martin ’ as Martin doesn’t use Facebook himself. [The community] know it’s all of us though, not just him.”

Andrea emphasises the value-driven nature of the organisation’s work through how they’ve chosen to configure their Social Media presence. She notes that whilst there is a pragmatic benefit in how personal accounts are seen on the Facebook platform, this embodies their desire to be seen as part of the community. Later, the organisation takes steps to maintain this dynamic by capitalising the identity of a worker, Martin, for use as a profile name. When Andrea elaborates on her belief that the community understands they are interacting with all workers through the Facebook account, she belies her belief in the dynamic that the workers are visible and present as part of the community and are not abstracted by their involvement in the organisation – being visible and accountable.

Accounting for Hidden Work

Hidden Work here refers to the effort required by the workers to make their work productive, and has been termed Unproductive Labour in Political Economy @marx_contribution_1970, and Articulation Work in CSCW texts @schmidt_taking_1992. We concern ourselves not only with how this is performed but how it is accounted for and communicated to others. In this context it refers to effort expended by workers at the charity in addition to what the task demands in-the-moment. An example would be the planning required to execute community sessions ahead of time. We found that accounting for this hidden work occurs only in conjunction with its performance, during meetings, or discussions about activities and planning – it is rare for those outside of the organisation and immediate community to be made aware of this work. Accounting for hidden work is thus more informal, and often complicated by the nature of ’s activity. We elaborate on these points below.

Responding Work

A lot of hidden work arises from ’s open-door policy, which requires an immediate response to community members coming through the door for their services or informal discussions – disrupting the processes by which workers are performing (and accounting for) hidden work. This came to the fore in one discussion during fieldwork:

We were discussing another youth project operating in the city, as have recently acquired a Play Centre and are finding ways to use it most effectively so have visited other charities to learn from them. It’s mentioned that the other project execute elaborately planned evenings of activities for their attendees and Danny exclaims “They’ve got the time they don’t start until half four! As soon as that shutter goes up we have work to do!” He gestures at street-facing window towards the front of the room. The group nod in agreement

Danny is discussing how ’s activity cannot be judged against that of another organisation with different working patterns. He also makes reference to the open door policy and its effect on their working day regarding planning and makes clear that these informal meetings are conceived of as ‘work’; there is effort expended when conversing that prevents them from performing other tasks. These conversations must be engaged in because they also form an important part of how organise their work. This was elaborated on during a group discussion with the researcher:

Andrea: “So aye, [anon] is a good example. [...] I know he was doing football, I knew he was doing work experience so he’d have the time and you just think well it would be really good for him to do it for his future. Y’know, so having a conversation with him to say look are you interested in this?”

Engaging in conversations that arise from the open-door policy can thus translate to outcomes, in this case a beneficiary getting a work experience placement based around a hobby. This qualifies Danny’s earlier utterance that the organisation has “work to do” as soon as they start: these conversations are work that must occur for to achieve its goals effectively, but it is difficult to provide an account of this to others.

Understanding Hidden Work through Context

We note that hidden work is rarely accounted for outside of the organisation and immediate community. During fieldwork, however, Martin related how outsiders may be introduced to the context of the organisation to understand the labour required to perform everyday tasks and achieve outcomes:

“It’s like when this guy from [a funder] came in to check. Most funders don’t and they don’t understand us. He came in and he loved it. He said that he was amazed we could keep the place running, we had so much going on around here that we deal with on a daily basis.”

From this we also see that Martin understands the difficulty of accounting for this labour to others — most funders do not visit and thus do not understand how the project functions. That the funder is amazed at the scale of everyday work and effort being expended shows that this is not captured or represented elsewhere; and can be accounted for only by being present and producing one’s own account from the context of the activity. We later saw that this problem is compounded; and we illustrate this with a vignette of activity leading up to a scheduled evening event in the organisation:

I was due to attend a session with a group referred to as the ‘Slovak Lasses’ group, comprised of young Slovak women aged between 15 and 24. The sessions run from 1600 approx until about 1830, and the plan is to run a BBQ event for the attendees. From 1545, two participants had turned up alongside a part-time worker and sat at computers visit Facebook. Danny is also on Facebook using the account and has several chat windows open. When prompted, Danny responded that he is “chasing up” the rest of the group to make sure that they were coming. Whilst passing, Andrea convinces the attendees to accept her taking a photograph of them. Danny signs off the computer at 1630 and at 1655, there is no sign of other attendees. Danny is visibly concerned, pacing back and forward. He mutters that “we should sack this group”. Sofia nods then says “this is ridiculous. We have two young people and four staff”. I am dismissed by Danny who says “You can go if you want. It’s a bit weird if we outnumber the girls and we have loads of staff in”.

This example shows two things. First, it reinforces the issue of hidden hork only being able to be accounted for in-the-moment. Danny performs the additional task of ‘chasing up’ participants; work which emerges as the evening progresses and is only visible to those in the room. Secondly, it raises the issue of how the ’s efforts would appear if mapped to outcomes in an accounting process. Sofia indicates that such a mapping would not appear favourable (“We have two young people and four staff”), and Danny hints that this is not an uncommon occurrence (“we should sack this group”). has to balance the goal of maintaining a relationship with the beneficiaries – which can lead to important outcomes – with the need to make and be seen making effective use of their time and labour resources. The slower and seemingly less productive execution of the event also directly contrasts with what Martin describes as the funder’s surprise at the high levels of activity during a visit. This likely results from an intersection of elements such as the specific beneficiaries, the time of day, etc. but when isolated from context these two incidents each paint seemingly irreconcilable views of the organisation’s daily life.

Inferring Hidden Work

We did see that hidden work may sometimes be inferred by other members of the organisation, in addition to those present as it occurs. This is often achieved through the records that are produced as a by-product of activity in conjunction with the worker’s implicit knowledge of each others’ work practices:

I was participating in a planning session for the evening’s activities; initiated when Danny and Andrea each took out large workbooks. Andrea asks “Where’s Martin?”, to which Danny responds that he is “down the allotment”. Andrea looks puzzled at this and Danny elaborates, “He’s seeing how [the gardener]’s getting on” and turns the notebook to show Andrea. There is a task list which shows ‘allotment’. Andrea looks at this, and nods.

This shows that workers may use records to infer the activity and thus the work of others in the charity. Danny shows Andrea a workbook entry which contains only a single word that allows both Danny and Andrea to construct a context around Martin’s current whereabouts. We see how Andrea and Danny understand that work is being performed at the allotment, and that Martin’s absence indicates that it is him performing it. We also see how the workers are able to infer the nature of this work, as Danny is able to ascertain that Martin is checking up on someone whilst there. Similarly, we saw that financial records such as receipts could be re-appropriated and used for this inferral:

Martin was having lunch and moving items on the table out of his way, to place his laptop there and write a report. Moving a pile of paper, he turns to inspect it and finds a receipt, saying aloud “What’s this? Ohh. It’s the pancake stuff for tonight; Sofia’s been shopping.”

The receipt makes Sofia’s work accountable internally, as Martin recognises that the items are a list of ingredients to make pancakes, an activity commonly run by the charity. He infers that there has been effort expended in acquiring these materials when he says “Sofia’s been shopping”, and can attribute this to Sofia through knowledge that shopping was a task to be completed and that Sofia was assigned to it. The receipt also pertains to the charity’s activity – running a session involving cooking. This shows how accounting for this hidden work hints at the organisation’s work towards goals. Notably, this we see how a record may exist within several contexts: evidencing expenditure, the inferral of activity, and the by-product of work related to activity (a cooking session) that may be accounted for.


Our findings demonstrate that those working in a charity may experience accountability in multiple ways, with reference to their values, work, and responsibilities both as an organisation and individuals. Our results show how legal and financial frameworks surrounding the organisation has a pronounced effect in the work required for a charity to account for the use of resources – both financial and labour – and also that members of the setting can experience this accountability as part of their everyday work in the organisation. We also saw evidence that the organisation and its workers view themselves as inseparable from their local community, thus accountable to it; this relationship requires a maintenance effort similar to the legal demands of government and funders.

Our findings show how conflicts may emerge from the ways in which the charity views itself as accountable to various stakeholders such as its community, its funders, and governmental bodies. In one key instance, we see how must be accountable to funders by reporting their use of grant money whilst simultaneously tailoring activities and spending with regard to the emergent needs of their beneficiaries. This conflict is rooted in the accountability pathways that they must engage in: charities are controlled by their funders to ensure that their spending falls within a specific remit, and this conflicts with a need to be responsive as an organisation and act in accordance with the needs of beneficiaries. This is discussed by Koppel as Multiple Accountability Disorder (MAD) @koppell_pathologies_2005 and compounding this is the various ways in which the organisation is required to make itself transparent. As discussed, transparency is often seen as a foundational element of accountability but the relationship between the two is nuanced – where various forms of being transparent may generate different forms of accountability @koppell_pathologies_2005 [@fox_uncertain_2007; @hood_accountability_2010].

This raises questions around the role of technologies in charities and how they allow workers to navigate conflicts inherent in their accountability requirements. In the following sections we discuss design considerations for future systems that seek to assist charities in managing the tensions associated with becoming transparent and accountable.

Support the Accountability of Work Practice

Our research began by examining accountability from the perspective of public and voluntary sector administration, where organisations may be accountable to others through a number of different pathways such as producing answers when questioned @fox_uncertain_2007 [@koppell_pathologies_2005]. This is demonstrated in our findings as much of the work involved in ‘doing accountability’ involves workers producing answers for stakeholders in the form of reports on spending and how activities were delivered in relation to this expenditure. We posit this offers HCI an opportunity to affect change through a form of accountability with which it is intimately familiar: the accountable nature of work @garfinkel_studies_1967.

While ‘work’ in Garfinkel’s terms refers explicitly to interactional work in the accomplishment of ordering social settings, these interactions are what form the basis of an organisation’s accomplishment of its goals. For example, our findings show that a receipt of purchase obviously means someone has been shopping, and is also incorporated as evidence in the financial accounting process. We show that an organisation can account for the work that it does towards its goals but that the emergent nature of outcomes means that this only provides a partial view. We see that visitors to comment upon activity there as the work and the context of that work is made obvious; yet the accountable nature of that interaction is not supported through systematic processes for reporting.

Making accountability accountable here, then, involves producing systems that allow the communication of organisation’s accomplishment of their work practice in relation to their goals. This should be in such a way that the work of an organisation is made obvious at a glance. Our findings demonstrate that the charity appropriates social media as an ‘organisational accounting device’ @dourish_process_2001, making their activities observable and reportable to those who care to look. As such, we propose that technologies be developed to support the communication of work practices in context with organisational goals. For instance, accounting software that appropriates social media features such as timelines, tagging, and events to contextualise financial records or work toward outcomes. This would provide a resource for both workers and stakeholders and in doing so may begin to address the current chasm between reporting processes and the emergent nature of outcomes; making it clearer to all parties how the work of a charity sits in its local context.

It is imperative to ensure that these systems cannot be used to control or monitor the actions of workers, effectively ‘managing’ productive labour to make this accountable to funders @harper_looking_1992. Systems should instead provide workers with means to produce accounts of their work flexibly, and express these accounts in a diverse manner. This enables the different forms of transparency that predicate various accountabilities @koppell_pathologies_2005 [@fox_uncertain_2007; @hood_accountability_2010]. Such systems will thus need to enable the configuration of transparency to support making work accountable for those who care to look. We discuss how this may be achieved below.

Enable configuration of Transparency

Charities such as are shown to engage simultaneously in multiple forms of transparency to satisfy their accountability requirements. While regulatory bodies and funders are concerned with spending money and monitoring output this is widely accepted to be divorced from the true impact of an organisation’s work @heald_varieties_2006. Simultaneously, take efforts to make themselves transparent and accountable to their community through practices such as using social media and having open-door policies.

These efforts are in line with calls to partake in more active forms of transparency which are seen as more communicative @oliver_what_2004 [@schauer_transparency_2011]. We see here, however, that this often requires extra work on behalf of the workers to articulate their results and efforts to the community on top of compiling reports for other government entities and funders. Important here is the narrative form this transparency takes, and HCI has previously seen how charities can construct narratives surrounding their work through the use of Open Data @erete_storytelling_2016. engage in a process which involves them collecting data which they fashion into narratives. Digital tools also play a role in ‘Costing Work’ to satisfy requirements that spending appears to have been in accordance with funding conditions, but is actually spent as the charity responds more directly to beneficiaries. This is an example of how charities may feel compelled to frame their work by tailoring reports to meet expectations @lowe_playing_2015, and demonstrates how the values embedded in the design have negative impacts on how the organisation may achieve its goals @pine_institutional_2014.

While previous HCI work calls for qualitative forms of accounting @marshall_accountable:_2016, we put forward that new systems must do more than simply incorporate additional metadata into the accounting process; *they must be designed with embedded values that better reflect the needs of an organisation and its beneficiaries*. As these may differ between organisations, systems should seek to support workers in easily matching their records to the required format per request without much additional labour. *Providing interfaces to retrieve, combine, and present data in a multitude of ways would go some way in supporting charities experiencing multiple accountability requirements*. Doing so acknowledges not only the conflict of multiple accountabilities and transparencies; but the problem that is the effort required to manage these conflicts separately. This would allow organisations a material means to configure transparency based on context. It also presents new opportunities for stakeholders to engage charities; if systems allowed the controlled retrieval of information @mcauley_dataware_2011, then stakeholders may actually assist in configuration work and create new ways to interpret the data that is more meaningful for them.

This may be achieved practically through providing lightweight, interoperable, data collection tools and interfaces (e.g. mobile and web applications) that allow workers to easily collect, combine, and process information based on evolving needs but operate independently without commitment to one platform. Thus the design embodies values of organisational control and flexibility to support workers collaborating in curating an organisational account. This account would then take the form of an interrogable dataset that can be configured to meet the mode of transparency and accountability required for a given purpose. Providing this configurable form of transparency requires that systems consider the means by which the dataset is created, curated, and queried. We address this below.

Create Contexts through Linked Accounting

We have seen the challenges of accounting for Hidden Work; the activity behind what is being accounted for. This challenge also manifests in terms of the increasing demand for charities to not just account for their activity, but for their outcomes - the effect of their activity on the lives of those with whom they work @lowe_playing_2015. Holding organisations accountable for delivering outcomes (e.g. improving the health of a community) has been critiqued as they are often the result of overwhelmingly complex systems, which any given organisation cannot control, and therefore cannot be held accountable for @lowe_new_2013. Our findings demonstrate that a disconnect exists in how organisations may perform work and how it is reported upon; such as being concerned about numbers attending a group.

Historically, the ‘Linking Processes’ between input of work and money to work output and eventual outcomes has been problematic and poorly understood @heald_varieties_2006. People often seek to create ‘program logic models’ which connect activity to outcomes as a linear model of cause-and-effect @schalock_measuring_2003 but as discussed; outcomes are generally emergent and such models are not representative of how they come about.

Since outcomes emerge from complex systems interacting @lowe_new_2013 [@lowe_playing_2015], we have proposed that digital technologies support configuration of transparency. The role of Linked Data @bizer_emerging_2009 is central in this for two reasons. First, data is a boundary object @crabtree_human_2015 [@star_institutional_1989] that may be appropriated and adapted as a means of providing ‘alternative lenses’ on work and spending @elsden_designing_2017; as such, Linked Data supports the configuration of transparency by providing the material means to combine and show information in context based on need. This allows organisations to rapidly produce lenses on their work to satisfy reporting requirements while predicating only that an initial link be developed between income, work, and outcome to support traversal and presentation of the data. Second, Linked Data implies interoperability with other datasets which speaks to the complex nature of outcomes discussed above. These linking processes could support charities, or other actors, linking multiple datasets to better understand the complex nature of how outcomes are emergent; and from this produce a context that better situates the role of the charity in producing that outcome.

Such a system also has grounds in the legal procedures necessary to audit a charity’s financial accounts. We note that these are somewhat federated in nature; there exists a standard and agreed upon mechanism for having one’s accounts verified and signed, yet multiple actors may perform the ratification. This ecosystem resembles that postulated by the Dataware Manifesto @mcauley_dataware_2011, and creating a Linked Data set within a charity would support this process through the controlled sharing of data. This federation may be achieved through making digital tools independent and interoperable, as described above. Furthermore, linking data could see this form of federated system used to produce other forms of transparency; processes acting on Linked Data could be used to create new interfaces around work and spending that support the more active forms of transparency discussed at the start of this paper @schauer_mixed_2014.

In doing this, systems would support the creation of ‘Linked Accounting’. That is to say these systems may engender accounting and reporting process built upon the premise that organisations are being asked to account for outcomes that have no control over, but their work (and spending) is accountable and may be linked to outcomes as having taken place. This shifts the focus of ‘accounting’ in charities towards the accountable performance of work, and contributes Linked Data for the wider community to use in mapping and understanding the complex systems contributing to outcomes.


In this paper we set out to explore how an understanding of the everyday work practices of charities could be used to inform the design of systems that seek to support them in becoming transparent and accountable. We explicate that the complex nature of transparency and accountability manifests as a variety of interconnected work practices that are experienced by the charity workers, and how socio-technical systems that are used by organisations also affect these same practices. We then present implications for the design of future systems that embed values of worker control and flexibility in order to support charities navigating their obligations in everyday practice. We discuss this by drawing upon our understanding of the accountable nature of work practices, and how this may be captured and represented through interoperable digital systems that allow charities to configure transparency and accountability in accordance with their needs; leading to the concept of ‘Linked Accounting’.

Charity organisations and the HCI community share important civic and social concerns, and the reduction of barriers to a charity’s efforts through digital technologies has far-reaching implications for society. Future work should seek to further engage with charities to collaboratively develop and deploy these systems to discover how they may be appropriated into work practice to achieve organisational goals. Care should be taken to ensure that these novel accounting technologies are developed so that they are not used to control the actions of workers, but used to provide the workers a flexible means to deliver work, and to have this interpreted in a diverse number of ways. In doing so HCI may affect civic change through engagement with this rich design space.


This research was funded through the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Civics (EP/L016176/1). Data supporting this publication is openly available under an ’Open Data Commons Open Database License’. Additional metadata are available at: Please contact Newcastle Research Data Service at for access instructions.

papers ethnography ethnomethodology phd chi2018 charities third sector hci peer reviewed accounting accountability work practice civics transparency

Accountable: Exploring the Inadequacies of Transparent Financial Practice in the Non-Profit Sector

This is a copy of the paper we submitted and had published at CHI 2016. I wanted there to be a HTML version. I converted from LaTeX src to Markdown for posting on this site but there's a few errors I need to fix up before it becomes properly readable. Bear with me

Authors: Matthew Marshall, David S. Kirk, and John Vines


Increasingly, governments and organisations publish data on expenditure and finance as ‘open’ data in order to be more transparent to the public in how funding is spent. Accountable is a web-based tool that visualises and relates open financial data provided by local government and non-profit organisations (NPOs) in the UK. A qualitative study was conducted where Accountable was treated as a technology probe, and used by representatives of NPOs and members of the public who invest their time or effort voluntarily into such organisations. The study highlighted how: current open data sets provided by public bodies are inadequate in their representation of funding structures; the focus on finance and fiscal expenditure in such data makes invisible the in-kind effort of volunteers and the wider beneficiaries of an organisation’s work; and problems arising from the interoperability of open data technologies. The paper concludes with implications for the design of future systems, considering the domains of transparency and accountability in relation to the findings.


This paper discusses the design, development and evaluation of “Accountable” – a web-based tool that visualises and relates financial data provided by non-profit organisations (NPOs) and local governmental authorities (LAs). Accountable was designed to allow the general public to explore and understand the fiscal practices of trusted organisations. In the UK, the financial data of NPOs and LAs are systematically uploaded and presented online as a requirement of financial transparency and auditing protocols set by the government @newcastle_city_council_payments_2015 [@northumberland_county_council_payments_2015; @gov.uk_register_2015]. Although its purpose is to allow for public scrutiny, this data is not rendered easily accessible and exists in unwieldy formats such as large spreadsheets of supplier payments or aggregated expenditure figures. Data placed online has the potential to feed into the practice of Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT), which seeks to solve problems and answer questions using publicly available sources of information @steele_open-source_2012 [@bazzell_open_2015; @glassman_intelligence_2012]. This suggests that data regarding NPO and LA finances could be used for citizen interrogation of their practices, or for demonstration of the work that they perform. We designed Accountable to explore and support such practices, and to understand the opportunities and limitations of existing ‘open’ financial data provided by these organisations.

In order to examine these issues, we conducted a qualitative study, where representatives and volunteers of NPOs discussed the work they do and issues around financial transparency, and were asked to interact with the Accountable system. Our interviews provide insight into the structure and nature of how NPOs interact with LAs as local funders, spend the funds they receive, and produce accounts for governing bodies. We also highlight tensions between the perceived and actual values of back-end work such as administration in organisations that operate on a not-for-profit, or charitable basis. Building on previous work in organisational transparency and non-profit performance measurement @henderson_performance_2002 [@fox_uncertain_2007; @hood_accountability_2010], this paper comments on the potential of future systems to support the accountability of NPOs. We suggest how interactive financial systems can better reflect the work of NPOs, and discuss the data standards and requirements necessary to facilitate this.

The contribution of this work to the field of HCI is twofold. First, the paper begins to explore the relationship between the fiscal practices of trusted organisations and their stakeholders. In doing so, we build upon previous work around finance and technology in HCI by exploring interactions in an organisational context. We also open a new avenue of financial HCI research concerned with interactive financial data supporting transparency, accountability, and the impact of the work these organisations do. Second, the paper presents recommendations for the design of systems which seek to engage with fiscal transparency in the non-profit sector, including designing for visibility, how visibility might be achieved through capturing qualitative financial data, and the use of standard data formats to allow systems to support interrogation. We thus outline how HCI research and the design of interactive systems could affect global dialogues on transparency.



In most democratic societies, fiscal transparency and accountability are increasingly desirable qualities in both governance and business practice @hood_accountability_2010 [@oliver_what_2004]. The popular narrative nods towards a causal relationship where increased transparency leads to increased accountability; the more information about an organisation that is openly available increases the ability of interested parties to call its decisions into question @fox_uncertain_2007 [@hood_accountability_2010].

NPOs and LAs in the UK have a legal obligation to be transparent. The Charity Commission collects and displays the financial data and reports that are provided by registered charities and NPOs as part of their legal requirement for charitable status @gov.uk_how_2013. Likewise, the Local Government Transparency Code @gov.uk_local_2015 stipulates that LAs publish a list of all their expenditures over a certain amount online @newcastle_city_council_payments_2015 [@northumberland_county_council_payments_2015]. Charities submit annual accounts and reports, as well as complete a Summary Information Return (SIR) reporting on their activities. The development of trust is a keystone in the relationship between an organisation such as an NPO or LA and its stakeholders; those who have an interest or claim in the organisation’s activities and performance @krashinsky_stakeholder_1997 [@macmillan_relationship_2005; @ortmann_trust_1997; @conroy_non-profit_2005; @eikenberry_marketization_2004; @jacobson_lifting_2005]. This is compounded by the fact that a stakeholder funding an NPO might not necessarily be the one in receipt of its services @macmillan_relationship_2005. Commercial organisations are commonly said to be performing well, or meeting their goals, if they make money. The nature of an NPO, however, doesn’t lend itself to traditional performance measurements such as ‘bottom-line’ profits when establishing the organisation’s effectiveness @henderson_performance_2002. Instead, measurements might focus on how much the organisation spends on its services or projects versus how much is spent on management or general costs. It is still difficult, however, to determine whether a program has met its goals; all that is fully known is that money has been spent on it, failing to capture value that is non-monetary @henderson_performance_2002. Non-financial outputs can be communicated (i.e. what the NPO actually does), but this information can be hard to capture systematically, and demonstrating the value of work is a global issue for NPOs @henderson_performance_2002.

Clarifying Transparency

The assumption that transparency equates to accountability has been questioned. Fox argues that transparency covers the dissemination and access to information, with accountability being the measure of how, and to what extent, the public can call on those in authority to justify their decisions and issue sanctions @fox_uncertain_2007. Fox concludes that there exists an overlap between transparency and accountability known as “answerability”, where information is freely available and can be used to produce answers about institutional behaviour – although this can only be achieved when the institution is appropriately transparent @fox_uncertain_2007. Schauer notes that “To be transparent is to have the capacity of being seen without distortion”, and that for information or processes to be transparent, they must be “open and available for scrutiny” @schauer_transparency_2011. This definition notably lacks commitment as to who may take advantage of this transparency, how they can be expected to do so, and how this generates accountability @schauer_transparency_2011 [@oliver_what_2004; @hood_accountability_2010]. An “open” data set about an organisation’s finances may be online, but whether this reveals anything about its behaviour or provides a mechanism for scrutiny is questionable @schauer_transparency_2011 [@fox_uncertain_2007]. Furthermore, both Schauer and Oliver do not equate transparency with knowledge, describing transparency as a facilitator of knowledge “at best” @schauer_transparency_2011, and a journey instead of a destination @oliver_what_2004.

The open data based on the accounts of local governments and charities in the UK is an example of what Heald calls input transparency, which fundamentally lacks context @heald_fiscal_2003 [@heald_varieties_2006]. It is data that describes resource allocation (as can be seen in Figure [screen-inputdata1]), and is easily measurable; however, it does not address links between the input and the outcome @heald_fiscal_2003 [@heald_varieties_2006]. Simply exposing spending data does not qualify as transparency since reporting the amount spent on a service does not indicate how well funded it is; nor does it hold the organisation accountable to its decisions @fox_uncertain_2007. Schauer and Oliver respectively describe notions of passive transparency and old transparency, which is the view that simply making data available in this fashion is enough – and that an organisation does not need to concern itself with the promotion or interpretation of the data published @schauer_transparency_2011 [@oliver_what_2004]. In contrast, they each promote alternative notions of active transparency (Schauer) or new transparency (Oliver). Both of these notions regard transparency as an act of communication that concerns itself with the organisation’s responsibilities @schauer_transparency_2011 [@oliver_what_2004]. Fox similarly describes a clear transparency that describes policies, information access, and data about the behaviour of institutions – which can promote answerability @fox_uncertain_2007.

HCI, Money, and Transparency

In recent years, HCI began to study the relationships that individuals have with money and finance. Work around the design of technology to support budgeting and the management of a range of different incomes has highlighted the ways in which technology typically acts to obscure finances, rather than to make them more transparent, and easily accounted for @vines_pay_2014 [@kaye_money_2014; @snow_fostering_2015]. The values placed on transactions have also been explored both in an individual context (such as the banking practices for the older old) @vines_eighty_2011 [@vines_joy_2012], and at a community scale (such as the Bristol Pound or at emergency relief centres) @ferreira_spending_2015 [@vyas_more_2015]. However, research in HCI thus far has primarily focused on issues of personal finance or how members of communities respond to new financial systems and services; there has thus far been no work venturing into understanding what role technology may play in supporting fiscal transparency and the accountability of organisations and institutions.

Recently, tools and platforms have been developed that take open data (input or passive transparency) and attempt to present it in a manner that allows interested parties to interrogate it to a deeper degree. TheyWorkForYou @mysociety.org_theyworkforyou_2015 is an example of a service, which takes published UK parliamentary data (via the Parliament API @houses_of_parliament_developing_2015) and transforms it into a simple format to be used by the general public. The site provides comparisons of Members of Parliament (MPs) with other MPs and breakdowns of how a single MP has voted on various issues @mysociety.org_theyworkforyou_2015. TheyWorkForYou stands as an example of how Passive Transparency by an organisation (in this case the UK Parliament) can be transformed into a form of Active Transparency that potentially makes an individual MP accountable for their actions in parliament. With this as a starting point, this research seeks to answer the question: what are the requirements for interfaces that support active transparency, in particular around NPO and LA financial data?

Designing Accountable

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Accountable is a small-scale web tool that was designed for the purpose of exploring the ways in which future systems might support new transparent fiscal practices for NPOs, LAs, and their agencies. For the purposes of our research, we framed Accountable as a technology probe. Hutchinson et al. describe technology probes as having engineering, social, and design goals. As such, Accountable was intended to explore: the engineering challenge of scraping and reading unorthodox and irregular online datasets; the design challenge of visualising this data in a way that is interpretable and interrogatable by members of the public; and the social challenge of representing the practices of value-driven organisations in both monetary, and non-monetary terms @hutchinson_technology_2003. The name ‘Accountable’ was derived from the notion that trusted organisations should be accountable to their stakeholders, and that this should be seen as a proactive act of demonstrating their value instead of a response to auditing processes.

In the following sections we discuss the open data that underpins the Accountable systems, the way in which different data is visualised and represented by the tool, and the details of our study design and subsequent findings.

Data Acquisition

As discussed, NPOs and LAs are held to different transparency requirements by the UK government. They also interact frequently, with NPOs often acting as service providers for LAs. As NPOs often seek contracts or funding from LAs, it was decided to explore LA datasets in addition to NPO data in order to understand how the practices of NPOs are affected by LA transparency requirements.

NPO Data

In the UK, NPO data is presented online via the Charity Commission’s website. However these are produced in the charts and graphics generated via embedded Flash applications, making it difficult to scrape or parse useful data from the site. Individual reports produced and submitted by the NPOs themselves are also stored on the site in a downloadable PDF format; this presents another challenge for automatic retrieval and parsing.

In order to produce an interface on Accountable for participants in our study to interact with, a single NPO was selected and the data presented on the Charity Commission site was manually entered into the system. For the purposes of our study we selected a local branch of a well-known national NPO, chosen because the name would be familiar to participants. As with most financial data of NPOs that appears on the Charity Commission site, the data in this case primarily related to aggregated expenditure across categories such as “Charitable Activities” and “Investment Management”. Accountable used this data to present calculations focused on comparing percentages from the 2014 income, 2014 expenditure, and financial history (2010 - 2014) of the NPO.

LA Data

The data representing the accounts that LAs are required to publish on their websites was acquired from two different English LAs (LA01, LA02). This data is related to all spending over 250 for various services, and provides details about the expense such as cost, vendor contracted, and the department responsible (among others). Both of the LAs provided this data in PDF and CSV formats.

Attempts to automate the retrieval and parsing of the machine-readable LA datasets were met with issues stemming from heterogeneous data structures. The data provided by each LA was structured very differently, each requiring a bespoke parser, and was inconsistently formatted, including between data taken from the same LA. The subset of each LA’s 2014 data was deemed appropriate for the purposes of the study, and each were internally consistent enough to be parsed effectively. Heterogeneity between the two datasets was a result of differing LA structures. It was necessary to map data to a common format that could describe data from each source. The vendors or suppliers in receipt of LA funds were easy to determine from the data, but was difficult to categorise each transaction (i.e. what funds were spent on).

Design Rationale

Accountable was designed primarily to read data provided by NPOs and LAs, and present it in an easy-to-digest format to promote Active Transparency and encourage scrutiny and interrogation of the data.\

NPO Data Presentation

The presentation of information for NPOs was largely inspired by TheyWorkForYou website @mysociety.org_theyworkforyou_2015, which as noted uses parliamentary api data to present sentences in “plain english”, so that laypeople can compare MPs. This technique was applied to NPO financial data in Accountable, as an attempt to better describe their activities to interested parties.

Since, for the purposes of our study, Accountable was representing only a single NPO’s data, a “Quick Numbers” section (Figure [screen-accountable]) was developed in lieu of comparison with other NPOs. Using calculations based on the financial data presented by the Charity Commission, this section highlighted financial expenditure and income in various circumstances such as earning money through shops or spending funds on supplying services. The number of volunteers and employees are also presented. Additionally, whereas the Charity Commission often use terms such as “Governance” or “Trading to raise funds” to describe data in Accountable we avoid excessive use of this terminology. Instead data was described in simpler terms (e.g. “activities such as running shops or hosting events”). Finally, financial history was also presented as a chart (Figure [screen-chart]), with data from 2010 up until the most recently available records (2014), to complement the “Quick Numbers” section.

LA Data Presentation

Accountable allows users to scrutinise LA spending via comparing spends on services to another LA. They can select a category from each of the LAs to compare spending between the two organisations and services (Figure [screen-accountable]). These categories represented how expenditure in LAs is divided into its services. Care was taken with wording when describing expenditure, as the data does not necessarily pertain to what money has been spent on, only the service or department in the LA that spent it.

Records that had missing or redacted information were highlighted on the page to support scrutiny. The system defined missing information as any empty field, while redacted information is any field containing the word “redacted”.

Charted information on NPO expenditure<span
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As with the NPO data, expenditure data is also displayed on the profile in graph and table form to provide an overview. Displayed are the Total, Largest, Smallest and Average spends by the LA, a breakdown of the spending “via service”, and the Top Vendors by both frequency (number of payments) and payment total (total paid to a single vendor). The number of vendors to display can be configured by the server, and was set to 10 for demonstration in the study.

Study Design

Our study focused on NPOs because of their position as both a producer and consumer of fiscal transparency. Furthermore, austerity measures in the UK have affected the services that LAs are able to deliver themselves, and therefore NPOs often seek service contracts or funding with LAs. As such, NPOs also represent stakeholders interested in LA financial data.

To gain insight into different aspects of financial transparency, the study aimed to explore perspectives on the data from representatives of NPOs as well as members of the public who had a self-stated interest in the activities of these organisations. Participants were recruited to take part in individual interviews or a group workshop depending on the nature of their involvement with NPOs. Those involved in volunteering, fund-raising, or donating to NPOs were invited to workshops to promote discussion and partake in a constructive critique of the Accountable and Charity Commission systems. Those representing an organisation in an official capacity, such as managers or trustees, were invited to interviews. This was in order to provide a space where they may feel more comfortable discussing their organisations’ potentially sensitive financial matters and practices in private. Participants are listed in Table [tab:participants].

Participants and Process

Representatives of NPOs were recruited for interview via an independent charity whose remit includes supporting the voluntary and community sector in Northern England.

Workshop attendees were recruited with a call distributed through our institutional mailing lists and social media. Explicitly requested were participants who regularly donated time, money, or effort to one or more NPOs. These participants were offered a 10 gift voucher or a donation of the same amount to an NPO of their choice for participation.

The interviews and workshops shared the overarching ambitions of exploring: how financial processes inside NPOs were represented; what NPOs and their stakeholders desired to see about NPO finances; and how they desired this to be communicated. The investigation process was adjusted to suit the context of an interview or workshop, as detailed below.

(r)<span>2-4</span> <span>**Participant**</span>  <span>*Gender*</span>   <span>*Interview / Workshop*</span>  <span>*Role(s)*</span>

: Details of Participants.



A total of 7 semi-structured interviews were held with a variety of representatives from different NPOs. One interview had two interviewees from the same organisation, totalling 8 interview participants. Organisations each focused on different issues including the support of parent and toddler groups, support for those with mental disabilities, and community development. Most organisations focused on localised settings (i.e. community support in a specific area of the city), although one organisation supported other organisations across the local region. Each interview lasted approximately 30 to 45 minutes. Participants were either directly involved in daily activities as managers, or were trustees of the NPO.

During interviews, participants were first asked about the work that their charity did and the techniques that they used to achieve this. The interviews then discussed how the NPO spends and divides up funds based on the work that they do. Participants were also asked about how their organisations sought funds, interacted with an LA (or multiple LAs), and presented their work and achievements to parties such as the Charity Commission and others interested in the organisation.

During interviews, participants were shown the Accountable prototype, which was pre-loaded with data from the local branch of a popular UK charity. Participants were asked to imagine how the data in the system could represent their organisation, and how they felt the data communicated the relationship between their work and financial practices. Discussion was prompted around the critique of Accountable, directed towards the data, its presentation and communication by the system. Following this, participants were asked about their interactions with the LA, and shown copies of printed LA data and LA profile pages in Accountable. Again, participants were asked about their impressions of the data – what they felt was, and was not, shown. Participants were asked about what they, as a representative of their organisation, would like to see about LA spending and how it pertained to their activities.


A total of 2 workshops were run, each with 3 participants, lasting between 60 to 90 minutes, split into three main activities. Each participant had experience working with one or more NPO – their experiences included work with small-scale organisations such as support groups, drugs information and advocacy, Non-Profit festivals and events, as well as larger multinational NPOs. Workshop activities were designed to promote rich discussion for analysis alongside interview data.

To begin, participants were asked to introduce themselves by discussing recent work that they had done for an NPO, in what ways they felt that their contribution had helped the organisation (or otherwise) and how the organisation had communicated this to them. Following this, for the first activity participants were introduced to “Janet”, a persona developed for the workshops to support discussion around the practices of an NPO @mcquaid_when_2003 [@miaskiewicz_preliminary_2009]. Janet was described as often volunteering time, money, and effort to a popular NPO’s local branch. The group were given print-outs of the NPO’s data taken from the Charity Commission; this included both print-outs of the Charity Commission web pages as well as the annual reports submitted by the NPO to the commission. The group was then asked to discuss the data both in reference to their own experiences and Janet’s – highlighting and discussing what they felt was useful, or lacking in the data.

After some time with the data, participants were introduced to Accountable, and invited to explore and critique the data in a similar way. They were again asked to focus both on what they themselves and the Janet persona would have thought of the data and take the same considerations as with the printed Charity Commission data. Comparisons between the two presentations of the data were encouraged.

Finally participants were then given the opportunity to create their dream “profile page” for an NPO. Once finished, the group was asked to discuss the designs further, focusing on why they included certain details and to compare designs.

Data Collection and Analysis

Interviews and workshops were audio recorded and transcribed. The lead researcher coded the transcripts using an inductive thematic analysis @braun_using_2006, chosen for its epistemological agnosticism. During coding and clustering, differences in analytic interpretation were collectively discussed by the authors and resolved before codes were compiled into themes. As the interviews and workshops each concerned NPO finances, from different perspectives, the two datasets were treated as one thematically coherent data corpus.


The separation of interview and workshop participants emerged from both practical considerations to participant schedules, as well as an assumption that participants running NPOs may hold different views to other participants; which could have led to a tension in workshops that was counter-productive to discourse. We actually discovered that all participants, regardless of status or commitment to NPOS, held similar views about their work and that there was a large degree of coherence between the two groups. Our analysis of the data resulted in five themes, discussed below.

Making Volunteer Effort Visible

Many of our workshop participants volunteered their time as opposed to contributing financially to NPOs, with F01 explaining how they “help with organising stuff like [...] phoning people and making sure they’re coming”, that she “[answered] calls”, “ran a workshop” and did “odd stuff”. This was echoed by F02, who also explained how she donated skills: “I made them a website and set up a Facebook page...” (F02). Another participant said he wasn’t “into the whole money thing” (F05), preferring to donate his efforts and skills rather than money. Perhaps unsurprisingly, volunteer effort was also seen to have an incredibly large impact on the running of NPOs. A lot of what might be defined as frontline services are delivered solely through volunteer effort; I04 explained how their organisation exists to support “parent and toddler groups across the city, and they are volunteer led”. This participant went on to explain how there are “111 parent and toddler groups” (I04), which are all “giving their time for nothing” (I04). Another participant explained how their role primarily exists to provide infrastructure support to “volunteer led” (I05) activities. Volunteer effort is also seen to be important from a funding standpoint as “you are getting asked more and more things like, ‘How many volunteers do you have?’” (IO5). In NPOs, the volume of volunteers can be quantified into “full time equivalent employees”, which are included in funding bids; “two half-time workers, for instance, that would obviously be one full-time” (I05). Of importance here is the hours that are being given to the organisation in order to assist the delivery of its services.

While volunteer effort and contributions were clearly seen to be important from the perspectives of both stakeholder groups, there was a feeling that these are often poorly represented in existing public reporting processes. The financial data on the Charity Commission website included details about the number of employees and volunteers that an NPO has. It was explained how the number of volunteers represented here was an important indicator of the organisation’s health. Looking through the example data taken from the Charity Commission website and used in Accountable, one participant went on to explain how it is useful to contrast the numbers of volunteers with the number of employees an organisation has: “You employ 190 people. That’s a lot of people. You’re talking, basically, about a medium- size enterprise level, and [in this case] you’ve managed to engage less volunteers than you have employees. That doesn’t look good.” (I06). As such, it was considered that at a simple level the open financial date provided enough information to begin interrogating the work of an organisation.

While offering a useful starting point, it was clear that the presentation of data in relation to the equivalent numbers of full-time staff (be these paid or volunteers) was too simplistic. I06 went on to explain further that the data presented here should not be taken at face-value and was lacking a necessary degree of detail: “it doesn’t tell you how much they donate in terms of time.” (I06). Furthermore, it said little about whether the same people were donating time, or whether a large pool of people donated small pieces of time, or the type of work and skills they were giving which may influence the economic and social value of performed work. This was echoed by I03, who felt it would be more meaningful to see information that articulated: “so many people volunteered, which equates to X number of hours, which put in X amount of time, so money-wise, monetary value would be... X” (I03).

Accounting for Projects

When asked about how they organized the funding of activities in the organisation, the NPO representatives explained how their funding is often tightly tied to specific projects: “money is given per project, so we only spend money on projects that we’ve specifically fundraised the money for” (I03). One participant explained that the funding they receive is “all in chunks” (I04). An organisation will also use examples of past projects when applying for funding as means for building a case for further funding on a “project by project basis” (I07). These types of funds were thus described as “restricted” by participants, in that they “have to spend [the funds] on that particular piece of work” (I08). Therefore, “often the health of a charity financially is about how much they’ve got in unrestricted funds” (I08), which can be used to start new activities or projects, or to provide match-funding for new bids.

When discussing these issues, participants started to explain how there was no reflection of the compartmentalisation of funding in the financial data presented by the Charity Commission. This is despite it being seen as a useful means for indicating the activities of an organisation, as well as communicating the ways in which its activities might be restricted based on the funding it has received: “This gives a whole picture, I would assume, of the whole organisation, and maybe [example charity], like us, have different project areas” (I04); “this is the other thing; it doesn’t tell you what proportion of that funding is actually restricted and how” (I06). It was noted by several of the NPO representatives that this lack of detail was all the more confusing given that typically organisations have to divide their accounts into individual projects for their own accounting processes and for tax and funder auditing. However, it was felt that “when it all comes together on this bit of paper as your end-of-year report, I can’t see those figures in that report” (I04). The headings and definitions provided by the Charity Commission also did not explain the project – context of what an organisation was doing -– “Then the spending – again the vast bulk of it on charitable activities. That’s not very meaningful is it?” (I08). As such, the annual reports produced by individual organisations made available on their own websites (and occasionally also uploaded to the Charity Commission website as additional information) were instead seen as the go-to information as they highlight “the major projects of the past year”.

Both interview and workshop participants stated a desire to see the activities and projects of an NPO presented alongside the financial data to support its interrogation. Interviewees stated that having a view of the data that “gives you a percentage of your income and how it’s spent on the project” would be more meaningful, and that “you’d probably want to break it down to project activities, grants, and some sort of, also, qualitative accounting” (I06). I07 explained that a project-by-project breakdown “[is] one of the things that will basically get the attention of maybe a potential funder. Listing the project and then your achievements, I think that would be the dream type of one-pager.” (I07). This was echoed by workshop participants who had volunteered for NPOs, who explained that they would hope to see “some key events that they have organised in the past few years and how much money they’ve spent on it” (F03), and “a section about the activities, because that’s what I don’t think was in there so much” (F04). These participants also highlighted how their interest in the future work of an organisation was also promoted through the types of projects that it ran and had funded: “A section saying what they plan to do in the future and maybe even backed up with a rough idea of how much money is going to be spent and where they’re going to get it from” (F01). There is a palpable sense of projects and concrete activities being “what most people would be interested in” (F04) when looking at an organisation, both in terms of demonstrating and interrogating what work that organisation had done in a given period, and what it hoped to achieve in the near future.

Administration and Charitable Spending

A clear point of tension in our data related to the different perspectives participants had on what are and are not acceptable activities and roles to fund in an NPO. Some of the workshop participants viewed NPOs spending money on administration or governance as a negative, expressing instead a desire to see funds go directly to charitable activities: “I would want to know. Now I don’t really want to donate to [a specific animal charity] because I feel like the money is not going towards the [animals], it’s going towards the people that run it.” (F02). When asked about how much they would expect an organisation to spend on its charitable activities, this participant went on to state: “I would expect a charity to spend almost all of what it gets [... and not] stockpiling, it suggests they don’t actually need it. Maybe they’d like to put some away for some big projects. I’d expect them to spend maybe 90% of the income..” (F02).

The NPO representatives however were very conscious of the public perception regarding administrative costs. I05 explained that “nobody wants to pay for a chief exec’s post, for instance, but it’s a vital post in the organisation”. Contrasting the workshops, interviewees viewed administrative costs as part of the work itself and would often incorporate this into funding bids and project proposals: “We have, on most of the projects, a management fee, which supports the work of the management committee” (I04). I05 went on to explain how “that’s where a lot of organisations will have a set figure for each piece of work that they will take off in terms of overheads, somewhere around 12% usually, to cover those costs” (I05). As such, from the perspective of an NPO, administration or governance was seen as as an essential component that allows for effective delivery of front-line services: “we can’t function unless we have an administrator or finance officer” (I05). However it was felt there was a growing difficulty in accessing funds for these types of roles and duties:


The lack of funding for paid staff time was often led to quandaries in terms of access to other types of funding. I05 went on to explain how: “There is quite a lot of money out there for capital spend, so if you wanted to buy some equipment to take young people to do an activity [...] But there is no money to pay the staff to get them there” (I05). As such, organisations become more reliant on volunteer commitments – however, paid staff time is often required to write funding bids in the first place, or to manage critical aspects of them when funded.

Invisible Beneficiaries

An NPO typically exists because of the needs of its beneficiaries. Without them there would be no reason for the organisation to operate, and their experience and changed circumstances are often considered direct evidence that the organisation is performing its duties. In the open data hosted on the Charity Commission, the ways in which beneficiaries are engaged with and how they benefit is not detailed; who the beneficiaries of an organisation’s activities might be is not mentioned in an organisation’s overview page. Annual reports produced by NPOs for the Charity Commission do provide brief insights into beneficiaries in reference to the Charity’s aims. However, generally speaking there is little to no detail given as to how the financial data reported for the purposes of public accountability relates to the activities that these organisations do for the communities, individuals or issues it seeks to support.

Several of the NPO representatives highlighted that the lack of evidence around who benefits from the work of their organisations was at odds with their own internal reporting and auditing processes. One participant explained how they carefully collected information about all of their volunteers activities: “we do that indirectly through monitoring, [...] we’ve got a quarterly monitoring system where we input our stuff into their database, and they pre-populate these things to say ‘You’ve seen this many people this many times’...” (I03). Through internal auditing and reporting mechanisms like this, our participants explained how they had a good understanding of the numbers of beneficiaries that the organisation had come into contact with and, to varying degrees of detail, the quality and extent of this contact. Quite often these were embedded within the (private) reporting processes to the funders of specific projects or activities. That this offers the potential to link project financial data with the “work done” was not lost on these participants: “... the information I would like to put across would be first of all the project, like what was funded, then what we did [...] this is the impact that we had’.” (I07). I05 explained how their organisation had a good understanding of how many people gained or were ‘impacted’ upon by a specific piece of work, and that this could demonstrate a link between funds received and quantity, if not quality, of outputs: “Because then [...] you can really look at how much work is costing per person...” (I05).

Workshop participants mirrored these sentiments, noting that they would like to see: “something like what kind of changes have been made to people.” (F03), “[It] only works if it’s a charity that’s supposed to help humans, but the number of people that are being impacted by their work..” (F02). Explicit throughout these again was making “what impacts they’ve had”‘ (F02) more visible and “the things they’re most proud of” (F02). Participants saw description of work as a way of judging whether organisations were performing in accordance to their remit, “I kind of like this sort of having objective and achievement next to each other” (F05).

Revealing Funding Opportunities

NPOs seek out funding opportunities from a variety of sources, including LAs. During interviews, NPOs were asked about their interactions with LAs and discussed the LA data on the Accountable system. It was noted by some participants that this data provided a potentially useful resource for understanding how LAs went about allocating their funds and how much of those funds were being allocated to organisations in the charity or non-profit sector. Our participant representing an organisation that provides infrastructure support to other NGOs explained how LAs have a remit to ensure that a certain amount of funds are distributed to NPOs based in the local region. Therefore, the public availability of data like this is useful to “churn through” and attempt to make sense of: “we can then get back to the council [LA] and highlight how they are not delivering on this requirement” (I05). However, they admitted that the data as archived and made available is difficult to parse, and that it was often impossible to tell whether the money was being spent on activities or services that could by provided by NPOs, leading to a large amount of “reading between the lines” of the data.

Other participants from NPOs also critiqued the data presented. This in part echoed the points of I05; several of our participants found the data and information contained in these extensive spreadsheets “impossible” to make sense of. When reviewing the visualisations of this data on Accountable the participants explained how this made the data easier to explore and compare across different LA service areas and departments but did not appear to be immediately of relevance to their running of an NPO. Rather than seeing LA data on expenditure, they were more interested in understanding what funding opportunities may be present in an LA’s budget: “I’m not sure how useful it is for me to know the council break-up, because I need to know what money is available to use, what pots [...] it’s more detail I need” (I03). Another participant qualified this around searching for money for their projects: “that’s what I would like to know really, if they still have money for a project where we can bid or an application that we can submit or something like that” (I07). It was clear that the perceived impoverishment of the LA data as provided in its archived and visualised forms was tied to a wider set of concerns NPOs have around awareness of what money is still available, what budgets have yet to be spent, and how potential funding streams and individual funders themselves might be better aggregated and brought together. This was explained in depth by I07:


Our findings highlight how, regardless of presentation, the ‘open’ financial data provided by the Charity Commission is neither an adequate vehicle for demonstrating the work of an NPO, nor a detailed resource to be interrogated by those either invested, or interested in, its activities. Interviews with representatives of NPOs further highlighted that the funding mechanisms and structure of work performed by organisations are not necessarily reflected in the financial data submitted to the Charity Commission, and thus a large amount of context and meaning is lost in its presentation. This was reinforced by our volunteer participants, in that they deemed the financial information presented by the Charity Commission was not useful for what they were interested in seeing about an organisation’s spending – namely its activities, projects and work. Currently, the aggregated financial data highlights only ‘bottom line’ figures, such as totals spent or earned by an organisation on high-level categories such as Charitable Activities and Trading to Raise Funds; a figure which is known to have little relevance to NPOs @henderson_performance_2002. Returning to the discussion of literature that opened this paper, this is exemplar of Heald’s input transparency as sums of money are presented without the contextual information essential to explaining or justifying the work of the NPO @heald_varieties_2006 [@heald_fiscal_2003]. Our findings note how the work conducted by an NPO or charity is inextricably bound to funding that gives projects structure, and at the same time restricts what funds can be spent on. Organisations and their investors desire to see projects and activities reflected in the data to contextualise it and give it meaning.

Furthermore, the lack of contextual data on the Charity Commission indicates that it understands transparency as Schauer’s Passive Transparency @schauer_transparency_2011, in that what is presented is high-level expenditure data without comment to its interpretation or the responsibilities of the organisation. This is true even when the annual reports of NPOs are taken into consideration, since accounts and spending are not directly tied to activities, projects, or aims and objectives. Beneficiaries of NPOs are only talked about in high-level terms, and the substantial efforts put forward by volunteers are similarly lost as details are not carried from the organisation to the Charity Commission. There also exists a tension between the perceived and actual value of administrative costs of an organization, which are often also directly linked to an organisation’s ability to deliver services. Organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to raise funds for essential administrative roles or purposes, yet are expected to be showing that they have invested the majority of money into providing for its beneficiaries. That administrative work is a key part of service provision is not clear in the data presented to those investing in an organisation; leading to issues of trust as the data does not reflect commitment to its purported aims and objectives @macmillan_relationship_2005. NPOs also discover issues when seeking funding from LAs, as it is unclear what funding remains in the LA budgets that could benefit their work.

The results of our study raise a number of questions around the role open data technologies in NPOs and other trusted organisations. In the following section we discuss a number of the implications this raises for the design of future systems that represent and provide access to data, and for the procedures of capturing and organising such data.

Design for Visibility, not Transparency

Confusion about what constitutes organisational transparency indicates that producing systems to support it may be limited in scope, as the term is open to interpretation @schauer_transparency_2011 [@oliver_what_2004]. Rather, design work around the opening up of information in the non-profit sector might be better focused on making visible the projects and work of the organisation. Funding, as discussed, is most often tied directly to a single piece of work or project. Visibility of this work, however, is lost when the focus is on aggregated expenditure. If the annual reports provided to the Charity Commission were to outline investments based on specific projects, then a direct link can be seen between expenditure and the work of the charity. Work thus becomes visible, and data becomes concerned with the responsibilities of the organisation as well as its audience; fitting with notions of active transparency and answerability in the process @schauer_transparency_2011 [@oliver_what_2004; @fox_uncertain_2007].

Systems seeking to support the communication of an organisation’s work through data should, therefore, be designed for visibility instead of transparency to avoid misconceptions about what it is they’re trying to do. Regardless of whether a system is designed to interrogate or demonstrate NPO behaviour – this research underlines how little of an organisation can be seen when presented with input transparencies , how this fails to make them interrogatable and, thus, unaccountable @heald_varieties_2006 [@heald_fiscal_2003; @fox_uncertain_2007]. Outcomes would likely be incredibly difficult to measure through financial data – or in some instances impossible to measure in any known tangible way @heald_fiscal_2003 [@henderson_performance_2002; @hook_making_2015] – yet organisations had a deep understanding of their beneficiaries, which could be more indicative of their activities. The efforts of volunteers also have a profound effect on organisations; participants indicated that many activities were entirely volunteer- led, and that the number of volunteers can be a measure of an NPO’s health. Therefore, we suggest that making visible the effort of volunteers, and the number and type of beneficiaries will go some way to accounting for what a non-profit organisation is doing. We might imagine therefore that systems like Accountable might provide enhanced comparisons between the number of employees against volunteers, and the volume of beneficiaries who may have come into contact with volunteers over the course of a project or set period of time. While still far from perfect, this might support organisational accountability in reference to their stated aims and objectives, as well as provide data that reinforces the value of their services.

Our findings also highlighted tensions between NPO expenditure on administrative functions versus the direct spend on beneficiaries and charitable activities @oliver_what_2004 [@henderson_performance_2002]. While members of the public and those donating money to an NPO might expect funds to be directed straight to charitable activities, it is clear that that administration and governance costs are a critically important feature of effective service delivery and the completion of projects. As it stands, open data around the activities of NPOs does not communicate well these administration costs. An initial reaction to this, given our notion of visibility, would be to highlight how much of project or activity spend is tied to administrative work and roles; however, doing so may in itself reinforce existing feelings of mistrust between the public and NPOs, especially given recent stories in the popular press that propagate (potentially misleading) views on the misuse of public and donated funds by some organisations @hope_true_2015 [@wilding_it_2015]. Instead, we suggest that it isn’t the cost of administration and management that needs to be represented, but rather the cost of it not existing; in other words, in what ways does having various paid staff roles provide a critical infrastructure and enable the day-to-day volunteering and charitable activities that NPOs are commonly expected to perform? Furthermore, it is important to use this data to contextualize what is and what is not reasonable staff costs, and how this may scale depending on the size and scope of the organisation. Providing this, however, requires going beyond the primarily numerical data associated with the types of open financial data provided by LAs and the Charity Commission. We address this issue in the following section.

Produce Qualitative Accounting

The focus on presenting ‘bottom line’ spending data is both an input transparency and data that is known to be ineffective of determining NPO performance @heald_varieties_2006 [@heald_fiscal_2003; @henderson_performance_2002]. Even if we were to take projects into consideration, financial spend is inadequate to determine whether an organisation is meeting its goals as it fails to reflect whether a spend is appropriate or not @heald_fiscal_2003 [@henderson_performance_2002]. Our findings reflect these issues, as organisations noted the efforts they were taking to continue to effectively deliver services while struggling with a lack of administration staff. To more appropriately indicate the reasons and activities behind NPO spending data and to support designing for visibility, we suggest moving to include additional qualitative information in financial reporting.

Incorporating the capture of qualitative information in accounting practices would go some way to making visible the efforts of the organisation and provide context to expenditure. Our study’s findings noted that organisations keep track of information such as volunteer activity, and the number and location of services that they provide to beneficiaries; however, such information is typically captured relatively informally and often in an unsystematic manner. Furthermore, the intertwining of funding and projects also indicates that a contextual reference for spending can be created by entering this data alongside financial transactions. Metadata about spending, such as project or activity, approximate location, number of beneficiaries, and volunteer effort, would provide a better view of the work NPOs were doing with specific types of funds. Visibility would be enhanced through the presence of the qualitative data, which would also provide greater insight about the output of the organisation, increasing accountability @heald_fiscal_2003 [@fox_uncertain_2007]. Outputs (e.g., the number of people using NPO services) are not necessarily immediately or directly linked to eventual outcomes (e.g., how did people gain from participating in these sessions), but they do give a better starting point than input data for those looking to understand the potential impact of an organisation’s work @heald_fiscal_2003 [@henderson_performance_2002]. NPOs can use this qualitative financial data to reinforce claims about the extent and quality of their work @heald_fiscal_2003 [@macmillan_relationship_2005]. Alignment of activities and goals was something that participants expressed keen interest in, and as such using data to present this would benefit organisations attempting to demonstrate their work and commitment to their aims and objectives @macmillan_relationship_2005.

Support Interrogation through Common Formats

Currently, the systems that are used to hold NPOs and LAs accountable for their financial expenditure do not support interrogation or scrutiny since they cannot be effectively retrieved and inspected. An issue that became immediately apparent in the design and development of Accountable was the need for common data formats and standards. While this may appear to be a moot point, it’s a critical one as we observed and indeed experienced first hand how despite the popular rhetoric of public accountability and transparency, existing ways of archiving and presenting data fell short. For example, considering the Charity Commission data, use of Flash technology to generate web pages @adobe_adobe_2015, and irregularly formatted PDF format reports, meant the underlying data could not be easily retrieved. Furthermore, while there appears to be some benefit to providing tools for NPOs and other stakeholders to interrogate LA financial data, structural differences between LAs and inconsistent approaches to categorizing data made it unclear as to what money was being spent on @newcastle_city_council_payments_2015 [@northumberland_county_council_payments_2015].

One recommendation that comes from this is to ensure that systems designed to support public accountability move away from technologies and practices that make the underlying data inaccessible for scrutiny. In our specific context, it is likely that at the time that the Charity Commission site was developed technologies like Flash were the only viable option to effectively chart information. Modern web technologies can, however, achieve the same effects whilst allowing the data to be mechanically retrieved. Since these charts are likely populated from information stored elsewhere on the system, it is feasible to implement alternative views in standard formats or feeds – such as that provided by the UK Government’s Parliament API @houses_of_parliament_developing_2015. At the same time, while the LA data sets are already provided in a common file format, they would benefit from the imposition of data standards to ensure that field names and date formats are common across different geographical areas and jurisdictions. This highlights not just the need for new ways to present this data, but also the production of tools that allow those who manage or oversee such open data to think through how they collate and structure data for audiences in ways that allow it to be inspected and compared with other related organisations.


In this paper we have set out to explore issues to do with the role of openly available data in supporting the public accountability of trusted organisations. We did this through the specific example of the financial practices of non-profits and local governmental authorities, and the ways in which they publish aspects of their spending online in the aid of supporting transparency around the spending of public and donated funds. While data describing the finances of trusted organisations is seen as a means for making these organisations more accountable to the public, our study highlighted how such data makes information about the (often voluntary) efforts of the organisation and its beneficiaries invisible. From this, we have discussed how technologies intended to support the accountability of trusted organisations should strive for visibility of activity rather than prevailing notions of transparency through data. We have highlighted the implications for the presentation, capture and organization of data.

Outside of finance, our findings show that there is a need for adequately representing human processes in Linked or Open Data in ways that are legible to people. Financial data is produced and exposed by organisations in order to make them transparent and accountable, but as seen with our specific examples of UK Charity Commission data this requires further annotation to make visible the activities of the organisation. In the specific context of designing for the non-profit sector, this means considering visibility instead of transparency for data technologies to be framed around an organisation’s activities instead of how much income and expenditure they have generated and spent. In our case, the funding, spending, and activities of NPOs were all found to orbit around a project structure; with funds granted and restricted to specific projects and activities, including administration costs. Capturing metadata about project funding, volunteer activities, and beneficiaries in financial records leads to a more comprehensive vantage point from which to hold an organisation accountable. Achieving this will require future consideration to data formats and standards that support this, giving HCI research an opportunity to help shape future international discussions on transparency and accountability.


We’d like to thank our participants for giving their time to take part in our study. This research was funded through the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Civics (EP/L016176/1). Data supporting this publication is openly available under an ‘Open Data Commons Open Database License’. Additional metadata are available at: 10.17634/154300-3. Please contact Newcastle Research Data Service at for access instructions.

papers chi2016 charities hci peer reviewed accountability civics transparency mres thematic analysis