Perceptions and experiences of frontline health managers and providers on accountability in a South African health district

Fidele Kanyimbu Mukinda, Sara Van Belle, Helen Schneider

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ObjectivePublic primary health care and district health systems play important roles in expanding healthcare access and promoting equity. This study explored and described accountability for this mandate as perceived and experienced by frontline health managers and providers involved in delivering maternal, newborn and child health (MNCH) services in a rural South African health district.MethodsThis was a qualitative study involving in-depth interviews with a purposive sample of 58 frontline public sector health managers and providers in the district office and two sub-districts, examining the meanings of accountability and related lived experiences. A thematic analysis approach grounded in descriptive phenomenology was used to identify the main themes and organise the findings.ResultsAccountability was described by respondents as both an organisational mechanism of answerability and responsibility and an intrinsic professional virtue. Accountability relationships were understood to be multidirectional - upwards and downwards in hierarchies, outwards to patients and communities, and inwards to the 'self'. The practice of accountability was seen as constrained by organisational environments where impunity and unfair punishment existed alongside each other, where political connections limited the ability to sanction and by climates of fear and blame. Accountability was seen as enabled by open management styles, teamwork, good relationships between primary health care, hospital services and communities, investment in knowledge and skills development and responsive support systems. The interplay of these constraints and enablers varied across the facilities and sub-districts studied.ConclusionsProviders and managers have well-established ideas about, and a language of, accountability. The lived reality of accountability by frontline managers and providers varies and is shaped by micro-configurations of enablers and constraints in local accountability ecosystems. A 'just culture', teamwork and collaboration between primary health care and hospitals and community participation were seen as promoting accountability, enabling collective responsibility, a culture of learning rather than blame, and ultimately, access to and quality of care.

Original languageEnglish
Article number110
JournalInternational Journal for Equity in Health
Issue number1
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Accountability
  • Equity
  • Frontline health workers
  • Maternal
  • newborn and child health
  • Qualitative research


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