The Issue of Public Accountability: a Summary for Citizens
Authorities such as governments, their agencies and large corporations
affect citizens in important ways. If they are required to explain
their action intentions, reasons and their intended performance
standards publicly, fully and fairly, we will see increased fairness
in society and reduced harm.
The purpose of this web site is first to show citizens, elected
representatives and authorities why we need full and fair accounting
from authorities. Secondly it is to show how citizens and elected
representatives can achieve public accounting that meets a standard
of public explanation that citizens have the right to see met.
The Need for Public Accountability
Any survey tracking citizen protest and distrust of the intentions
and performance of authorities will show citizens failing to win
the battle for fairness. In every society we have authorities' driving
forces largely unknown to citizens until they are launched. If we
then think their intentions will lead to harm, it will usually be
too late to stop them. Outcries after the fact do not help. We lack
effective processes to prevent authorities' intentions from leading
to harm. Citizens placing blind trust in authorities simply condones
a syndrome that citizens have allowed. .
Alerts by public interest organizations, internet exchanges, journalists'
columns, protest letters to the editor and hitting the streets obviously
contribute to fairness. But they cannot by themselves be expected
to change underlying agendas of those in power when authorities'
intentions, if known, would be fairly seen by citizens as leading
We have failed to require what George Washington in a 1796 letter
said was needed: "I am sure the mass of Citizens in these United
States mean well, and I firmly believe they will always act well,
whenever they can obtain a right understanding of matters...."
Washington spoke for all societies.
In particular, we have failed to obtain from authorities what Dr.
Ursula Franklin in her 1989 Massey Lectures said we need: "
Whenever someone talks to you about the benefits and costs of a
particular project, don't ask "What benefits?" ask "Whose
benefits and whose costs?"
We have failed to impose on authorities a self-regulating influence
on their decision-making that has always been available to us. That
force is the requirement that authorities explain publicly, fully
and fairly what they intend and why they intend it. The essence
of public accountability is not after-the-fact published financial
statements. Full and fair public explanation before the fact allows
citizens and their elected representatives to act sensibly to commend,
alter or halt the intentions.
Public accountability is not something to leave with academics.
Suppose you are asked, about an authority that affects you or your
loved ones or other citizens in important ways: "How comfortable
are you with not knowing what the authority intends, why it intends
it and the performance standards it intends, and that you won't
know until it happens?" How would you answer?
Moreover, if you are concerned about an issue but lack before-the-fact
knowledge, do you think you can act sensibly and effectively to
commend, alter or halt the authority's intention? And if you are
a member of an authority's governing body, do you think it is fair
to deny citizens this knowledge?
To install public accountability we first need a common understanding
of the term. The many different and unchallenged definitions of
accountability now widespread help to fog a simple concept. This
allows authorities to avoid their obligation to publicly explain
their intentions and be ready to have their true intentions grasped
and publicly debated.
The Meaning of Public Accountability
Public accountability means the obligation of authorities to
explain publicly, fully and fairly, before and after the fact, how
they are carrying out responsibilities that affect the public in
These explanations, if publicly and objectively validated for
their fairness and completeness, will produce not only useful information
for citizens but also a beneficial self-regulating influence on
the decisions of authorities.
Holding to account means obtaining from authorities the public
explanations we need at the time we need them, validating the reporting
for its fairness and completeness and doing something sensible and
fair with explanations given in good faith.
Standards of leader performance in society fall because no one
has the duty to uphold performance standards that affect the public
in important ways, and no one is held effectively to account.
The requirement that decision-makers publicly explain their intentions
and meet an agreed standard of explanation does more than produce
useful information that citizens would not otherwise have. It creates
an important self-regulating influence on authorities' intentions
and actions. Unless they are arrogant, authorities made to explain
publicly will want to say something praiseworthy. But if they lie
about their intentions or later their results, they can be exposed
through public audit by knowledgeable public interest organizations.
When those organizations validate the fairness and completeness
of what authorities report, officials who mislead can lose public
credibility and see their intentions self-destruct.
For every major responsibility affecting the public there is accountability.
The public explanation obligation attaches to all important responsibilities
in society -- safety, health, social and legal justice, the environment
and others. Governments, corporations and other institutions affect
people's lives across the planet, and examples of evaded accounting
are legion. For example, we see misuse of public money; refusal
to uphold the precautionary principle in safety, health and environmental
protection; unfettered international arms sales; and corporate attempts
to govern farmers' crops and override nations' own core policies.
Even at a local level we see major infrastructure decisions made
by officials who have not informed themselves adequately, or property
development decisions based on councillors' individual whims.
Given that full and fair public accounting is an imperative if
society is to work properly, this fact raises the question whether
the governing bodies of authorities know their commonsense obligation
to publicly account but simply evade it. It may also be that they
honestly do not understand how it applies to them in their jobs.
Yet in well-run business organizations, accountability is well understood
and applied because the obligation to explain intended and actual
achievement can be expected to increase the performance of those
having the responsibilities.
The State We're In
Public accountability is a simple yet powerful obligation but it
has not been grasped and installed as a regulator of fairness by
citizens and their elected representatives.
We have never required adequate public explanation from authorities.
One reason is that most citizens confuse the meaning of public accountability
(the obligation to explain intentions, performance standards, results
of action taken and how the available learning has been applied)
with responsibility, the obligation to act. Authorities may purposefully
encourage this confusion to cause citizens and their elected representatives
to concentrate only on rules for officials' conduct that then require
external examiners. This diverts attention from officials' obligations
to explain intentions and reasoning before the fact. We therefore
forego the self-regulating influence that the public accounting
requirement produces, and we fail to get the information we need.
when we need it, to sensibly decide our trust in authorities.
The obligation to publicly account cannot be refused in a democracy.
Officials cannot reject their accounting obligation because it is
nonpartisan, tells no one how to do their job and is simply the
obligation to explain intentions and performance. Nor is public
accounting costly. Public explanations require no more information
than officials need themselves to do their jobs properly. And what
they know, they can report.
The question is whether citizens wish to make use of available
means to force public accountings to gain both a 'right understanding
of matters' and the self-regulating influence. Thus far the famous
observation of the cartoon character Pogo has given us the answer:
"We have met the enemy, and he is us." For example, citizens
allow authorities to maintain barriers in the way of legislating
true accountability, and allow too many authorities to act as if
they had power of attorney. Citizens have yet to set basic performance
and public accounting standards for authorities, and standards for
public validation of what authorities say.
Nor have citizens set performance and public accounting standards
for their elected representatives that would encourage them to hold
executive governments fairly and effectively to account. Elected
representatives are themselves publicly accountable for their own
diligence, which includes how well they inform themselves for their
Perhaps the main reason we lack full and fair public accounting
in the law is because the legislating bodies responsible for installing
it do not want it and we have not made them install it. Thus we
find governing bodies asserting that they are "fully accountable"
when all they mean is that they intend to take their responsibilities
seriously - something they are obliged by law to do in any case.
What Citizens Can Do
It is no good judging the actions of government, corporate or other
officials after the fact -- even with the help of hindsight audit
-- when it is too late for anything but recrimination and blame.
Moreover, the blame will usually be directed to employees, not to
the ultimately responsible and accountable governing bodies as the
directing minds of the authorities. We need the governing bodies
to explain publicly, fully and fairly what they intend and why they
intend it. We need them to tell us the performance standards they
have set for themselves and those they oversee.
We can think of activist citizens as 'society doctors.' Just as
we have general practictioner doctors who diagnose illness, we have
citizens who detect suspect intentions of authorities and alert
others. And just as we have emergency-room doctors who intervene
when harm has already happened, we have citizens who shift into
'action stations' such as hitting the streets to try to halt intentions
already launched. But where are the society doctors who work on
prevention - who set the public accounting requirements that help
prevent intentions and actions leading to harm and waste? We need
citizens as 'prevention doctors' to bring about the self-regulating
Note that preventive citizen action is needed to protect existing
core policies of a country, such as Medicare in Canada. Erosion
of Medicare aims by profit-seekers must be prevented. Lawsuits and
hitting the streets may be necessary, but they may not be sufficient
when authorities with suspect intentions wield more sustained power
than concerned citizens.
The famous American social psychologist Kurt Lewin argued that
it is better to act to reduce driving forces than try to crank up
restraining forces. Restraining forces can be overwhelmed by cranked-up
driving forces. But the self-regulating effect of the public accountability
obligation on authorities acts to reduce ill-intentioned driving
It is open to citizens to hold to account by moving beyond a tendency
to simply 'awfulize' about issues to whoever will listen and then
either to defer to authorities or hit the streets. It is open to
the large public interest organizations to hold authorities publicly
to account on behalf of citizens, and not just alert and lobby.
Giving valuable public warnings about authorities' apparent intentions
helps to create a restraining 'climate of opinion.' But that takes
time and will not necessarily assure change in powerful authorities'
underlying agendas and actions. Without holding publicly and fairly
to account, citizens' urgings and demands can be treated by authorities
as nothing more than supplication.
But if citizens are to do their civic duty to achieve and maintain
control of authorities, they need to know how to hold to account.
Yet they have had no instruction in this. Academics have not taken
on this teaching role despite being the 'scouts for society,' and
for their part activist organizations may not be attracted by the
cold logic of holding to account. Yet holding to account publicly
and relentlessly can force exposure of harmful intentions that can
then cause them to self-destruct. We need to hold to account publicly
and fairly before hitting the streets.
Citizens themselves can create processes for holding effectively
to account, and it is not complicated. The processes can be developed
community-wide, nationwide and even worldwide through internet exchanges
Holding to Account
Groups of concerned citizens can start by sitting around kitchen
tables to identify who in common sense has what important responsibilities
in the issues they are concerned about. As a citizen accountability
group they then identify what the basic performance standards of
the authority should be, and the nature of the public explanations
authorities should be giving on how they are carrying out their
responsibilities. The group then proposes basic responsibilities
and reporting obligations to the authority's governing body and
asks for its response. If necessary, citizens can act relentlessly
and publicly to force the response because the obligation to account
cannot be rejected.
The group then publicly assesses the governing body's response
against what they think are reasonable standards for the board's
explanation of its intentions, reasons and performance standards.
Each round of questioning will improve citizens' ability to hold
Media are needed for support, but to the extent that media refuse
to cover citizens' legitimate and useful accountability expectations,
the internet will be needed. While messages on it are not laid in
front of citizens as are newspapers and magazines, it is s good
connecter of ideas and strategies.
In their areas of concern, citizens' groups can then identify what
needs to be legislated as public accounting standards and ask their
elected representatives to state whether they agree. Citizens can
ask their legislators what they are prepared to do to install the
legislation, and publicize the responses they get.
As to the conduct of large transnational corporations, it may seem
daunting to lawmakers of a country to try to regulate it. But it
is not beyond sovereign governments' powers to enact laws requiring
corporate boards operating in their jurisdictions to explain publicly,
fully and fairly their intentions and reasoning when what they intend
would affect their own and other countries in important ways. Again,
it is only the requirement to explain, but once authorities are
required by law to publicly account to a standard, what they say
can be publicly audited.
Because the public accounting obligation cannot be rejected in
countries calling themselves democracies, the large public interest
organizations and NGOs have the collective power to force the public
explanations. They also have the collective knowledge to publicly
validate corporations' required reporting.
Among countries, the United Nations can set basic standards for
countries to explain their intentions fully and fairly to the other
countries they affect or plan to affect. The UN can add to its work
independent audit of the fairness and completeness of the accountings.
The adequacy of after-the-fact financial reporting is less important,
despite the Enrons of the world, but even that can be improved by
legislation making authorities' governing bodies as the directing
minds (not just employee executive officers) meet public explanation
standards that citizens have the right to see met.
For those citizens, elected representatives, governing bodies and
public interest organization members who wish to know more about
public accountability, this web site explains the concepts, principles
and standards of public accountability and how to hold to account.
Holding publicly to account - that is, exacting the needed public
explanations and auditing them -- is a productive and rewarding
task for achieving fairness in society and saving lives. It is an
adventure, not a chore.
CCA General Convenor