CCA Purpose

How the web site works

Concepts and Terms

Why We Need Public Accountability

Principles of Accountability

Standards for Public Answering

Legislating Accountability

The Equity Statement

Steps in Holding to Account

CCA Blog

Citizen Audit

CCA Convenors

Journal of Public Accountability

Contact Us


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 to harm.

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 important ways.

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 responsibilities.

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 influence.

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 forces.

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 of strategies.

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 to account.

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.

Henry McCandless,
CCA General Convenor
January 2008