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Legislating the Answering Obligation

As the Citizen’s Guide notes in Chapter 5:

When we are serious about people's rights and obligations, we legislate them unless we can rely on the common law to ensure them. Since we have no common law on public answering and shouldn’t wait for it, we must install legislation requiring decision-makers in authority to answer publicly and adequately for the discharge of their responsibilities.

This means legislating minimum public answering standards for those whose decisions affect the public in important ways. Thus far, however, legislation applying to authorities is a collection of powers, responsibilities and restrictions for specific people and classes of people -- all having to do with the obligation to act or not act. The requirement to answer, and to a standard, has been missing. The public answering requirements that do exist in legislation are usually confined to the production of after-the-fact financial statements, which say nothing about fairness intentions and results, and requirements for annual reports on the "activities" or "affairs" of the organization. Activity is not necessarily effort in the public interest, and effort is not accomplishment.

The Citizen’s Guide proposes the following standards for legislating answering requirements:

  • Legislatures formally state to the public their expectations for public answering within their jurisdictions.
  • Ministers of the Crown or their equivalent executive in other types of executive governments, immediately they are sworn in, each report to their legislatures (which means reporting publicly) their interpretation of their statutory powers and duties and their statutory and commonsense public answering obligations. This is the first indicator for legislators’ confidence in the minister.
  • All executive bodies (ministers and governing boards) overseeing departments, branches, corporations and agencies of government and entities controlled by government, and those bodies overseeing municipal and regional corporations and the entities they control, regularly and publicly account for the discharge of their responsibilities.
  • The accountability reporting obligation applies to all entities and public bodies that receive, directly or indirectly, a significant part of their funding from the public purse. There are no excluded entities.
  • The overseeing governing bodies meet standards of public answering reasonable to expect for their responsibilities, which include holding fairly to account all entities they oversee.
  • Governing bodies answer for fairness, efficiency and compliance with the law. (where fairness responsibilities include safety, health, justice and the environment)
  • When the precautionary principle applies in governing bodies’ responsibilities, their public answering includes their compliance with intent of the principle. (Contaminated blood and water in Canada are examples)
  • Governing bodies' answering includes reporting the extent to which they inform themselves for their decision-making. (This means that governing bodies will manage their information to a standard.)
  • Governing bodies report what they plan to bring about, and why, their specific achievement objectives and key performance standards, their actual results as they see them, and the learning they gained and how they applied it. When what they plan to do would affect the public in important ways, they explain publicly their reasoning for their intended action through equity statements or their equivalent.
  • Bills introduced in a legislature have attached to them the sponsoring minister’s or legislator’s publicly-challenged equity statement or equivalent, whenever stakeholders can reasonably expect legislators to use such a statement for their decisions on the Bill. This statement of explanation of the Bill’s intention becomes part of the public record when the Bill becomes law.
  • For each Bill, the legislature’s auditor gives to the legislature committee dealing with the Bill his or her opinion whether the government’s reporting of the Bill’s intentions and reasoning has met reasonable standards of disclosure in public answering. The auditor also reports whether the Bill’s provisions for public answering by those who would be given important responsibilities under the Bill meet a reasonable standard of public answering. (These are politically-neutral matters.)

The Citizen’s Guide also gives an example of answering obligations propsed for installation at the highest legislative level: that of a national constitution:

An Example of Feasible National-Level Accountability Legislation

The highest level of legislated public answering is at the level of a country’s constitution. A written constitution with a clear structure for amendments makes it reasonably simple to show what public accountability law might look like. Since the Constitution of the United States fits the bill, we can use it to illustrate an accountability amendment, and the reasoning for it. The basic reasoning for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution comes from America’s own George Washington, cited earlier -- if citizens have a "right understanding of matters," they will make sensible decisions. "Right understanding" can be obtained in large measure from adequate public answering. The reasoning for the law can be set out in a preamble.

A Proposed Public Accountability Amendment to the United States Constitution


  1. The Constitution of the United States is designed to serve the interests of the people and sets forth the nation’s fundamental laws.
  2. The Fathers of the Constitution in 1789 expected the needs of the nation to change and thus envisioned Amendments. An example is the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, giving women the right to vote.
  3. Citizens must be informed for their civic duty to ultimately oversee their elected representatives, administrators and judiciary at every level who are responsible and accountable for regulating fairness in society.
  4. The implications of legislative, administrative, judicial and business power in today’s world require that those in authority affecting the public in important ways inform themselves adequately and make clear to the public the outcomes they intend, for whom, and their reasoning. This allows citizens, through due process, to commend, alter or halt authorities’ intentions.
  5. Public accountability is the obligation to answer publicly for the discharge of responsibilities affecting citizens, and holding to account means that citizens exact fair, complete and timely answering from decision-makers in authority. This leads to greater public trust in the authorities.
  6. Adequate public answering is of such importance in achieving a fair society that the public answering obligation must be made part of the law of the land, which means being embedded in the Constitution.
  7. An Amendment to the Constitution establishing fundamental rules for public answering would support the intent of the Constitution’s existing provisions. For example, Article 2, requiring that the President "from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union," reflects early constitutional accountability intent at the Presidential level.
  8. An accountability Amendment would complete the needed balance of authorities’ powers, responsibilities and answering obligations. Clarity of all three is necessary to judge the diligence of those in authority. The Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 is an example of a specific set of public answering obligations for those directing departments and agencies of the federal government.
  9. Those with the obligation to account are the identifiable persons (elected or appointed) who constitute the directing mind and will of the entity whose actions are subject to public answering. It is therefore identifiable people who account, not a "government" or a "corporation."
  10. Because the obligation to answer tells no one how to do their jobs, yet exerts a self-regulating effect on the conduct of people in authority, a public accountability amendment to the Constitution could be expected to:
    • reduce deception by authorities and reduce citizens’ time, stamina and funds spent on lobbying and fighting,
    • limit legislation or executive orders benefitting only a few,
    • improve elected representatives’ understanding of intended actions,
      outcomes and means and, ultimately,
    • improve citizen respect for and cooperation with authorities, and the development and deployment of the nation’s human resources.

Therefore, an AMENDMENT 28 could be drafted to read as follows:

Section 1. Citizens of the United States significantly affected by the intentions and decision-making of persons in elected and appointed authority have the right to full, fair and timely disclosure by those persons, and have themselves the responsibility to act fairly on answering given in good faith.

Section 2. Persons directing the affairs of any level of government in the United States, or directing the affairs of business enterprises operating in the United States, have the duty, when the action they intend or control would significantly affect the rights, safety or well-being of citizens, to publicly disclose before the fact the outcomes they intend, for whom, and the reasons; their performance standards for bringing about the outcomes; and, later, the results of their performance.

Section 3. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this Article by appropriate legislation.

A similar law can be drafted federally for Canada.