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Principles of Accountability

The Citizen’s Guide proposes the followong principles of accountability that were first outlined by the Ottawa-based Alliance for Public Accountability in 1998-99:

Twelve Principles of Accountability

Holding to account gives us greater control over what authorities do that affects us. If we want adequate public answering to help ensure fairness, we need to agree on standards for the answering, but these standards should be based on a set of organizing principles of accountability. General principles are the basis for specific answering standards for different types of responsibilities of concern to different groups of people -- for example, health, education, social justice and the environment.

We already have conventions to guide public reporting of corporate and government financial results. Formalized financial reporting has been the norm for over a hundred years. Accountants and auditors call the reporting conventions generally accepted accounting principles. Their purpose is to limit management whim in the reporting of financial results. But in matters of fairness, we have yet to introduce principles for the answering obligation.

For example, in the corporate world, current law instructs corporation directors only to act "with a view to the interests of the corporation." This isn’t necessarily the same thing as acting in the public interest. The issue of patented genetically engineered foods is a case in point. In answering, the law asks directors to publicly report only financial information. So we need to forge principles and standards for answering for the fairness of authorities’ intentions.

From the examples in the previous chapters of what can stem from the lack of public answering, the following 12 principles of accountability and of holding to account suggest themselves. Principles are written as principles, not exhortations. Therefore they don’t take the form of "Authorities should..." which is only an exhortation.

The public accountability principle

Every responsibility that affects the public in important ways carries with it the obligation to answer publicly for the discharge of the responsibility.

It makes no sense to assign important responsibilities to authorities and then allow them to act without attaching the self-regulating influence of answering to the public. Without answering, we are left with only fighting to stop something and/or blaming after the fact. We have no evidence to suggest that authorities will answer adequately on their own initiative. The obligation to answer is simply an obligation in fairness -- one that is reasonable to expect.

With institutional deception already pervasive, we can’t expect people in authority but having no answering obligation to put the public interest before their own wants. If we are lucky they do. Nor can we expect subordinates to refuse to go along with their superiors’ self-serving intentions.

The precautionary principle

We apply to authorities’ intentions in all responsibility areas the precautionary principle we apply in safety and environmental protection.

That is, we require authorities to demonstrate, through validated public answering, that what they intend will not lead to harm or unfairness. We do not allow authorities to make citizens prove that the authorities’ intentions are harmful or unfair. Authorities have the added responsibility to show why an intention significantly affecting the public is really needed: that it satisfies public needs and not just certain people’s wants.

The principle of coherence in assigned powers, duties and accountabilities

Public answering obligations attach to each power and duty of authorities, in sufficient rigour to tell the public whether the powers and duties are being discharged in the public interest.

Powers, duties and answering must be in balance. It is not good enough to legislate powers and duties for governing bodies without adding the answering requirement. By the same token, duty is empty without the authority to carry it out, and it is unfair to hold a governing body responsible for something that is beyond its power to control.

The principle of identifying the directing mind

To make accountability effective, those holding to account identify the directing minds answerable for what a government, corporation or other organization intends to do, actually does or fails to do.

Holding fairly to account will succeed only if citizens hold to account the real directing minds: those who determine the intentions and actions that are the subject of concern. The blood contamination, Westray mine and Herald of Free Enterprise cases described in Chapter 1 of the Citizen's Guide illustrate the tendency of examiners to limit blame to levels below the directing minds. If we hold to account only those at lower levels and fail to deal with the persons ultimately responsible for the intentions and needed control, we should not expect improved safety, fairness and justice.

The principle of self-informing duty

People in authority whose responsibilities affect the public in important ways inform themselves for their decision-making to a self-informing standard that citizens have the right to see met.

Self-informing implies that authorities will know reasonably well what information they need for their duties and obtain it and, to the extent called for, will validate the information they get. They will not simply use whatever information is given to them. The self-informing principle implies, "No self-informing to a standard reasonable in the circumstances, no decision taken."

The principle of answering for precautions taken

For the responsibilities they control, authorities answer publicly for the extent to which they apply the precautionary principle in their own decision-making.

This includes answering for obtaining reasonable assurance that it is safe or fair to proceed before proceeding, and for what precautionary action they took if the assurance of safety or fairness is uncertain. The principle implies that authorities don’t make citizens take risks that are feasible to avoid.

The principle of intentions disclosure

People in authority who intend action that would affect the public in important ways state publicly the outcomes they wish to bring about, for whom, and why they think the outcomes they intend are desirable and fair. They also state their own performance standards and the standards for those whom they direct, which clarify their outcome intentions.

Without full and fair answering before the fact, citizens have no way of knowing whether they should commend, alter or stop authorities’ intentions. The Equity Statement explained in Chapter 5 of the Citizen's Guide structures public answering for intentions and reasoning.

The principle of corporate answering for fairness

The directing minds of corporations answer publicly for the extent to which they serve the public interest as well as the interests of the corporations’ management, owners and investors.

It is reasonable that corporate boards of directors publicly explain how they are serving the public interest when their intentions for corporate action could reasonably be deemed to affect the public in important ways in safety, health, social justice or in environmental impact. It is also reasonable that those responsible for governing and for regulating corporations publicly report the extent to which their supervision meets the intent of the precautionary principle.

The principle of performance disclosure

Authorities disclose their achievements or lack of achievement through adequate public answering, which is given by those responsible for the achievement objectives, performance standards and actual performance.

It is reasonable to expect people in authority to report promptly the results of their actions, why results were not as intended if that is the case, the learning they gained and how they applied it. Performance reporting reflects what is fairly within the control of those accountable and includes reporting how external constraints are being coped with.

The principle of answering by those responsible

Those with the responsibilities give the answering, not someone else such as subordinates or external examiners -- auditors, inspectors, inquiry commissioners, ombudsmen or others.

It is reasonable to expect the directing minds themselves to account for their responsibilities. External examiners stand outside the accountability relationship. It is not acceptable that the directing minds leave the answering obligation to subordinates -- as when government ministers don’t themselves account to parliamentary committees for their control responsibilities. Those directing minds responsible for holding others to account answer for their knowledge and supervision of those others’ actions.

The principle of validation of answering

Important answering for intentions and reasoning, and for results and learning, is validated by knowledgeable public interest organizations or professional practitioners, or both.

In the case of corporate financial reporting, external auditors attest to the fairness and completeness of the corporation’s financial reporting. This is simply the precautionary principle applied in business affairs. If the business community does not accept corporate financial reporting without validation, it follows that citizens should not accept on faith the fairness and completeness of reporting by directing minds of institutions for intended and actual performance that significantly affects the public.

The principle of the wages of abdication

To the extent that citizens abdicate their responsibility to install public answering standards and hold fairly to account, they give tacit approval to the abuse of power and they reduce their civic competence.

The idea of citizen duty is not prominent today, in part because of the erosion of standards in society that has led to mushrooming institutional deception and media conversion of virtually all information for citizens into entertainment. Yet it is surprising how many people know the cartoon character Pogo’s "We have met the enemy, and he is us." The realization must have stuck.

The accountability principles proposed here are to help citizens decide whether the public answering obligation makes good sense and to decide whether they will take action to help install it for all authorities.