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


Standards for Public Answering

The Citizen’s Guide proposes six standards of public answering that are based on the principles of accountability proposed in Chapter 4.

For all proposals that would affect the public in important ways:

1. Authorities state, for public challenge, what they intend to bring about, for whom, and why they think the outcomes they intend are fair.

This standard requires the central "who" question to be answered publicly, whether by political parties, government departments and agencies, corporations or other institutions. It is the "who gains, who loses?" question for authorities’ intentions, although some decisions are truly win-win. When authorities proposing something are required to answer two specific outcome questions, we can then challenge the fairness and completeness of the authorities say about their intentions and reasoning, to know what is really at stake. The questions are:

"Who would gain, how, in the short and longer term, and why should they?"


"Who would bear what costs and risks, in the short and longer term, and why should they?"

Larger public interest organizations will have the knowledge to challenge and publicly validate what the authorities say in response. The answers to the "who" questions can be structured in a relatively simple equity statement, which is a fairness impact statement that emphasizes the who as much as the what.

2. Before taking a decision to act, or to authorize others to act, authorities report publicly the extent to which they have informed themselves for their decisions.

The expectation that governing bodies will know what constitutes reasonable information for good governance and obtain it is a fair standard, not just an ideal. Authorities haven’t had to answer publicly for the adequacy of their self-informing, except perhaps to a court if charged with negligence. Yet the self-informing duty is axiomatic whenever a government’s or governing board’s decision affects the public in important ways. This includes informing themselves to the standard implied by upholding the precautionary principle in their decision-making.

In safety risks, we still don’t know to what extent the federal Ministers of Health and members of the Board of the Canadian Red Cross informed themselves about blood distribution risks in the early 1980s. Nor do we know how well the responsible Nova Scotia cabinet ministers and mining company board members informed themselves about the likelihood of miners dying in the Westray mine. But Nova Scotians should have been told, in time to have caused precautionary action if they put safety before the promise of miners’ wages.

At the level of local government, council members are unlikely to report to the community, before they vote on a contentious property development application, how well they informed themselves about the proposal’s effect on the community and environment. Examples range from inner city protection of community to the mid-1990s Bamberton housing development proposal for Vancouver Island’s Malahat that involved provincial ministers, to China’s and India’s dam projects and displacement of millions of people. There is no reason why governing bodies shouldn’t give this public accounting.

3. Authorities state publicly what they specifically plan to achieve, and their intended performance standards for the achievement.

When authorities state intended outcomes in only general terms, such as "a healthier population," it doesn’t provide a basis for holding to account for achievement. We need specific achievement statements, such as "Type A strokes will be reduced by X% by the year Y and the rehabilitation rate increased by Z% as measured by (the agreed standard indicators)."

Since achieving an objective requires accountable authorities to meet performance standards, those with the duty to hold them to account must know the performance standards. Authorities’ statements of their performance standards clarify their intentions. For example, health district performance standards for strokes might include, "No one needing stroke emergency care will be more than two hours from a competent hospital stroke unit and first-hours emergency advice will be constant on a publicly-known help line," and "Hospitals designated to treat stroke victims for rehabilitation or extended care will have pain specialists to call on who are knowledgeable in stroke aftermath pain, at the state of the art in means of restoring limb functioning, and sufficient in number that stroke victims get the recovery treatment they have the right to."

Included in authorities’ performance standards would be fundamental rules that no one is to break, such as compliance with the law. In the case of the civil service, the fundamental rules would include rules for probity and prudence.

4. Authorities state who would answer publicly for what, and when, if their proposal or authorization were to go ahead.

The requirement to make clear who would answer for what should affect our acceptance of authorities’ proposals, because if the answering for this is weak, the "who" intentions may be suspect. Without this clarification we would be accepting authorities’ actions on blind faith. (Note that in asking who would answer, we use the conditional. If we say, "Who will answer..." we signal acceptance of what authorities intend, leaving "how" as the only issue.)

After the fact:

5. Authorities state the results from their effort, as they see them, and why they were different from their stated intended results, if that is the case.

"Results" doesn’t mean simply production or outputs; it means some kind of change in end-state or condition that is in the nature of an outcome. It means that a difference is made to something. Reporting results as the authorities see them must cover both intended and unintended effects. The results must be stated in a way that allows them to be compared with the specific intended achievement and must include explanation of significant differences between intended and actual results. To set our confidence in authorities for the future, we need to know which results are attributable to whom or what. We also need to know what stood in the way of planned achievement, and how authorities coped with external constraints.

A special case is withholding public answering for government intentions and action in the name of national security. If information is to be kept from the public as a matter of national security on the argument that it is for the public's own good, the public should decide the criteria the executive government are to use. There must then be an independent oversight body assigned to report whether the government abides by the criteria.

6. Authorities state the learning they gained and how they applied it.

In setting answering expectations for authorities, public answering for learning applied hasn’t even made it to the drawing boards. Yet the directing minds of every organization affecting the public have a fairness obligation to learn from what they did or authorized and apply their learning. What they learned, they can report. Refusal to answer publicly for learning applied is not a good sign in judging the future ability and motivation of a government or other organization affecting the public.

Although general standards for authorities’ learning responsibilities may not yet be agreed, each accountable authority can state its existing standards and report against them. The requirement to report learning applied will produce a self-regulating effect.