Standards for Public Answering
The Citizens 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
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 havent 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 governments or governing boards
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 dont 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 proposals effect on the community and environment.
Examples range from inner city protection of community to the
mid-1990s Bamberton housing development proposal for Vancouver
Islands Malahat that involved provincial ministers, to Chinas
and Indias dam projects and displacement of millions of
people. There is no reason why governing bodies shouldnt
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 doesnt 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" doesnt 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
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
In setting answering expectations for authorities, public answering
for learning applied hasnt 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.