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Why We Need Public Accountability

If we see something going on that worries us, such as elected governing bodies intending to benefit groups having influence the rest of us don’t have, what do we tend to do? We either tend to duck the issue, hoping others will deal with it, or simply "awfulize," as Dr. Ursula Franklin puts it. Or we tend to fight, by organizing protest or through writing awareness-building articles or books. If it is a major decision we think is imminent, we may fight by organizing lobbying groups in opposition, sending letters or petitions to officials or marching with placards.

Letters of protest are often unanswered, or answered with fog intended to placate. On a safety issue we may call for "better regulations," only to see politicians and civil servants fail to go to the bone and fail to install in the regulations the obligation of the regulators to answer publicly for compliance with them.

We don't protect whistleblowers acting in the public interest who, seeing wrongdoing and no answering by the accountable, supply the needed public answering themselves to bring to light harmful goings-on. They then get savaged while citizens stand by as unconcerned onlookers. Politicians tend only to deplore what they see or chorus, "Let's put it behind us." And we let them. We fail to ensure that learning is gained and applied.

No one is actually held to account, that is to say, made to answer. The accountable, naturally enough, never suggest anything disturbing their comfort zones, and even those whose job it is to hold to account or formally observe on the adequacy of the answering, tend to work within their own familiar and comfortable processes. We are overwhelmed with media messages and lobbying of all kinds, but we get no public statements summing up fairness trade-offs and telling us who is accountable to whom, for what. Without adequate answering, we have to come from behind and fight on uneven playing fields.

We can’t prevent harm in society if we don’t know the intentions of authorities before they act to do something, legislate something or authorize some entity to do something not in the public interest. When we know the outcomes they intend, for whom and why, and we know their performance standards that clarify their intentions, we can act to commend, alter or stop the intentions. After the fact, if we know the results of authorities’ actions and the learning gained by the authorities and how they applied it, and if what authorities report on this is validated, we know better how much trust to place in them in the future. Without public trust in our institutions, society doesn’t work properly.

The requirement to answer exerts a self-regulating effect on authorities. For example, if we ourselves have responsibilities that affect the public in important ways, none of us would want to state publicly an intention and an achievement objective so easy to meet that stating it would make us a laughing stock. And if asked to state our performance standards, we will want to state respectable ones and later be able to say we met them. If we don’t achieve what we said we would, but claim we have, we can be publicly found out -- by alert public interest groups or by independent professional audit. Public answering thus works as a self-regulating influence because public face is important in all cultures.

Moreover, holding authorities to account doesn't tell people what to do. Holding to account doesn’t tell decision-makers what action to take or what to stop doing. Accountability is politically neutral. The answering obligation simply requires them to explain what they want to bring about, for whom, and their reasoning, and what resulted from what they did or authorized. If authorities are to do their jobs properly, they will know their intentions, for whom, and their reasoning, which is to say who would benefit and would bear what costs and risks from what they intend. What they know, they can report.