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What Do We Really Mean by 'Government Accountability'?

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The increasing chorus of calls for more accountability reaches beyond recent demands for firing officials at the IRS, VA, and GSA for various perceived misdeeds. Just what is accountability, and how can it be seen as a constructive, instead of a punitive, element of public management?

Recent legislation imposes new accountability requirements in the form of more reporting, for example, on spending on conferences; and pending legislation would require even more details about spending, across the board.

In the midst of these new reporting requirements comes a thoughtful collection of academic essays – written largely by Europeans – on innovations in public accountability.  The thesis of the lead authors, Dorothea Greiling and Arie Halachmi, is that “better accountability and better performance can be induced by something other than more reporting requirements.”  The essays outline three evolving forms of accountability that are constructive alternatives to traditional approaches such as reporting, compliance reviews, and audits. 

What Is Accountability? 

According to Greiling and Halachmi:  “Accountability has to do with appropriateness of actions and adherence to obligations.”  But they go on to caution that:  “too many arrangements to ensure accountability can prevent organizations from achieving their missions.”  They then propose “designing proper and adequate accountability arrangement to foster organizational learning” as a goal of new approaches to accountability.

They say that the idea of combining traditional accountability approaches – reporting, auditing, focusing on inefficiencies, waste, and poor performance – with the new approach of including organizational learning may be seen as unusual, but it shouldn’t be, they conclude, because “we have implicit expectations about learning taking place when we ask for accountability.”  They say: “. . . learning from performance is a more promising approach to attain improved results than simply finding mistakes and pointing an accusatory finger.”

In addition, they observe that “. . . accountability means different things to different stakeholders” . . . auditors, evaluators, media, oversight committees.”  And they note that their focus is on organizational accountability and accountability for performance – not individual accountability.

Contrasts Between Traditional and Innovative Accountability

Greiling and Halachmi say the traditional control-oriented approaches to accountability are insufficient: “Accountability information that results from the use of such arrangements as audits, accounting, or performance measurements should not be limited to documenting the achieved results for purposes of control or for symbolic political reasons.”  They say: “. . . a change from emphasis on short-term accountability toward long-term accountability is a desired shift from current practice, where most accountability arrangements are focused mainly on the short run.”

They go on to suggest:  “The information collected for accountability purposes should enable public managers and decision-makers to develop better insight into the structures, processes, and strategy the organization is using to attain its goals.”

Three Innovative, Technology-Driven Accountability Approaches

Three innovations in accountability – all based on technologies that have become widely available in the past decade -- are described by fellow essay authors Thomas Schillemans, Mark Van Twist, and Iris Vanhommerig.  They outline three types of innovations in accountability that would supplement rather than substitute for more traditional forms of accountability. They say:  “Traditional accountability arrangements are mostly vertically oriented and so follow hierarchical lines of control. . . . innovative forms of accountability break with this pattern” and are more horizontal and bottom-up in nature.

The three innovative approaches they describe in their essay include:  interactive accountability, dynamic accountability, and citizen-initiated accountability.   All three build on the increased availability of public data and social media tools.

Innovative Approach 1:  Interactive Accountability. Schillemans et al, say: “Due to advances in information technology, the performance of an organization can now be monitored in (near) real time.  This makes it possible to learn from the information gathered through accountability regimes and make changes along the way to ensure that the delivery of public services stays on track.” 

They say this “management by inquiry” approach relies on structured discourse and is best exemplified by the (now-defunct) Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in the United Kingdom, and the various forms of PerformanceStat, including CompStat, CitiStat, StateStat, and HUDStat.

They say the “. . . key elements include mission clarification, internal accountability, geographic organization of command, organizational flexibility, data-driven problem identification and assessment, and innovative problem-solving.”

Innovative Approach 2:  Dynamic Accountability.  This form of accountability, the authors say, “is based on open data systems that allow citizens and stakeholders to use the data to hold governments accountable.” 

The examples they offer include Recovery.gov, which is a website tracking the expenditure of funds from programs funded under the $840 billion Recovery Act.  They also say the Obama Administration’s Open Data policy – which is being replicated at the local level via “open checkbook” initiatives – is another example of the dynamic accountability approach.

They say that the use of social media to communicate with citizens and keep them informed and involved is a variant.  They note that police departments around the world now use Twitter to engage citizens, including the Dutch, New York City, and Boston.  There are private initiatives that introduce elements of dynamic accountability as well, such as FixMyStreet.com (in the UK) and SeeClickFix.com (in the US), which allow citizens to report local government service issues.

Innovative Approach 3:  Citizen-Initiated Accountability.  This third new form of accountability comes from citizens who, the authors note, “use their own observations and data to summon authorities to action or hold them accountable for their policies.”  Again, the wide availability of crowd-sourcing technologies have contributed to the growth of this form of public accountability.

Examples include the Kafka Brigade, which is an independent non-profit network of researchers whose mission is to “tackle the bureaucratic dysfunction and red tape which prevents people from accessing the services they need, and which constrains and frustrates public service staff.”

The Kafka Brigade organizes moderated workshops that bring together key stakeholders to solve problems, much like the PerformanceStat approach, but organized outside government.  Its website says that it “offers citizens who fell they have been wronged a chance to be heard, and government officials the chance to make amends, learn from their mistakes, and hopefully prevent similar errors in future cases.”

Other citizen-initiated approaches rely on crowd-sourcing and open-source technology.  For example, the authors say the website Ushahidi.com was set up by a Kenyan lawyer and blogger to allow people to report outbreaks of violence after Kenya’s disputed elections in 2007.   The site is used to report on other critical instances such as vote tampering, food shortages, floods in Pakistan, and the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti.  In these instances, the authors observe:  “Citizens not only hold government to account, they also play a major role in dealing with social problems. . . . ”

So, while the traditional forms of accountability will likely persist, the new forms may provide a more constructive approach to problem identification and solutions. 

Image via WimL/Shutterstock.com

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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