As citizens, we can improve the fairness of the decisions of those in authority by installing accountability, which is the obligation to answer for responsibilities. Holding to account is the process of getting the answering and using it fairly. Those in authority and accountable in the public and private sectors include elected and appointed officials, governing bodies, executives of government departments and agencies and of large corporations, members of courts and tribunals, and the professions. Because the decisions of these people affect us in important ways, it is only just that they tell us what they intend specifically to bring about, and give us their reasoning. We can then ask better questions leading to our endorsement of their intentions or to steps to alter or halt what they propose.
o identify what citizens have a right to expect in public answering and in answering within organizations
o achieve answering to a standard, in language that prevents evasion of obligations.
The conveners decided on the name "Citizens' Circle" because it is non-hierachical and because the Circle will propose principles and practice advice in holding to account and have this come back improved for posting at this web site. The idea is to learn together. The conveners will monitor discussion and update the information here, from the advice offered. Please recognize that everyone's time is volunteer time. Participants can audit the quality of the result.
Table of Contents
Purpose, discussions and conveners
o the Circle's purpose and approach
o forum discussion locations
Accountability concepts and practice
o the meaning of public accountability
o accountability propositions
o basic standards
o examples of public responsibility, with accountability questions
o Resource documents about accountability
The ultimate objective of the Circle is to improve fairness in decision-making by those in authority who affect citizens in important ways, and who, within organizations, similarly affect organization members.
On the Net, help in achieving public and organizational answering won't come from a person's status. People gravitate to those with the most useful ideas. This frees the forum from "command control" and from what George Orwell called "petty orthodoxies." Here there are no hierarchies and no power trips. Each offered idea or practice suggestion will be advanced or taken up by others on its own merit.
We seek to help concerned citizens and public interest groups, elected representatives, members of organizations and all others with responsibilities that affect the public in important ways. For example, elected representatives are often overworked, with information overload, yet they must hold governments and corporations to account on our behalf as well as account publicly themselves. Citizens need help in holding to account because they don't have the time after work to audit everything done by those in authority.
The founding conveners and their main contribution areas are:
Dr. Michelle Brill-Edwards, MD, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
o public accountability for health protection
Cornelius Burk, Ph.D, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
o management of information in organizations and accountability for the responsibility
Leo Demesmaker, Washington, D.C., United States
o the use of language in public answering
Garth Graham, Ashton, Ontario, Canada, firstname.lastname@example.org
o effective community networking and protection of the electronic commons
Karin Howard, City Councillor, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada,
o local government accountability
Henry McCandless, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, email@example.com
o concepts and standards for public answering, and its audit
Alan Willis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, firstname.lastname@example.org
o public accountability for protection of the environment and audit of environmental accountability reporting
We will name conveners for other issue areas as we expand our capability. You may reach conveners through their email addresses or through Henry McCandless or by mail at the CCA mailing address: - 39 Waverley St., Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K2P 0T7. Tel. (613) 235-5954; fax (613) 241-6900
o Accountability is the obligation to answer for responsibilities. Confusing accountability with responsibility obscures the obligation to report.
o Public accountability is the obligation to answer publicly for the discharge of responsibilities that affect the public in important ways.
o Reciprocal accountability is the obligation of people in senior posts in organizations to answer to members of the organizations for what they intend and what they contribute.
o Holding to account means getting answering to a standard from those accountable, and using the answering fairly.
o People account, not intangible things like "corporations" and "governments."
o The principal aim of public answering is to let citizens know whose needs or wants are intended to be honoured by the decision-makers, and how they would be honoured and why, so citizens' decisions about these intentions can be better informed.
o Answering to a reasonable standard means stating the reasoning for what those accountable plan to bring about, their specific objectives and performance standards, the outcomes from the effort and the learning gained and applied.
o Citizens' and public interest groups must assess the fairness of the answering. When necessary, the reporting is validated by independent professional audit. The assessment determines whether the answering is fair and complete.
Decisions of those in authority may be part of a stream, with each decision not appearing important but cumulatively resulting in things happening that affect us all significantly. Decisions may involve the quality and timeliness of the processes we need to identify and resolve major public policy issues, or they may be decisions on proposed public projects or they can be trade-offs between corporations' profits and people's safety.
For every important responsibility there is accountability. Accountability is the obligation to answer for the discharge of responsibilities that affect others in important ways. The answering is for intentions as well as results. When responsibilities affect the public in important ways, the decision-makers' answering must be public. If responsibilities affect employees and others within organizations, the answering is to those in the organizations. Holding to account means getting the answering, at the time it is needed and to an agreed standard of fairness and completeness . It does not mean voting in a polling booth in an election campaign.
Letters of protest are often answered with institutional bromide intended to placate us. On a safety issue we may call for "better regulations," only to see politicians and public servants organize endless conferences. To make matters worse, we don't defend the whistleblowers who bring to light harmful goings-on. Politicians either deplore what they see or exhort, "Let's put it behind us." And we let them. We see no learning gained and applied.
No one is held to account. 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 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.
Who needs to hold to account? As members or supporters of groups working for the poor or the mentally ill, community associations trying to get better performance in city hall, public interest groups trying to achieve greater fairness in public policy and better safety standards, small business owners trying to get loans from big banks, committees of legislatures trying to assess value for money in government operations, Aboriginal peoples trying to protect their lands and culture, citizens trying to make their countries sustainable, or environmental groups trying to protect the planet, the need to hold decision-makers publicly to account is the same.
Holding to account doesn't tell people what to do. Accountability is politically neutral. Holding to account does not tell decision-makers what to decide. It simply requires them to disclose what they want to bring about, and their reasoning. This helps raise public trust in our institutions.
But when there is no time... If the situation calls for prompt immediate action to stop something and there is no time to develop accountability levers to get fairness, we need to reach for the best current activist strategy and get at it with all the force we can muster. But at the same time we need to understand why we had to use force and start work on getting the right accountability reporting, or things will only repeat later in another way, on a different issue, or even in the same way on the same issue.
The road ahead. Public interest groups must take the lead and collaborate to install public answering to a standard in both public and private sectors, through a common useful concept. The Internet is central to this task, so we must protect the electronic commons as a means of people connecting with each other to hold to account. We must be vigilant. We lack adequate answering because people in authority have not wanted to share power and citizens have been unduly deferential and divided. When citizens grasp how powerful holding to account is, and cohesively assert their right to have the answering meet a reasonable standard, we can expect those in authority to try to keep the meaning of public accountability foggy and to overuse the term so that everyone gets tired of hearing the very words.
o it is reasonable that those in authority account to us for both their intentions and performance. In the public sector they work for us and we pay their salaries. In the private sector, corporations must serve the public interest.
o Those accountable answer to a standard reasonable for their particular responsibilities, in their particular circumstances. The answering standard must reflect what is within the control of those asked to answer.
o Whether on a payroll or contract, no one draws pay or fees from the public purse, directly or indirectly, at any level of government, without stating for the record the achievement objective he or she is working toward and why it is in the public interest. Those drawing salaries over a certain amount can reasonably be expected to state both their intended and actual accomplishment in the public interest.
o Our elected representatives, who make fairness decisions on our behalf, have the obligation to state to us:
(a) what they think constitutes fair public answering from those they oversee on our behalf,
(b) what action they intend to take to install public answering to a reasonable standard, and
(c) what they see as their own public answering for their own responsibilities.
o When those accountable do not answer satisfactorily, the public must know the answering standards deemed reasonable by legitimate stakeholders and be asked, "Is this what you had in mind as acceptable answering?"
o Election campaigns for public office have narrow aims and must not be considered effective or timely means of answering to the public.
o Those holding to account must act responsibly on accountability reporting given in good faith, or the accountable will not account.
o If citizens abdicate their responsibility for holding to account when practical help is available, they in effect authorize misuse of power by those in authority. Taking no action is itself a decison.
o The answering must include the specific achievement intentions. Statements of intended activity do not identify real agendas; do not provide a basis for holding to account; and do not illuminate fairness.
o Adequate answering includes statement of the intended standards of performance, which further clarifies the achievement intentions.
o Answering continues after the fact with statement of the results of decisions and actions, as those with the responsibilities see them, and the reasons for the results being different from those intended (when that is the case).
o Answering includes what those accountable think they have learned and what they have applied. This helps prevent the abdicating stance of, "Let's put it behind us."
The electronic commons:
- What public answering do we need, from whom, to assure us that the electronic "commons" will be kept by our elected governments as a public commons, which is to say a critical means of public exchange and of holding to account? The risk is legislatures permitting corporations to control the electronic commons and charge for it such that corporations benefit from it in the ways they wish to but the relatively disadvantaged are denied access and an important means of holding to account is truncated.
- What are the critical success factors for ensuring universal access, and what are the equity statements for the proposals each government has in mind?
- Is it reasonable to have all governing bodies in the public and private sectors, including corporate boards of directors, account regularly to the public whether and to what extent they serve the public interest? (For corporations, the public interest is a broader notion than serving only the financial interests of the owners and investors.)
- If corporation boards do not accept this reporting responsibility, is it reasonable that all corporate charters now embedded in the law be re-opened for public debate and for the public to install the public interest imperative in each, with the further requirement that each corporate board report regularly and publicly whether they have discharged this obligation?
- Is it reasonable to expect each governing body to assert that it manages its information to a standard -- that is to say, manages the processes that adequately inform the governing body for its decision-making, and does not simply rely on information supplied by by the chief executive officer or agency head and executive management?
- When executive governments, as governing bodies, have intentions that would affect the public in important ways, is it reasonable to expect them to report to the public what they wish to bring about and their reasoning, including who they think would benefit, how, and who would bear what costs, immediately and down the road?
- Since directing people's attention to quality of the deliveryprograms and to information technology development can divert attention from fairness decisions on people's entitlements, is it in the public interest that executive governments make clear, before the fact, their criteria for fairness policy decisions, and account for decisions against those criteria?
- In the case of elected governing bodies comprising local-government councillors or provincial, state and federal legislators, is it reasonable to have them report regularly to the public:
(a) the extent to which their policy decisions are based on briefing information that can be rated as reasonable information for good governance, such as information in publicly-challenged equity statements or their equivalent,
(b) the diligence they apply in overseeing administrations on behalf of the citizens, and
(c) the public accountability reporting standards for intended and actual results they consider reasonable for themselves and for the departments and agencies they oversee?
- who is accountable for publicly reporting the nature and degree of effort applied by
(a) elected and non-elected executive government and
(b) senior public servants to:
o identify feasible action alternatives as opposed to "copy-catting" large corporations, and
o producing appropriate public forums for debate on the options and trade-offs, and on the sharing of costs and burdens identified as truly necessary?
- Does the public have a right to expect that each corporation's board of directors (as opposed to the chief executive officer) regards itself as the "directing mind and will" of the corporation, constituting the identifiable group of people publicly accountable for what the corporation intends to do and actually does? If boards, as boards of directors, do not accept the responsibility of being the accountable directing mind, why not?
- When corporate boards' action intentions would affect the public in important ways, is it reasonable to have the boards formally report to the public (and, in the case of multinational and transnational corporations, publicly to the governments of countries they significantly affect) on what they wish to bring about and their reasoning, including who they think would benefit, how, immediately and down the road, and who would bear what costs? (Corporate boards' intentions can range from actions affecting the natural environment and the economic state of citizens in different countries to levels of violence on TV and nicotine content in cigarettes.)
- If large corporation boards resist being publicly accountable to the standard we need for the 21st century, do we need a Magna Carta for corporations -- including the accountability reporting missing from the 1215 Runnymede version -- for the responsibility and public accountability of boards and corporation owners?
- Who is accountable for identifying and disclosing to the public the causes of corporate management adopting "slash and burn" mindsets in dismissing employee work forces?
- What is the public reporting reasonably expected from each corporation's board members on their reasoning, which would include disclosure of the nature and extent of external influences to which they felt they had to yield?
- What is the public accountability of the large employee-owned pension funds, as major investing institutions influencing what investee corporations decide, in their roles as models for social responsibility?
- Is it reasonable to require that the heads of our regulatory agencies make clear to the public whether the agencies operate on the precautionary principle of "We don't approve unless the proposal is shown to be safe," or "We approve unless someone proves it's unsafe"?
- Where agencies make regulating decisions based on outside expert opinion, is it reasonable that the agencies state publicly the selection criteria they think are critical to ensuring adequate expertise and impartiality to serve the public interest?
- Is it reasonable to expect regulatory agencies to go beyond setting regulations, which then become the highest expected level of performance, and recommend that the directing minds of regulated corporations and other organizations should not only state that they met government regulations but publicly state their own performance standards for safety and other responsiblities?
- Is it reasonable to expect each regulatory agency to state publicly what it regards as the critical success factors for its effective operation in the public interest, and the agency's achievement objectives, fundamental rules and public accountability?
- Is it in the public interest that central banks produce, for public challenge before the fact, equity statements giving the reasoning for each intended policy for matters such as interest rates and inflation?
- Is it reasonable to expect each profession to regularly report to the public
o its achievement objectives in the public interest,
o its accomplishment in the public interest,
o the nature and extent of its professional directives to its members about serving the public interest, and
o the nature and extent of what it does to ensure that its members meet acceptable standards of due diligence in the public interest?
- Is it reasonable to expect journalists to work for better public answering, for example by extracting and distilling for citizens the equity statements for proposals that affect the public in important ways?
- Is it reasonable that journalists as a group tell us what they see as their tasks and reward systems, and the intended standards for their performance in the public interest?
- What can reasonably be asked of churches in bringing about public accountability to a standard, and what can they be asked to say publicly about the support they could provide?
- Is it reasonable to expect that elected representatives assert, for public challenge, what they think their constituents want as values, broad objectives and fairness criteria for protection of the environment, as a guide for establishing people's respective responsibilities?
- Is it in the public interest that those with significant responsibilities for the environment account publicly and regularly for the discharge of their responsibilities, and that legislation identify who is accountable to whom, for what, and set the standards for the answering?
- for the main threats to the environment already sufficiently identified to justify corrective action and refute "denial" arguments, is it reasonable that each government lay out public equity statements for the key actions that the assessment points to?
- Is it reasonable that for every project or other proposal likely to affect the environment, such as natural resource exploitation, waste dumping or capital projects, that an Environmental Equity Statement be produced by the proponents, as part of environmental assessment processes, and that go-ahead approval not be given before public challenge of this statement?
- Is it reasonable for executive governments to account for the relative emphasis they place on prevention as opposed to treating people, and to give their reasons?
- Since most citizens do not have the after-work time to discover and assemble the information needed to hold governments and their agencies to account for fairness decisions, is it reasonable to expect that governments make this information available in matters of health? If the accountable argue that this will cost too much, is it reasonable to respond that agency managements will need this information in any case to do their jobs properly, and if they know it, they can report it?
- Is it in the public interest that governments state the public- purse medical costs fairly attributable to the effects of giving corporations freedom to sell unhealthy products?
- For health protection in particular areas such as drugs safety, is it reasonable that those with responsibility for safety assessment agencies
(a) ensure that all staff and consultants operate independently from the influence of corporations and comply with the precautionary principle, and
(b) account publicly for the discharge of their responsibilities and meet the legislated standards for this answering?
- Is it reasonable to expect that governments supporting lotteries and casinos assert what "psychological baggage" attaches to their operation? For example, do lotteries tend to make citizens think that accepting what comes by chance is as valuable as building their own efficacy?
- When elected representatives endorse or promote casinos, can they say that they and the public know who benefits, how, and who bears what costs from the operations, immediately and in the future ?
- Who is accountable to whom for ensuring citizens know the real effects of lotteries and casinos?
- Is it feasible to identify who is accountable for publicly proposing, for each level of public education, who is accountable to whom, for what ?
- For example, is it reasonable that boards of universities receiving most of their funding from the public purse state publicly
o the ranked achievement objectives of the university and whether they meet them, and
o how they reconcile the "medieval notion" of the university with the "corporation notion"?
- Who is accountable for proposing, in each political jurisdiction, a process of public debate to establish a generally-accepted definition of fairness that is to prevail in the formulation of government policy?
- Is it reasonable to expect that the first job of the person politically in charge is to lead collaborative effort in citizens' efficacy-building and learning, and lead this effort to a leadership standard reasonable to expect?
- Is legislation needed to get public answering installed, to a standard, for those whose responsibilities affect the public in important ways? If so, what are the basic standards that should be made law for the accountable people comprising executive governments, governing bodies of government agencies, and corporation boards?
- Is it in the public interest that legislation make clear, respectively, the powers, duties, functions and accountabilities of those with legislated responsibilities, so as to provide a sufficient basis for:
(a) public assessment, whether responsibilities are discharged with due diligence in the public interest, and with due regard to fairness, efficiency and compliance with the law, and
(b) independent audit of the fairness and completeness of the performance reporting.
- Is it reasonable to expect that within each political jurisdiction the offices of Ombudsman, commissioners for information access, privacy and other responsibilities, and external auditors of executive government and agency operations and other special examiners will collectively provide coherent reporting to the public on:
(a) what these external examining agencies think the public can reasonably expect in accountability reporting from each government in matters of fairness and equity, efficiency, compliance with the law, environmental and safety due regard and other social justice responsibilities and in audit of that reporting, and
(b) the extent to which the examining agencies think government is validly reporting, or causing to be reported, for ongoing programs and government proposals that would affect the public in important ways, who would benefit, how, and who would bear what costs?
- To help us judge the adequacy of examination coverage in total, is it reasonable that the examining agencies report to the public :
(a) the scope and nature of their examinations of reporting on fairness and equity, efficiency, compliance with the law, environmental protection and safety and other social justice responsibilities, and
(b) the extent to which they have discharged their own responsibilities as they see them, including how they have dealt with any external contraints on the scope of their examinations?
- Is it reasonable to expect the members of special inquiries and commissions, which can range from local coroners' juries to federal government commissions of inquiry, to include in their recommendations their beliefs about who should be accountable to whom, for what?
- Is it reasonable to expect that they publicly report limitations to their scope that in their opinion unduly restrict the extent and quality of their examination and reporting?
- Is it reasonable to expect the members of special inquiries and commissions to publicly report whether they think their observations have been dealt with adequately?
- Is it reasonable to expect managers to account to subordinates for the reasoning behind key management decisions?
- Is it in the public interest that corporation chief executive officers, in view of the ratio of their average salaries to that of managers and employees, account to the members of the organization for the contribution they personally make to two things: goal-setting and organizational achievement, and removing barriers standing in the way of organization members doing a better job? If this twin answering expectation is not deemed fair for executives asserted to be valuable to the organization's stakeholders, why not?
- Is it in the public interest that public sector department and agency heads similarly account to the members of their organizations, who are likewise public servants serving the public interest? This would involve answering for the contribution they make to fairness and efficiency, and for their actions in "walking the talk" and removing barriers to government employees' professional and administrative effectiveness, given that managing is viewed as achieving things through others. If these accountability expectations of agency heads are not deemed fair, why not?
- Is it in the public interest that senior managers account to the members of the organization for their reasoning in deciding the extent to which they use the advice proffered by subordinates who are relatively the experts for particular decisions? (the U.S. Challenger disaster was a case in point, as are many cases of whistleblowing.)