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Accounting for Government Accountability Matters

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lorita C. Daniels
June 26, 2023

Accountability is often recognized as a desirable trait for individuals in leadership positions. This is especially true in government when the term “accountability” connotes the promotion of openness and transparency. Being able to “hold others accountable” is a powerful hallmark of any successful democracy. In the United States, the entire government framework is constructed around political leaders or officials being accountable to the people. Accountability means public officials must act in the best interest of society and are ultimately responsible, or liable, for any action that goes against constituents’ wishes. American democracy, and thus accountability, revolves around citizens’ ability to delegate their power to elected individuals and expect certain behaviors of public servants in government. 

But what does this “accountability” look like? What questions are necessary when Americans call for accountability? Accountability is rarely defined or distinguishable in the public’s view. Without understanding the cultural and organizational context for its use, we may lack the full understanding of accountability, what it should consider and the extent to which answerability is warranted and by whom. These are often complex questions where more specific guidance and measures are needed to address accountability breaches; otherwise, the public will continually see talking points using “accountability” as an obscure term without ever understanding the extent of the accountability questions. 

The reality is many people want accountability but are still constrained by what Joseph Burke calls “deceptively simple but devilishly difficult” accountability questions relating to the responsibility to whom and for what. Unfortunately, these questions are not easy to answer according to Romzek and Dubnick when faced with diverse systems of authority and conflicting expectations for performances. At a recent news conference, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg proclaimed that the airlines would be “held accountable” for staffing shortages and lack of preparation for bad weather conditions during Memorial Day travel increases. But what does that mean? What does that look like? Who is responsible for upholding the accountability consequences? In another example, when Congressman George Santos was indicted for “various alleged fraudulent schemes and brazen misrepresentations,” Breon Peace, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, explained, “This indictment seeks to hold Santos accountable.” Again, similar questions remain: What does this accountability look like? Who will uphold it? What role do the American people have in his accountability? How will the public know when the accountability has been upheld?

Current scholarship often focuses on the lack of accountability in the context of agencies and specific programs. Former President Obama’s Privacy Bill of Rights document announced, “Companies should be accountable to enforcement authorities and consumers for adhering to these principles. Companies should also hold employees responsible for adhering to these principles.” Creating more accountable structures, the Berkeley City Council called for a Police Accountability Board, replacing the Police Review Commission, giving the new board increased power to review policies and examine allegations of police misconduct by the public. Furthermore, these and other public institutions have encouraged the public to report on their experiences through several federal legislative initiatives. These statutory provisions constitute a commitment to accountability and define the boundaries of transparency. They also serve as a basis for informed participant engagement in policy decision-making and the monitoring of government performances.

The ability to report on misconduct and the abuse of power is the starting point for accountability, which provides the public with a bottom-up approach to reviewing public institutions’ performances, practices and strategies. Legislative initiatives like these have provided more significant input for government decision-making processes. As Emmette Redford reports in his book, Democracy in the Administrative State, individual participation in policy decision-making is essential to accountability. In these examples, defining “accountability” matters, allowing the public to set standards and hold public officials formally accountable.

Years following the 2016 election, the need for more accountability in government systems has gained attention and urgency. For instance, during the January 6 Insurrection Hearing, Chair Bennie Thompson stated the need for expanded accountability, more specifically, accountability to the American people. In a survey completed by the Center for American Progress and Hart Research Association, only 22 percent of the voters surveyed stated that the federal government serves the public interest. Designed to reflect the public interests and carry out tasks demanded by the people, many democratic institutions are no longer meeting these expectations. When it comes to democratic legitimacy, public institutions have an obligation to respond and account for their actions. 

As these accountability debates continue, public institutions must go beyond their understanding of accountability and assist the public in answering these accountability questions. They can start by looking at the Office of the Auditor General of Canada website, which explains their system of accountability by identifying clear roles and responsibilities of the existing external and internal accountability relationships, highlighting the need for balancing the citizen’s expectations and organizational priorities, and reporting the performance outcomes and its linkages to the organizational goals. Empowering citizens through information is critical for citizens to hold the government to account. Creating a good accountability culture with citizens is not only good for society, but it is a precondition for an effective and accountable government.

Author: Lorita Copeland Daniels, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor in the Master of Public Administration and Policy Program at American University and a Local Government Board Member. Her current research interests: local government, policy, accountability, and citizen engagement. Dr. Daniels received her Ph.D. from Virginia Tech. All views are her own. Contact her at [email protected]/ Twitter: @Daniels_LoritaC

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