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Does the Public Sector Experience Real Accountability?

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

By Carl J. Gabrini 
July 20, 2019

Recently I read an article from my Facebook newsfeed claiming that real accountability did not exist in the public sector (Government Accountability Isn’t Real Accountability). As I thought about this claim a scene from Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption came to mind. The chair of the parole board asks Red, “Do you feel you’ve been rehabilitated?” Red replies, “Rehabilitated? Well, now let me see. You know, I don’t have any idea what that means?” I asked a similar question after I read the article’s title. What does the author mean by real accountability?

As I understood it, the author defines accountability in terms of being personally liable for financial losses resulting from one’s actions. The author uses several illustrations in support of the claim and the definition. I will summarize the point of each illustration, as I understand them. The first is that elected officials are generally not personally liable for higher than anticipated financial costs associated with their votes on public policy. The second is that unlike private contracts, you generally cannot terminate a public entity not believed to be providing acceptable levels of service. Lastly, generally citizens cannot choose to address public infrastructure needs on their own instead of relying on the government. The author states that in all three situations public solution costs are higher than the private ones, and citizens have no recourse other than voting officials out of office—therefore true accountability does not exist.

Accountability is not exclusively associated with financial liability, the payment of reparations or the making of restitution. The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is an excellent source to read up on the meaning of the word. The root word in both accountability and accountable is account, which traces its origin to the French word acont, meaning, “To count.” The words accounting and accountant both share the same origin. The word account is associated with keeping a record of something like a ledger in accounting or a record of events or actions. The record may be in the form of a report or narrative, including a newspaper story. It is not exclusively or even mostly about financial liability. We do not even hold senior management personally liable for losses suffered by corporations unless there is found to be some legal basis to do so. Piercing the corporate veil is possible but not easy to accomplish without proving negligence or fraud.

In the United States, we hold our public officials accountable for their actions and decisions through the electoral process. That is a legitimate accountability mechanism. In addition, we are a nation governed by laws, and public officials do not operate above those laws. The three branches of government and their defined roles are intended to act as an accountability mechanism. Legislative bodies can hold hearings to gather the facts, events or conditions surrounding an action or decision. Courts can sit in judgment of public officials or the entities they represent. Our entire system of government, whether federal, state or local, is structured around the concept of accountability. To boil accountability down to a simple, “A broke B’s window, so A must pay B for the damages,” does not begin to capture the complete meaning of the word nor does it fully explain what it means to be accountable.

In my former job as an auditor, I acted as part of an accountability system. We performed all manner of audits including financial, operational and performance-type audits. We often identified and issued findings of an administrative, programmatic or financial nature. At times the findings escalated into referrals to law enforcement because of the suspicion of fraud or other illegal acts. Public officials were held to account for their actions and decisions. Accountability does not necessarily involve the consequences of being accountable. The consequences, which might include criminal prosecutions or financial restitution, are determined through the same system of laws I mentioned earlier. We can know what happened, why it happened and how it happened without consideration being given to the consequences associated with the outcomes of public official decisions and actions.

That brings me back to Red’s exchange with the parole board in Shawshank. After the board chair attempts to explain rehabilitation, Red cuts him off. “I know what you think it means, sonny. To me, it’s just a made-up word. A politician’s word, so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie and have a job. What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?”

Is there real accountability in the public sector? Yes, there is real accountability. However, those that wish to narrowly define the language can make their argument and have it come across as compelling— but that is only because they ignored the deeper meaning of the concept underlying the word. Oh, and yes, Red was sorry for what he did, but is unable to do anything about it because he can not go back and undo the foolish thing he did. As he often said, he was the only guilty man in Shawshank.


Author: Carl J. Gabrini is Assistant Professor of Accounting at the Wright School of Business, Dalton State College and earned a PhD in Public Administration at Florida State University. Email address [email protected].

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