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Making Accountability Actionable

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

By Michael R. Ford
January 20, 2020

The shocking insurrection at the United States’ Capitol building spurred calls to hold President Trump, and the mob he incited, accountable for their actions. In the days that followed there was talk of and (eventually a vote for) impeachment, invoking the 25th amendment, arrests for those who participated and a variety of other suggestions on how to hold the president to account. The desire for accountability after such an event is widespread. Who is opposed to holding actors accountable for malfeasance or failure? However, the specifics of accountability are more complicated.

Accountability, like many prominent concepts in Public Administration (PA) (e.g. performance, representation, failure), is ambiguous and often contested. The most influential academic article on accountability, authored by Barbara Romzek and Melvin Dubnick, explains how accountability can be viewed through a legal, political, bureaucratic or professional lens, and details how those lenses often overlap. While this framework has served to advance theory, and help explain the nature of accountability after the fact, it falls short in aiding practice. As Romzek pointed out in 2014:

[W]e need to find ways to translate our findings into knowledge that is accessible and useful to the broader public, and especially the electorate. Too often, we stop our education at the doors of our classrooms or the pages of academic journals.

A discussion regarding the accessibility of academic research to practitioners is for another day, but the question of usefulness is directly relevant to making accountability an actionable concept rather than a buzzword. As we are seeing in Washington D.C., as I type this, the lack of agreement on the meaning of accountability ensures that, in the end, accountability will not be truly accomplished. However, as the Trump administration ends—be it with resignation, a transfer of power, the 25th amendment, impeachment and removal and whatever the aftermath, be it legal action or something else—many will feel Trump was not held accountable for his actions. Because of this, it will be hard to fully move on from the unrest created by Trump, and difficult to chart a course that prevents future malfeasance from others.

The United States Capitol insurrection is an extreme example. Most calls for accountability in government are localized, and deal with some type of policy or implementation failure, not an attempt to subvert democracy. But even the smallest issue for which the public demands accountability cannot be addressed if we do not agree on what accountability means. In my own research, I have taken to asking local government officials to define accountability in their own words. I have found that their approach to accountability does not fit neatly into the theoretical frameworks used in PA research. In addition, there is widespread disagreement regarding the nature of accountability. The disagreement is troublesome given I also found performance gains when there was agreement regarding accountability within a governing board.

It is possible that accountability is simply not an objective concept. Perhaps attempts to advance theories of accountability can never reach a satisfying conclusion because no such conclusion exists. I personally think our field has not dedicated enough attention to descriptive analyses of public sector accountability. The meaning of accountability in practice, in my opinion, is a function of how those who actually engaged in the practice of accountability define it.

Making accountability actionable first requires understanding how elected officials, bureaucrats and voters define accountability. Of course, there will be differing opinions of what accountability means, so context-specific definitions of accountability are needed. For example, in my work on accountability on school boards, I ask elected officials how they define accountability in regards to student outcomes. Specificity is important. The second step is determining the extent to which the collective voices of accountability in a specific context agree or disagree on the meaning of the concept. To again return to the case of Donald Trump, the specific means of accountability are less important for holding Trump accountable than agreement among a majority on those specific means. Without agreement, true accountability is impossible.

Perhaps it is too late and accountability has devolved into another weaponized buzzword without useful meaning. In that case, it is worth shifting PA research away from accountability in general, and towards more micro-level concepts that are used as modes of accountability. But given the prominence of the concept in the public discourse, I think it wiser to embrace more case studies and survey work. Such an approach can create context-specific direction to those who are actually engaged in holding actors accountable for official malfeasance and policy failures.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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