The meaning of public accountability argued in the Citizen's
Guide is based on the definition of accountability given in
the 1975 Report of the Independent Review Committee on the Office
of the Auditor General of Canada (Wilson Committee):
"Accountability in its simplest terms is the obligation
to answer for a responsibility that has been conferred."
The Committee's chairman, JRM Wilson, FCA, was intellectually
rigorous and Canada's most respected chartered accountant. In
the business world, for example, the whole point of more than
100 years of audited public financial reporting is that it isn't
good enough to assign responsibility, hope people will accept
it and be diligent, and then police conduct. And it is unrealistic
to rely on self-regulation, however policed, without having those
with the responsibilities themselves report on the discharge of
their responsibilities and without having their reporting reliably
and publicly validated. The Enrons showed this, but the US legislative
and SEC responses have not included statutory public answering
obligations (see the article on the SEC and US accounting profession
in this Journal).
The problem is that writers have tended to attach "accountability"
as a label for whatever they want to see people do or not do.
The usefulness of the Wilson definition is that it distinguishes
the answering obligation, which is a reporting obligation, from
responsibility, which is the obligation to act. If responsibility
or the acceptance of it is treated as synonymous with accountability,
the emphasis will tend to be placed on people's responsibilities
rather than their obligation to answer publicly, as a self-regulating
Chapter 2 of the Citizen's Guide and this web site explains
that without a clear public reporting requirement we won't get
the reporting, and without the reporting we lose the self-regulating
effect of accountable people in authority having to publicly state
their intentions, reasons and performance and have their assertions
publicly validated for their fairness and completeness (i.e.,
checked for lying, in the sense of any intentionally deceptive
message that is stated). So here is a case where a difference
in definition makes an important difference in whether citizens
are likely to use the powerful lever of exacting validated answering
Thus, to be useful in society, accountability must not mean
taking action to do something, such as compliance with a directive,
or the taking-on of responsibilities. But full and fair public
answering can show that a responsibility has been genuinely taken
on. Nor can accountability be defined as "a relationship
where...", because a relationship is not an obligation. Talking
about accountability as something other than a reporting and explaining
obligation plays into the hands of authorities who wish to cloud
their responsibilities and to avoid having to say publicly what
they think their responsibilities are and whether they think they
have met them.
A mid-1990s literature review of notions of accountability by
the Canadian Comprehensive Auditing Foundation showed that people's
definitions of accountability were all over the map. That is still
As cited in the Citizen's Guide, UK public sector researchers
Patricia Day and Rudolf Klein stated in 1987, in Accountabilities:
Five Public Services:
"It is a tradition of political thought which sees the
defining characteristic of democracy as stemming not merely from
the election of those who are given delegated power to run society's
affairs ... but from their continuing obligation to explain and
justify their conduct in public."
University of Toronto professor Philip Stenning, editor of Accountability
for Criminal Justice: Selected Essays (1995), states at the outset
that accountability is the idea that "people, governments
and business should be held publicly answerable." Stenning
cites and supports the Concise Oxford Dictionary's definition
of accountability as being liable or bound to give an account.
But he notes that some scholars have taken accountability instead
to mean the ability to give an account, which doesn't mean the
obligation to report.
Another example is the web site of the Voluntary Sector Knowledge
Network (www.vskn.ca). It states,as at March 2003:
"More and more these days nonprofit organizations are being
asked to show that the work they do 'makes a difference' -- that
they are achieving the mission for which they were created. When
they do this, they are said to be accountable."
Apart from possible minor confusion from VSKN equating doing
something with showing something, their notion gets it right:
to "show" something will imply reporting something.
Not helpful is the 1999 Report of the Panel on Accountability
and Governance in the Voluntary Sector (Broadbent report), which
defined accountability as follows:
"Accountability is the requirement to explain and accept
responsibility for carrying out an assigned mandate in light of
agreed upon expectations."
The requirement to explain is accountability, but accepting
responsibility has nothing conceptually to do with an answering
obligation. Moreover, "assigned mandate" sounds as if
it is directed to employee management. There is still the question
of dealing with the public accountability of those overseeing
the assigning and agreeing. A nonprofit organization board of
directors and/or its members can be said to do the assigning,
but who then has the management control responsibility (and the
attaching public accountability for diligence in control) to see
that the decided mandate will produce fairness in the organization's
impact on citizens? That is the only problem with the 1975 Wilson
definition: limiting answering to responsibilities "conferred"
doesn't include accountability for people's actions affecting
the public in important ways that lie outside what has been formally
conferred. But Wilson was dealing with government-to-Parliament
accountability based on statutes.
The Panel did not explain why it abandoned its earlier 1998
Discussion Paper definition of accountability (for which it had
the Wilson definition) that stated:
"Accountability is the obligation to explain how a responsibility
for an assigned mandate has been discharged".
The Panel's earlier definition did not muddle concepts.
University of Toronto professor Janice Gross Stein, in her 2001
Massey Lectures, "The Cult of Efficiency," uses the
word "accountability" nearly a dozen times in the first
10 pages but did not define what she meant . And what one can
infer as her meaning with each mention of "accountability"
produces no consistent conceptual pattern. Yet one would think
that the early training of professors would require them always
to define their terms at the outset if they expect readers to
And JRM Wilson would not have condoned the accommodation and
lack of rigour in the definition of accountability in the public
sector offered by the Auditor General of Canada to the Canadian
Parliament in December 2002, in the "Main points" section
of a 20-page report on accountability. The Auditor General is
the intellectual bodyguard for Parliament in matters of accountability:
"Accountability is a relationship based on obligations
to demonstrate, review, and take responsibility for performance,
both the results achieved in light of agreed expectations and
the means used"
The assertion that accountability is a "relationship based
on" X, Y and Z appears at odds with the assertion by Day
and Klein and Wilson that accountability is an obligation to answer.
Saying that something is a relationship doesn't say what it actually
is, although text following the definition talks about
reporting performance. The text of the AG's report cannot be expected
to imply a definition if the formal asserted definition is not
rigorous. (This is like an auditor describing the scope of an
audit as, "We looked at..." rather than saying what
the auditor actually did). There seems to be a word or words missing
from the Auditor General's definition, but nowhere in the definition
does there appear to be a statement clear enough to teach members
of Parliament what accountability really is and guide them
in installing adequate answering government obligations and exacting
the needed answering.
In Section 9.12 of the report the Auditor General asserts: "Accountability
is not a simple concept." In fact, the concept is simple,
as the Day-Klein-Wilson definition suggests, and as the Citizen's
Guide attempts to demonstrate. If anything is complicated,
it is the task of getting citizens and elected representatives
to grasp the power of holding fairly to account to bring about
fairness, and to exact adequate answering from authorities --
to have them "explain and justify their conduct in public."
Rather than being titled, "Modernizing Accountability in
the Public Sector," (which suggests that there has been meaningful
accountability but it just needs "modernizing"), the
study would have been better scoped as, "Installing Adequate
Answering By the Government of Canada."
In the media, there are dozens of examples of writers implying
or stating what accountability is and being unhelpful. The result
is a citizenry thus far being given no clear and useful definition
of public accountability. Hence the Guide and this web
site. The result of laying fog over the concept of accountability
is citizens not knowing how to hold to account, and the result
of that is continuing needless harm in society.
The first article for this second edition of the Journal deals
with public financial reporting by corporations and external auditors.
It is is a July 2002 set of proposals by CCA Convenors Dr. Ernest
Pavlock and Henry McCandless for the U.S. Securities and Exchange
Commission. Following the Enron and WorldCom disgraces, the Commission
invited views from the public on what should be done to prevent
future similar occurrences. Dr. Pavlock also sent the CCA proposals
to Senator Paul Sarbanes, Congressman Michael Oxley and congressional
leaders. The Pavlock-McCandless proposals are not likely to be taken
up by the SEC commissioners or congressional oversight bodies because
they would disturb comfort zones. They are unprecedented but are
in no way naive.
The second article is a CCA convenor's recommendation to activist
organizations for increasing their effectiveness.
The following are the speaking notes of Henry McCandless for an
October 2002 workshop of the national "Escalating Peace"
conference on Saltspring Island, BC, organized by three Canadian
women's activist organizations: Canadian Voice of Women for Peace
(VOW), Canadian Peace Alliance (CPA), and Women's International
League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).
The workshop title was "Holding Decision-Makers to Account
for Peace and Democracy: Working Smarter, Not Harder." The
message is that activist organizations should add "disclosure
activism" to their missions.
Workshop notes for the Escalating Peace conference,
Ganges, Saltspring Island, BC, 5 October 2002
Henry E. McCandless, Citizens' Circle for Accountability
I. Overview of Public Accountability
The start of any discussion or inquiry is to know what's going
on. So what is the common denominator in all the horror stories
in society that roll off the assembly lines? Identifiable people
in positions of authority have identifiable responsibilities that
they don't carry out. One of the reasons that they don't do their
duty is that they don't have to answer to anyone for how they
carry out their responsibilities. You won't find this obligation
to answer in Canadian laws, which simply set out people's powers
and duties and sometimes sanctions.
By "authorities" I mean mainly ministers of the Crown
and governing boards of all kinds, such as corporate boards of
directors. Authorities also include municipal councils and Aboriginal
band councils. We can call these people the directing minds for
intentions affecting their publics.
Public accountability is a regulating mechanism in society for
the regular operation of society. Special inquiries and audits
are needed when major harm is done.
The concept. Whenever someone in power or an authoritative
body intends something that affects others in important ways,
they have an obligation in fairness to tell those other people
what they intend and also why they intend it, so that those who
would be significantly affected are reasonably informed and have
a chance to react.
Thus, wherever there is significant responsibility there is
accountability. Whoever is the ultimately responsible directing
mind is also ultimately accountable.
So we can say that public accountability means the obligation
to answer publicly for the discharge of responsibilities that
affect the public in important ways. Responsibility -- the obligation
to act -- is a related but separate obligation.
Holding to account means exacting the public answering needed
for citizens to have, as George Washington put it in 1796, "a
right understanding of matters." It also means validating
important answering given.
The purpose of exacting public answering and validating it is
to give citizens the information they need to better predict what
authorities will do, and therefore to set levels of trust in authorities
that are valid. When we don't trust people in authority, society
doesn't work properly. And if we blindly trust, through denial
or undue deference, we are patsies.
I see activists and activist organizations as central to holding
to account -- in exacting adequate public answering on behalf
of citizens at large. It isn't difficult: it's just a matter of
applying logic and using a simple but rigorous approach.
Accountability doesn't mean simply answering after the fact,
as in corporations' financial statements published after the year-end.
The most important public answering is answering before the fact
-- authorities explaining their intentions and their reasoning
Answering before the fact increases the likelihood of fairness
in authorities' intentions and actions:
First, it exerts a self-regulating influence, so long as the
most important answering is audited for its fairness and completeness.
When made to answer publicly, authorities won't want to say something
that makes them look foolish, and if they lie about their intentions
and reasoning they can be publicly exposed as liars by knowledgeable
groups and organizations.
Our civic failure is that we have simply never asked authorities
to account. And since the answering requirement is only for explanation
and doesn't tell people how to do their jobs, it's an unassailable
requirement in a democracy. As British public service researchers
Day and Klein put it in 1987,
"It is a tradition of political thought which sees the
defining characteristic of democracy as stemming not merely from
the election of those who are given delegated power to run society's
affairs ... but from their continuing obligation to explain and
justify their conduct in public,
Secondly, when intentions and reasoning are reasonably known,
it allows citizens to act, and to act fairly. They can commend
what is proposed, or act to alter it or halt it.
My point about public accountability and activism is that citizens
can act at two stages of goings-on, not just one. Beliefs lead
to attitudes, which lead to intentions, which lead to behaviours.
So, as well as acting at the stage of authorities carrying out
intentions -- the usual activist intervention stage -- we can
act at the stage before that -- the intentions stage.
In the Office of the Auditor General of Canada, whose business
is serving accountability relationships, I had been used to after-the-fact
examination of government departments. So in 1989 I was struck
by the point made by Dr. Ursula Franklin in her Massey Lectures.
It became the basis for my work on public accountability:
"Much clarification can be gained by focusing on language
as an expression of values and priorities. Whenever someone talks
to you about the benefits and costs of a particular project, don't
ask "What benefits?" ask "Whose benefits, and whose
Thus, at the intentions stage, we have to make authorities state
their intentions for outcomes for different people and their reasoning
for their intentions, and then validate what they say. But we
must get their explanations on paper, so we can assess them accurately.
If people in authority won't answer, it is legitimate to hold
their intentions suspect.
At the conduct stage, if authorities' intentions have persisted
because of their power, it's time to fight at the barricades.
But we should hold to account first, so that we
- make use of the self-regulating influence of having to answer
- get a better understanding of authorities' intentions, and
- publicly expose authorities for obstruction of social justice
and abuse of power if they refuse to account to a reasonable
standard of answering.
Fighting at the barricades may halt authorities' actions for
a time, but it won't alter their agendas -- only their strategies
For example, the transnational corporations and their "bought"
executive governments will come back with a clone of the Multilateral
Agreement on Investment (MAI). So this time activist groups should
collaborate to exact the public answering from ministers and those
drafting such documents that explains, for what is proposed, who
would gain, how, and why they should, and who would bear what
costs and risks, and why they should -- both in the short and
Why don't we have adequate public answering for responsibilities?
First, it's not in the law. We didn't install the public answering
requirement in Magna Carta, and we haven't since. Our laws are
full of people's powers and duties, but with some exceptions they
are silent on the answering requirement, as if government opposition
parties in the legislatures suffice in exacting the needed answering
at all levels. And of course they don't.
We need our legislators to put public answering into the law,
- they can be expected to be leery of accountability ultimately
applying to themselves,
- they go along with their legislative assembly rituals as the
means of holding to account, and
- when in government majorities they are obedient to their
ministers, who show no evidence of willingness to account to
a reasonable standard.
Secondly, Canadian citizens have been unduly deferential to
people in authority, and those who haven't been have gone straight
to the fighting stage of lobbying, awareness-building and so on.
In fact it may be less stressful for many to hit the streets
in a placard parade than make an appointment with an elected representative,
sit down across the desk from that person eyeball to eyeball,
ask for an accounting of the person for his or her intentions,
reasons and intended performance standards, and have ready the
right second questions in response to fog given as answering.
Thirdly, at the level of government ministers and their departments
as a whole, as opposed to citizens holding to account individual
elected representatives, it is the activist organizations with
powerful podiums who can demand adequate answering on behalf of
citizens. But thus far they haven't.
The large organizations like Greenpeace, Council of Canadians
and Sierra Club may not yet have considered a holding to account
thrust in their strategies, or they may be content with doing
what they currently do and see no advantage or visibility for
themselves in forcing out regular and adequate government and
corporate public answering for intentions. I view auditing the
fairness and completeness of authorities' public answering as
a challenging adventure. The large activist organizations may
see it as dull.
But we ultimately come to the observation of the cartoon character
Pogo: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." In a TV
interview, Ralph Nader in my view lapsed into euphemism when he
framed the issue of loss of public control as, "Americans
seem to have given up on themselves."
Activists can only lead the horse to water, but we have yet
to see public reaction to a situation where activists say publicly
to authorities, "You agreed that you had the obligation to
account publicly, but what you said are lies, and here's why they
are." Lying isn't as tough to show as we might think if you
accept Sissela Bok's 1978 definition of a lie as "any intentionally
deceptive message that is stated." When forced to face public
lying publicly exposed as such, citizens may finally stop being
patsies and say, "This won't do."
II. Disclosure Activism
Disclosure activism is activism that exacts adequate public disclosure
As I see it, the basic question for activists wishing to alter
future probabilities is, how do we do it more successfully?
You first have to know what's going on, whether it's ozone depletion,
war, arms sales, dysfunctional trade agreements or a general increase
in arrogance in people in authority, worsened by the Pogo syndrome.
To commend, alter or stop an intention you have to know what people
in authority intend.
So how well do we know what authorities intend -- what their
real agendas are? We don't know with assurance, because they don't
tell us. So we infer their intentions, such as in the OECD's MAI.
But then the authorities say, "You're only guessing."
I'm not aware of any organization with a powerful podium saying
to ministers of the Crown and specific corporate boards,
"Wait a minute. In a democracy, you surely have the obligation
in fairness to disclose your intentions and publicly explain your
reasoning, to a reasonable standard of answering, so citizens
can assess the fairness of your intentions and have your assertions
challenged by those who know the issues. Will you give this public
Authorities aren't dumb. They will see the accountability disclosure
net descending over them if they answer publicly, because they
will either have to say something that is apparently praiseworthy
and also stands the light of day , or lie. Lori Wallach of Public
Citizen used the term "Dracula Test" for the MAI --
that is, full and fair exposure would cause the MAI intentions
Authorities may answer, while trying to deceive in their answering.
But if they try to deceive, they can be publicly exposed as liars
by public validation of the fairness and completeness of what
So how would authorities, having a clear obligation to account,
tend to respond?
1. Authorities can simply ignore the demand for answering.
They will count on activists quickly reverting from holding
to account to their normal practice of public awareness-building,
influencing public opinion and hitting the streets. But this
activist response is the building of restraining forces to combat
authorities' driving forces. It doesn't force reduction of the
driving forces: it doesn't cause authorities to alter their
unexposed agenda. Thus relentless powerful driving forces may
2. Authorities can simply decree:
"You haven't been paying attention. Our position has
been well debated" or
"Two-tier medical care will solve our health care problems"
"Free trade agreements best produce economic well-being
in all countries"
They will count on deferential citizens not demanding evidence
but denying reality, like Pogo's citizens, and saying to themselves,
"the people we put in top authority surely know what they
are doing, and in any case activists just seem to rant."
3. If these first two responses won't do the trick, authorities
can try the deceptive answering approach. They will assume that
citizens will continue to be patsies, and that no knowledgeable
organization with a powerful podium will invest the time in
auditing what they say and getting the public to see and not
countenance the deception as deception.
What's missing from people's attempts to bring about fairness
is the application of simple logic under the precautionary principle
applied to the intentions of people in authority.
It is to have the accountable themselves publicly justify their
intentions or show how someone else's proposal for fairness is
wrong. Authorities duck their answering obligation through what
I call "reverse onus" -- making citizens prove that
what authorities intend will lead to harm. If you think about
it, authorities practice the opposite of the precautionary principle.
Validating public answering given helps cause harmful intentions
To hold to account, activist organizations can use a simple
yet rigorous process to force authorities to publicly disclose
their real intentions and why they have those intentions:
As a group, identify the responsibilities of greatest concern
and who in common sense has those responsibilities. This can be
done around a kitchen table.
Responsibilities that are fairly those of our governments lie
with identifiable ministers. They can't pass them off to "agencies".
Responsibilities of corporations lie not with CEOs, but with the
boards of directors. Since ultimate responsibilities lie with
those we can call the directing minds, it is they who have to
The process of identifying responsibilities, as if drafting
a job description, involves reasonable understanding of factors
such as the extent to which upholding the precautionary principle
is part of a responsibility, and having a fairly good idea of
the nature of external constraints that those with responsibilities
can or cannot control. The responsibilities in question and those
who have them should be sensibly ranked.
Identify reasonable performance standards for the persons with
Discharging a particular responsibility will require certain
key actions that can be called critical success factors, such
as the accountable person reasonably informing himself or herself
to carry out their responsibilities diligently. Examples of self-informing
by directing minds include a minister knowing his or statutory
duties, and ensuring genuine public consultation. Another important
performance standard is effective management control -- meaning
that those with the responsibilities have a duty to engage the
processes and structures that ensure that what should happen does,
and what should not happen doesn't happen.
Step 3. (Still at the kitchen table)
For the responsibilities of greatest concern, set down the public
answering that you think citizens have the right to be given by
the identified directing minds.
For example, those having the responsibilities have a fairness
obligation to tell the public:
- what they see as their legal and statutory responsibilities
- for the specific responsibilities, what they intend, for whom;
who would benefit, and how; who would bear what costs and risks;
and why they think their intentions are fair
- what their own performance standards are for their responsibilities
- the extent to which they think they are meeting their own
- what they think the outcomes have been for people affected
by their actions
- what they learned from their effort and how they applied their
Immediately, authorities will say that this is far too much
to expect. The response is that any authority concerned with doing
their job properly has to have this information already. And what
they know, they can report. It is as simple as that.
Switch from supplication ("We urge you to...") to
reasonable expectation. Write "We think it reasonable to
expect..." letters to the directing minds having the responsibilities
you have identified.
From the first three steps, set out what you see as their most
important responsibilities and key performance standards for the
issues of concern, and the public answering for their responsibilities
that you think citizens have the right to be given.
Then ask them to tell you whether your view of their responsibilities,
performance standards and public accountability is reasonable
and, if they think it isn't, to tell you what they see as their
responsibilities, performance standards and public answering obligations.
If you get fog as an answer from Step 4, publicize both your
letter and the authorities' response, showing why the response
is fog so citizens can see the evasion. If you get no answer,
publicize your letter and tell citizens you were refused a response
and why your request for response is reasonable, e.g.,
"In a democracy, citizens need reasonable information to
make the decisions they have to make as citizens. We therefore
think it reasonable that Minister X (or governing body Y) respond
to our legitimate public answering request. Moreover, since Minister
X (or governing body Y) has to have this information in any case
to do their job properly, what they know, they can report."
A refusal to answer or a fog response can be deemed arrogance,
and can be publicly labelled as such and a danger.
Seemingly diligent responses need to be carefully examined --
audited for their fairness and completeness -- while bearing in
mind that the answering expectation is new and that accountable
people aren't used to answering for more than financial results.
Responses that pass citizen inspection should be publicized, because
accountable people will start to adopt what become evident as
Successive public challenge rounds can be expected to cause
changes in "equity statements" of intentions (Step 3),
eventually producing a more accurate picture of who intends what
for whom, and why. Then the public can judge the fairness of authorities'
intentions for themselves. But the public can't judge what isn't
disclosed and validated.
If authorities won't answer, even after their refusal is publicized,
activist organizations are free to report to the public what they
are forced to infer as the authorities' responsibilities, intentions,
reasoning and performance in their responsibilities. The activists'
reports will likely prevail in the public mind. We can call these
citizen audit reports.
And here we come to the matter of "climate of opinion."
If enough activist organizations cohesively take these steps and
publicize refusals to answer and foggy responses from those with
the responsibilities, and report their own audit conclusions (so
long as they have been fair in their assessments), the general
public will start to notice, not just the apparent 30% of the
population that gets involved in some way in civic or civil society
Given public attention, a climate of opinion will form that
will force public answering. Legislators will have to enact public
accountability laws that legislate the obligation to account and
the minimum answering standards to be met. Once the answering
obligation is in the law, auditors general in the legislatures
and the Connie Fogals in the courts can deal with non-compliance
with the disclosure laws. Breaking a law is serious.
This will require the cooperation of journalists to publicize
the patterns of answering from authorities that the activist organizations
supply to the media. But if journalists show no interest, activists
can ask the Canadian Association of Journalists to publicly account
for its stance on something so basic to achieving an informed
The reason I think that holding publicly to account will help
cause self-destruction of intentions against the public interest
is that, first, authorities have never been asked to account.
Therefore they have no experience in stonewalling rigorous and
legitimate answering demands. Secondly, the obligation to publicly
account, whether in a democracy or any other system, is unassailable.
But we must ultimately return to the crux -- the Pogo issue.
Will citizens simply yawn at the proposition that authorities
should answer adequately, even if shown what it can accomplish?
Would citizens support activists working to exact answering as
well as sounding alarms? And would citizens still yawn if actually
given better disclosure of authorities' intentions and reasoning?
Is public accountability something that can only be brought about
by teaching it in the schools and waiting for new generations
to install it, while enduring the needless harm in the world that
will happen in the meantime?
My own prediction is that if activist organizations would get
together worldwide and do an effective job in holding to account
for the responsibilities involved in major safety, health, social
justice and environmental issues, citizens across the planet would
grasp and respect its usefulness and demand it. When that happens,
those elected representatives and governing bodies who publicly
account to a reasonable standard will start experiencing longer
tenure in office, while those who won't account won't last in