When the actions or inaction of an authority cause us major concern,
common sense will tell us who has what responsibilities. Those
responsibilities will suggest the public answering that the authority
should be giving for its intentions, performance standards and
results. For every important responsibility there is accountability.
Since the actual public answering by an authority is there for
all to see, we can decide whether its adequate to tell us
whats going on, and we can validate it. If the authoritys
answering doesnt tell us whats going on, the precautionary
principle tells us to try to see for ourselves what the authority
is doing or not doing, and why. We will often find that the usual
professional or regulator audits being done are not addressing
what we are concerned about. The available evidence will tell
us what the authoritys apparent performance is for its responsibilities
and what its current answering is. This will suggest the public
answering we need from the authority.
We can call this approach citizen audit. It is a systematic way
of publicly identifying the responsibilities of an authoritys
directing minds, their apparent performance and the adequacy of
their public reporting, so as to force better public answering
from them. Citizen audit is based on the proposition that citizens
can learn and assess enough about an authoritys performance
and answering to support a public invitation to its directing
minds to produce adequate answering. It can be used for any body
called an authority, whether its an agency of government,
a corporate board or an institution or organization of any kind.
Citizen audit would be more systematic and in-depth than journalists
inquiries because journalists have only limited time to cover
any one issue and they dont use an audit structure. But
the work of journalists is critical to citizen audit information-gathering.
Citizen audit uses the standard concept of audit, which is the
assessment of reporting or observed performance against a standard
or criterion and the reporting of the assessment to someone.
Professional audit produces an opinion at a professional level
of rigour --for example, whether financial statements are fair
and complete. The idea is that people can rely on the validity
of the audit opinion and act on it. For their audits, professional
auditors have access to information not available to the public.
Citizen audit is not at the level of rigour of professional audit.
It assesses observed performance and answering based mainly on
information available to the public. It is more like the preliminary
review stage in a professional audit that identifies risk areas
that should be examined in the audit. It is also similar to a
parliamentary committees work assessing a ministrys
performance. It requires only common sense and fairness, but it
must close the accountability escape hatches.
The purpose of citizen audit is to produce enough evidence about
an authoritys responsibilities to show what its governing
body should be reporting fully and fairly to the public about
those responsibilities. If critics say that audit can only be
done by professional auditors, it is saying that citizens are
not entitled to a right understanding of matters. The purpose
is not to authoritatively "find" against an authority
that is the subject of the audit, as professional performance
audit or a court would. There is no intent of malice in a citizen
audit, but there is no deference or euphemism either.
If an authority doesnt think the citizen audits assessment
has got it right, it will usually be because the authority hasnt
adequately accounted for its responsibilities. What the authority
does report is of course there for all to see. But failure to
answer forces citizens to draw inferences from the evidence available.
Citizen audit simply suggests a picture that has to be confirmed.
If the available evidence used for citizen audit is incomplete,
the authorities need only account -- validly -- to set the picture
straight. With no answering from authorities, and no audit, we
will never get the real picture of what they are deciding in their
offices and boardrooms. It is obviously insupportable for authorities
to claim that the only allowable audit on the planet is narrow-scope
professional audit. Sensible citizens can do citizen audits, just
as sensible citizens can serve on juries. If citizen audits appear
damning, rigorous audit evidence is apt to show a worse picture.
Citizen audit reports can show our ultimate regulating bodies
-- the legislatures -- what any authoritys public answering
should be. And if the governing political party in the legislature
likes things the way they are, citizen audit can then focus on
them and their ministers.
The main steps of citizen audit are:
- When a responsibility area of concern arises, we determine
who is reasonably responsible for what, in the public interest
- We see what the public answering is from the responsible
authorities, to assess how much we have to find out about the
- We keep a running inventory of press clippings, statements
on radio and TV and articles in magazines and journals on the
responsibilities. When we put these together, we will likely
see pattern emerging that may not be discernible from single
news items taken one at a time
- We connect with people who can supply valid letters, minutes,
transcripts and documents shedding light on who is doing what
or failing to do what
- From the information we have, and from inside information
that would withstand challenge, we set out publicly
- who we think has what reasonable responsibilities
- the apparent performance of those with the responsibilities
- who should answer publicly, and for what
- how the answering should be validated
Appendix 2 of the Citizens Guide is an example of
a citizen audit report by the Alliance for Public Accountability,
condensed from the full audit report which was more rigorous than
most such audits would be. It deals with the responsibilities
and public accountabilities of two prominent institutions, the
University of Toronto and its research hospital, the Hospital
for Sick Children, in the Apotex affair. This is the well-known
case (but only one of many such cases) of a drug company intimidating
a research doctor of stature who produced research evidence on
one of the companys drugs that the company didnt want
The Appendix shows the basic approach in citizen audit. With
practice, the audit should normally be reportable in about 20
pages or less, with a back-up briefing binder to support the report.
The logical groups to do citizen audits are issue-based public
interest organizations and activist groups, large labour organizations
or groups specifically formed to bring about adequate public answering
for particular responsibilities. Once an organization has done
a citizen audit or two, it can help "train the trainers."
Public interest organizations can use citizen audits to demand
from authorities the public answering that, when validated, helps
to disclose authorities intentions. For their part, unions
can do the same for authorities assertions of their performance
standards and their actual performance for workplace safety, health
care and equity. In other words, when there is no answering by
authorities, unions and others can become direct auditors of performance,
using the citizen audit approach. They would report their audits
to the public. They have an advantage in that their access to
information will likely be greater than an ad hoc citizen group
formed to try to cope with a concern.
To sum up, we must now apply the precautionary principle to all
major responsibilities of authorities. Getting adequate answering
from authorities before the fact is necessary if we want to prevent
harm. And if authorities wont answer, we must relentlessly
and publicly lay out their responsibilities, apparent performance
and answering inadequacies through means such as citizen audits,
until they are hurting so much that they decide to account to
a standard, or are made to by legislators feeling the heat.