Principles of Accountability
The Citizens Guide proposes the followong principles
of accountability that were first outlined by the Ottawa-based
Alliance for Public Accountability in 1998-99:
Twelve Principles of Accountability
Holding to account gives us greater control over what authorities
do that affects us. If we want adequate public answering to help
ensure fairness, we need to agree on standards for the answering,
but these standards should be based on a set of organizing principles
of accountability. General principles are the basis for specific
answering standards for different types of responsibilities of
concern to different groups of people -- for example, health,
education, social justice and the environment.
We already have conventions to guide public reporting of corporate
and government financial results. Formalized financial reporting
has been the norm for over a hundred years. Accountants and auditors
call the reporting conventions generally accepted accounting principles.
Their purpose is to limit management whim in the reporting of
financial results. But in matters of fairness, we have yet to
introduce principles for the answering obligation.
For example, in the corporate world, current law instructs corporation
directors only to act "with a view to the interests of the
corporation." This isnt necessarily the same thing
as acting in the public interest. The issue of patented genetically
engineered foods is a case in point. In answering, the law asks
directors to publicly report only financial information. So we
need to forge principles and standards for answering for the fairness
of authorities intentions.
From the examples in the previous chapters of what can stem from
the lack of public answering, the following 12 principles of accountability
and of holding to account suggest themselves. Principles are written
as principles, not exhortations. Therefore they dont take
the form of "Authorities should..." which is only an
The public accountability principle
Every responsibility that affects the public in important
ways carries with it the obligation to answer publicly for the
discharge of the responsibility.
It makes no sense to assign important responsibilities to authorities
and then allow them to act without attaching the self-regulating
influence of answering to the public. Without answering, we are
left with only fighting to stop something and/or blaming after
the fact. We have no evidence to suggest that authorities will
answer adequately on their own initiative. The obligation to answer
is simply an obligation in fairness -- one that is reasonable
With institutional deception already pervasive, we cant
expect people in authority but having no answering obligation
to put the public interest before their own wants. If we are lucky
they do. Nor can we expect subordinates to refuse to go along
with their superiors self-serving intentions.
The precautionary principle
We apply to authorities intentions in all responsibility
areas the precautionary principle we apply in safety and environmental
That is, we require authorities to demonstrate, through validated
public answering, that what they intend will not lead to harm
or unfairness. We do not allow authorities to make citizens prove
that the authorities intentions are harmful or unfair. Authorities
have the added responsibility to show why an intention significantly
affecting the public is really needed: that it satisfies public
needs and not just certain peoples wants.
The principle of coherence in assigned powers, duties and accountabilities
Public answering obligations attach to each power and duty
of authorities, in sufficient rigour to tell the public whether
the powers and duties are being discharged in the public interest.
Powers, duties and answering must be in balance. It is not good
enough to legislate powers and duties for governing bodies without
adding the answering requirement. By the same token, duty is empty
without the authority to carry it out, and it is unfair to hold
a governing body responsible for something that is beyond its
power to control.
The principle of identifying the directing mind
To make accountability effective, those holding to account
identify the directing minds answerable for what a government,
corporation or other organization intends to do, actually does
or fails to do.
Holding fairly to account will succeed only if citizens hold
to account the real directing minds: those who determine the intentions
and actions that are the subject of concern. The blood contamination,
Westray mine and Herald of Free Enterprise cases described
in Chapter 1 of the Citizen's Guide illustrate the tendency of
examiners to limit blame to levels below the directing minds.
If we hold to account only those at lower levels and fail to deal
with the persons ultimately responsible for the intentions and
needed control, we should not expect improved safety, fairness
The principle of self-informing duty
People in authority whose responsibilities affect the public
in important ways inform themselves for their decision-making
to a self-informing standard that citizens have the right to see
Self-informing implies that authorities will know reasonably
well what information they need for their duties and obtain it
and, to the extent called for, will validate the information they
get. They will not simply use whatever information is given to
them. The self-informing principle implies, "No self-informing
to a standard reasonable in the circumstances, no decision taken."
The principle of answering for precautions taken
For the responsibilities they control, authorities answer
publicly for the extent to which they apply the precautionary
principle in their own decision-making.
This includes answering for obtaining reasonable assurance that
it is safe or fair to proceed before proceeding, and for what
precautionary action they took if the assurance of safety or fairness
is uncertain. The principle implies that authorities dont
make citizens take risks that are feasible to avoid.
The principle of intentions disclosure
People in authority who intend action that would affect the
public in important ways state publicly the outcomes they wish
to bring about, for whom, and why they think the outcomes they
intend are desirable and fair. They also state their own performance
standards and the standards for those whom they direct, which
clarify their outcome intentions.
Without full and fair answering before the fact, citizens have
no way of knowing whether they should commend, alter or stop authorities
intentions. The Equity Statement
explained in Chapter 5 of the Citizen's Guide structures
public answering for intentions and reasoning.
The principle of corporate answering for fairness
The directing minds of corporations answer publicly for the
extent to which they serve the public interest as well as the
interests of the corporations management, owners and investors.
It is reasonable that corporate boards of directors publicly
explain how they are serving the public interest when their intentions
for corporate action could reasonably be deemed to affect the
public in important ways in safety, health, social justice or
in environmental impact. It is also reasonable that those responsible
for governing and for regulating corporations publicly report
the extent to which their supervision meets the intent of the
The principle of performance disclosure
Authorities disclose their achievements or lack of achievement
through adequate public answering, which is given by those responsible
for the achievement objectives, performance standards and actual
It is reasonable to expect people in authority to report promptly
the results of their actions, why results were not as intended
if that is the case, the learning they gained and how they applied
it. Performance reporting reflects what is fairly within the control
of those accountable and includes reporting how external constraints
are being coped with.
The principle of answering by those responsible
Those with the responsibilities give the answering, not someone
else such as subordinates or external examiners -- auditors, inspectors,
inquiry commissioners, ombudsmen or others.
It is reasonable to expect the directing minds themselves to
account for their responsibilities. External examiners stand outside
the accountability relationship. It is not acceptable that the
directing minds leave the answering obligation to subordinates
-- as when government ministers dont themselves account
to parliamentary committees for their control responsibilities.
Those directing minds responsible for holding others to account
answer for their knowledge and supervision of those others
The principle of validation of answering
Important answering for intentions and reasoning, and for
results and learning, is validated by knowledgeable public interest
organizations or professional practitioners, or both.
In the case of corporate financial reporting, external auditors
attest to the fairness and completeness of the corporations
financial reporting. This is simply the precautionary principle
applied in business affairs. If the business community does not
accept corporate financial reporting without validation, it follows
that citizens should not accept on faith the fairness and completeness
of reporting by directing minds of institutions for intended and
actual performance that significantly affects the public.
The principle of the wages of abdication
To the extent that citizens abdicate their responsibility
to install public answering standards and hold fairly to account,
they give tacit approval to the abuse of power and they reduce
their civic competence.
The idea of citizen duty is not prominent today, in part because
of the erosion of standards in society that has led to mushrooming
institutional deception and media conversion of virtually all
information for citizens into entertainment. Yet it is surprising
how many people know the cartoon character Pogos "We
have met the enemy, and he is us." The realization must have
The accountability principles proposed here are to help citizens
decide whether the public answering obligation makes good sense
and to decide whether they will take action to help install it
for all authorities.