If we see something going on that worries us, such as elected
governing bodies intending to benefit groups having influence
the rest of us dont have, what do we tend to do? We either
tend to duck the issue, hoping others will deal with it, or simply
"awfulize," as Dr. Ursula Franklin puts it. Or we tend
to fight, by organizing protest or through writing awareness-building
articles or books. If it is a major decision we think is imminent,
we may fight by organizing lobbying groups in opposition, sending
letters or petitions to officials or marching with placards.
Letters of protest are often unanswered, or answered with fog
intended to placate. On a safety issue we may call for "better
regulations," only to see politicians and civil servants
fail to go to the bone and fail to install in the regulations
the obligation of the regulators to answer publicly for compliance
We don't protect whistleblowers acting in the public interest
who, seeing wrongdoing and no answering by the accountable, supply
the needed public answering themselves to bring to light harmful
goings-on. They then get savaged while citizens stand by as unconcerned
onlookers. Politicians tend only to deplore what they see or chorus,
"Let's put it behind us." And we let them. We fail to
ensure that learning is gained and applied.
No one is actually held to account, that is to say, made to answer.
The accountable, naturally enough, never suggest anything disturbing
their comfort zones, and even those whose job it is to hold to
account or formally observe on the adequacy of the answering,
tend to work within their own familiar and comfortable processes.
We are overwhelmed with media messages and lobbying of all kinds,
but we get no public statements summing up fairness trade-offs
and telling us who is accountable to whom, for what. Without adequate
answering, we have to come from behind and fight on uneven playing
We cant prevent harm in society if we dont know the
intentions of authorities before they act to do something, legislate
something or authorize some entity to do something not in the
public interest. When we know the outcomes they intend, for whom
and why, and we know their performance standards that clarify
their intentions, we can act to commend, alter or stop the intentions.
After the fact, if we know the results of authorities actions
and the learning gained by the authorities and how they applied
it, and if what authorities report on this is validated, we know
better how much trust to place in them in the future. Without
public trust in our institutions, society doesnt work properly.
The requirement to answer exerts a self-regulating effect on
authorities. For example, if we ourselves have responsibilities
that affect the public in important ways, none of us would want
to state publicly an intention and an achievement objective so
easy to meet that stating it would make us a laughing stock. And
if asked to state our performance standards, we will want to state
respectable ones and later be able to say we met them. If we dont
achieve what we said we would, but claim we have, we can be publicly
found out -- by alert public interest groups or by independent
professional audit. Public answering thus works as a self-regulating
influence because public face is important in all cultures.
Moreover, holding authorities to account doesn't tell people
what to do. Holding to account doesnt tell decision-makers
what action to take or what to stop doing. Accountability is politically
neutral. The answering obligation simply requires them to explain
what they want to bring about, for whom, and their reasoning,
and what resulted from what they did or authorized. If authorities
are to do their jobs properly, they will know their intentions,
for whom, and their reasoning, which is to say who would benefit
and would bear what costs and risks from what they intend. What
they know, they can report.