What is Accountability? No, seriously!

We pretty much all accept without question that transparency enables accountability, but have you ever wondered how this happens? How is it that making information available just sort of magically transforms into the ability to hold your government accountable? Well, we’re here to answer these questions – first by clarifying that government accountability really comes down to two things: 1) if a government is responsive to its citizens and 2) if they will enforce the law when shenanigans are discovered; and second, by pointing out that accountability can be implemented either internally by the government itself or imposed externally by the public.

So technically speaking, accountability requires both answerability and enforcement. The first one means that your government will respond to concerns that you raise about how it operates or something specific it has done, conduct investigations if appropriate, and then let you know what happened and why. As an example, if your local mayor always awards contracts to the same company, you may be concerned that she is showing favoritism or even receiving kickbacks or bribes from this company. If you raise these allegations with your government and they respond by investigating the situation and letting you know what they find, then they are being answerable to you. They should provide you with sufficient evidence to show that your mayor was justified in making the decision that she made. If they discover on the other hand that her brother runs the company and that it is a pure case of nepotism, that’s when enforcement comes in.

Whenever corruption or misconduct is uncovered inside government, it is not sufficient just to acknowledge that it happened. This alone would be just answerability and not rise to the level of accountability. To be accountable, a government must also have enforcement mechanisms in place that ensure that the wrong can be made right. In the example above, your city may have a law in place so that the mayor will automatically be removed from office if it is proven that she engaged in nepotism – or it may be necessary for the citizens to impeach her. Both of these count as enforcement mechanisms, which give accountability its teeth!

As was just alluded to, accountability can happen both internally and externally. This is true for the enforcement part of the mechanism as described above but more interestingly, it also true for the way wrongdoing is discovered in the first place. The internal part relates to the structure of the government itself, for example the checks and balances built in to the three branches of government or the role of the independent inspectors general inside a specific agency. It is the responsibility of these structures to ensure that the laws, policies, rules, and regulations that guide government are followed consistently and without exception.

External accountability however relates to how the public may discover wrongdoing and put pressure on the government to do something about it. Understanding that transparency provides access to the information, it requires a journalist, researcher, advocate, technologist, or other civic minded citizen (like you) to analyze the information and find something suspicious. Armed with this knowledge, you can let others know about it. This may seem overly simple, but it is this ability to create publicity that is the bridge between transparency and accountability. This is why a free press is considered so important in the functioning of a democratic government. Without the ability to inform lots of other citizens and get them engaged in pressuring the government to do something about it, there is no other way to hold the government accountable!

If you are concerned about the apparent nepotism of your local mayor and your government is slow to respond or seems unwilling to do anything about it, then it is up to you to make the case to your fellow citizens any way that works for you: give speeches, put it online in relevant forums or blogs, tell your story to newspapers, tv, and radio stations. When enough people get the message and start calling the mayor’s office to complain, they will respond — and if not, there is probably an election coming up soon or a way to impeach her.

An accountable government is a better government. It shares power with you and ensures that no one person is able to take advantage of the system. Accountability increases trust and confidence while reducing cynicism and suspicion. When inefficiency, corruption, or wrongdoing are uncovered, citizens know their government will take care of it — and if it doesn’t, citizens living under an open government have the freedom to put public pressure on it to take care of the problem. Accountability ensures that the ultimate responsibility for government lies with the citizens, and empowers them to use it.

Additional Info

For a more in-depth discussion of the connection between transparency and accountability, see Transparency, Publicity, Accountability – The missing links by Daniel Naurin, The Uncertain Relationship Between Open Data and Accountability by Tiago Peixoto, and this World Bank resource, Accountability in Governance.

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