Rethinking Transparency And Accountability: Part 2
As with transparency, accountability is championed in government settings. Government officials and employees must be accountable to the public for the decisions they make and the money they spend, but what is really meant by accountability, and how should we think about it in a local government context?
The best description of accountability that I have found is: “An obligation for which one can be held to account for one’s results and one’s actions by a specified other.” [source: https://effectivemanagers.com/dwight-mihalicz/what-is-accountability-part-1-of-the-effective-managerstm-understanding-accountability-series/ ] (In layman’s terms: Who’s the boss?)
Such a vision of accountability presents unique challenges in the context of a public agency. Who will enforce such accountability? The “specified other” is vague: Is it the voters? the residents? the many stakeholders? Of at least equal importance: For what specific results and actions does this unspecified other enforce accountability? And how are the expected results and actions to be defined, communicated, and monitored?
These challenges are exacerbated whenever there is turnover in leadership. And, as with transparency, it is easy to hide behind process — for example, assuming that the organization is accountable simply because it follows all of the explicit rules and required processes.
Collective decision-making, the dominant approach in government, clouds accountability. Who is actually accountable? (If everyone is accountable, then no one is accountable.) While collective decision-making may be appropriate for local legislative actions, as municipalities have ventured into commercial and philanthropic activities, the important strategies that need to be developed and decisions that need to be made have greatly multiplied and grown more complex. The sheer volume of decisions that need to be made by city staff and officials in the normal course of municipal business overwhelms the public decision-making process; the slow pace of collective decision-making in a public forum results in (valid) charges of inefficiency.
Meanwhile, accountability is lost in the sea of collective decisions. In the absence of clear organizational accountability, punitive alternatives emerge. Blame and scapegoating preempt positive actions that support the efficacy of the organization with respect to its responsibilities to its constituency.
So what can municipal officials do?
Municipal officials should respond to the challenges of accountability by creating and maintaining a culture that is conscientiously committed to disclosing and documenting the rationale for their decisions. Elected officials should ensure that their organization’s chief administrator is aligned with such a vision of the value of accountability.
Such accountability is more than paying lip service to “the buck stops here” or “I take full responsibility.” It means cultivating an environment in which the organization demonstrates its accountability through an ongoing commitment to transparency in its decision-making. In this regard, clear policies and a commitment to explain and document the why behind decisions is essential.
As with transparency, accountability breaks down when there is organizational dysfunction (e.g., internal political battles, lack of trust, etc.). Accountability also breaks down when decision-makers hide behind the collective decision-making process. (“The consensus made me do it!”) In such an environment, it is easy to forego accountability in favor of scapegoats, obfuscation, or cynicism.
As with transparency measures, accountability measures are not solutions to local government dysfunction. Transparency and accountability are values that municipal officials need to embrace and ensure that their organizations do the same. In this regard, municipal officials should ask themselves:
- Is the council/board providing an appropriate level of guidance and governance (neither micromanaging nor rubber stamping)?
- Is our chief administrator telling us everything we and the public should know?
- Is there justified suspicion among constituents that the municipality is not being managed openly and professionally?
Municipal officials need to rise above processes and platitudes, cultivate a working climate of earned trust, and ensure that their organizations embrace transparency and accountability as positive organizational values.
Mark Moses is a senior fellow with California Policy Center. He has thirty years of experience in local government administration and finance. His recent book, The Municipal Financial Crisis — A Framework for Understanding and Fixing Government Budgeting, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in January 2022 and is available from major online booksellers.