The COVID-19 pandemic is the classic “teaching moment.” The Trump Administration stumbles from denial to fantasy, altering messages, picking weird fights and dodging responsibility. States respond differently, often based on political factors. And localities, in lieu of cohesive, consistent federal and state leadership, are forced to rely on their instincts and strained resources to comfort and meet the needs of anxious constituents.
We will survive this pandemic, but we may not survive the next, not without reinventing government at all levels, and making it a source of pride. This will require, among other things, a tireless commitment to accountability. When we survive these two viruses—COVID-19 and divisive political opportunism—we must get serious about modernizing government, and making it more responsive, productive and accountable.
Our democratic political system depends on so many factors to succeed—informed citizens, respectful civic discourse and reliable, timely public information, to name a few. Perhaps the most important, and the least understood, is accountability. It is on this score that our flaws are so striking.
- We are inconsistent—even lazy—about holding politicians accountable. Political partisanship often limits the steady, unbiased application of performance standards. While we are quick to condemn the politicians we oppose, we are loath to challenge those we back. At the local level, the bewildering array of public agencies serving regions can make it virtually impossible to pinpoint responsibility.
- Too many elected officials neglect organizational accountability. Many state and local officials think annual audits and balanced budgets are enough. They are not. Government agencies can be unwieldy organizations with grand missions, swelling service demands and scarce resources. Their performance is far more difficult to measure than that of private sector entities. Public officials rarely appreciate how much more needs to be done to ensure internal accountability.
- Government’s role in ensuring professional accountability is often overlooked. We all rely on professionals to help us navigate life. Doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, plumbers, electricians, mechanics and so many others, all functioning with governmental consent. Virtually every occupation is licensed or certified by a state or local board or commission comprising citizen appointees. Those of you assuming that our elected officials always appoint the most qualified citizens to these bodies will be disappointed.
- Our accountability laws are often weak and antiquated. Public officials love promoting ethics legislation, but these laws are typically vague and seldom updated. By failing to fully define corruption, they effectively legalize (or free politicians to normalize) unethical conduct. When politicians refuse to observe established laws or norms, they legitimize conflicts of interest. When we allow elected officials to set, interpret and ignore accountability laws and norms, we make it that much harder to secure good governance.
- Most civic accountability mechanisms are paper tigers. With a few exceptions, most governmental commissions, community forums and other civic engagement devices are little more than a valve for releasing civic angst or protecting the status quo. Independent civic groups formed to monitor government performance come and go with disquieting frequency. Regions without at least one independent, diverse and influential civic group—regularly challenging public decisions—will find government accountability hard to attain.
- Journalism’s ability to monitor state and local government is rapidly waning. With the rise of digital media and descent of traditional media outlets, especially local newspapers, we are on the verge of losing an invaluable weapon against government waste. As investigative reporting recedes, we cannot count on local media outlets to scrutinize government and expose scandals. In years past, even when all other forms of accountability failed (see above), we could look to the fourth estate to keep our government officials honest. Now what?
What can we do to make our governments and public officials more accountable? We offer some initial recommendations using the six-point Civic Way accountability framework (see prior newsletter).
- Political accountability – All citizens should devote at least one hour every week to holding elected officials accountable. Instead of meek subservience or lazy indifference, citizens should demand political accountability for all officials, especially those they support. When elected representatives complain that their performance is being “politicized,” they are merely expressing a fear that citizens might hold them accountable.
- Strengthen direct representation (e.g., make more legislative seats district-based instead of at-large)
- Eliminate overlapping jurisdictions (e.g., merge inefficient towns, merge duplicative special districts and minimize government fragmentation)
- Simplify state and local ballots to help voters focus on the most critical offices (e.g., eliminate superfluous offices, consolidate similar public offices and make more elected positions appointive)
- Maintain a constant, aggressive citizen spotlight on public officials (e.g., attend meetings, write letters, ask tough questions, monitor votes and speak out)
Unless voters challenge (or at least question) political misbehavior (e.g., ineptitude, hypocrisy and corruption), many elected officials will put their own interests above those of the public. It is especially important for registered Democrats to challenge Democratic representatives and Republican voters to challenge GOP officials.
- Organizational accountability – To ensure that public resources are prudently managed, public officials must implement and refine internal good government measures, such as:
- Make executive agencies more responsive, efficient, effective and accountable
- Establish clear bureaucratic structures with clear duties, responsibilities and reporting lines
- Reform and simplify budget management processes (e.g., link long-range plans and reduce trivia)
- Establish sound management practices (e.g., sensible long-range plans, clear administrative policies and procedures, rigorous internal controls and measurable performance management systems)
- Make legislative bodies more strategic and agile (e.g., abolish filibusters)
- Make courts more independent, less partisan and more productive
- Enact tough ethics policies and procedures to guide all public employees
- Eliminate dubious political traditions (e.g., aldermanic development approval privileges)
Such measures involve hard work, but good government and public trust cannot be assured without them.
- Professional accountability – State and local governments must adopt tough professional conduct standards and assiduously enforce those standards through occupational ethics, licensure and certification standards. They should reassess the many boards and commissions under their control, restructure or revamp them as merited, upgrade citizen appointments, more diligently monitor professional performance and more frequently suspend the licenses of bad actors. Instead of using boards and commissions as a means for rewarding political supporters, elected officials should use them as a tool for serving the public interest.
- Legal accountability – Governments must adopt, follow and enforce legal mandates that will help regain the public trust in government (e.g., statutes, ordinances, regulations, contracts and resolutions).
- Change state and local laws to bolster institutional checks and balances at all levels
- Enact laws to make public executives more accountable (e.g., streamline impeachment process)
- Enact laws requiring governments to strengthen oversight (e.g., independent or watchdog offices)
- Enact laws requiring best management practices (e.g., smart budgeting and competitive bidding)
- Adopt much tougher state and local ethics laws, including campaign contribution, reporting and disclosure rules, conflict of interest standards, other public behavioral standards and more severe sanctions
- Enact legislation to improve public information transparency (see prior newsletter)
- Civic accountability – Citizens and civic leaders should hold public officials accountable through governmental commissions, community forums and other civic engagement, e.g.:
- Encourage foundations to develop model government accountability standards
- Enact constitutional or charter changes to require all governments to adopt best management practices and champion future mergers and other reforms
- Implement public power-sharing mechanisms, including independent citizen councils and watchdog groups
- Establish and fund independent private regional civic groups to track government performance
- Improve public information transparency (e.g., institute digital budget, tax, debt, contract and expenditure dashboards, revamp public websites and release audit reports prior to elections)
- Exploit emerging technologies to enable citizens to directly access public data, monitor government activities and offer real-time feedback on public services
- External accountability – We must ensure the survival of objective, independent journalism, especially at the state and local levels. There are many ideas worth considering, including an objective tool for rating existing news sources and a well-funded network of nonpartisan, nonprofit media platforms. Whatever path we choose, we must be guided by the principle that good government requires objective journalism and informed citizens.
Some have labelled criticism of the Covid-19 public response as “politicizing” the crisis. If questioning reckless statements or hollow assurances by public officials—especially when they cause avoidable suffering—is political, we should be more political. In a democratic society, this is how we hold politicians accountable.
Of course, we should unite behind public leaders who offer a cohesive crisis management strategy. But we must not abandon our duty to hold them accountable. We must treat this crisis as a rehearsal for the next one. We must assess our public officials and remove those that failed to lead. But that alone is not enough. We also must pursue bold federal, state and local government reforms. This crisis is an urgent call to prepare for (if not prevent) future crises, challenges that will require far better government and leaders than we have today.