Government accountability. In poll after poll, citizens insist that those who govern us also be accountable to us. In our own lives, as students, employees, friends and family members, we accept responsibility and accountability. We understand that, with responsibility, comes an obligation to explain our conduct, face consequences, justify decisions and suffer reprisals.
In government, however, we too often treat accountability as an aspirational platitude, a cliché shrouded in nobility, but drained of meaning. And, as our politics have become more polarized, we have even become selective in applying the tenets of accountability. The recent impeachment trial of President Trump, if nothing else, reminded us how little we know about government accountability.
Our democratic system cannot succeed without informed citizens, respectful civic discourse, reliable, timely public information and accountability, but our commitment to accountability is fraying.
- We are fickle—even lazy—about holding politicians accountable. Voters inconsistently punish poor conduct regardless of the evidence. During President Trump’s impeachment trial, the debate about ham-handed efforts to spur foreign investigations of political rivals eclipsed a more important principle, that every politician is accountable. While the President’s call was anything but “perfect,” there is a rational (if feeble) argument that the President’s conduct was not impeachable. However, when the White House obstructed subpoenas and testimony, it acted as if the President is above the law. For those who cherish accountability, that stance is despicable and impeachable (as are Democratic talking points about Hunter Biden’s Burisma Holdings role).
We berate politicians as a class, but seem reluctant to confront individual politicians, especially when they label inquiries as politically-motivated “witch hunts.” In Democratic Maryland, Republican Governor Hogan remains extremely popular, despite engaging in self-dealing that, while legal, mocks ethical norms. Under his leadership, state transportation funds have been legally shifted from urban projects (e.g., Baltimore’s Red Line project) to non-urban road projects that could benefit the Governor’s personal real estate holdings. Yet, most voters seem all too willing to look the other way.
- Too many public officials neglect organizational accountability. Many public officials give lip service to organizational accountability for their respective governments. This is particularly true for inexperienced or inattentive legislators. In Buncombe County, North Carolina, for instance, a Democrat-controlled government, key staff misused public funds. A 2017 federal investigation sent five individuals to prison, including the longtime county manager. While commissioners call for greater “transparency” in the future, they failed to exercise sufficient oversight in the past.
- State and local governments operate some boards in ways that undermine professional accountability. State and local governments maintain scores (if not hundreds) of boards and commissions, some responsible for licensing professionals and some for enforcing professional standards. Many governments fill boards with qualified persons, but some use them to reward political supporters. Most boards and commissions receive limited oversight which can erode professional accountability. In 2017, North Carolina’s State Auditor found that many boards failed to maintain a current licensee list, meet training standards or conduct sufficient inspections. A 2017 Iowa audit report found serious flaws with state boards, including incomplete investigations, poor documentation and board conflicts of interest. Some states may allow licensees to keep their licenses even while under investigation for fraud (e.g., West Virginia).
- In our focus on the illegal conduct, we too often lose sight of legal corruption. Federal, state and local prosecutors have not been shy about prosecuting illegal public conduct. Innumerable areas have been shaken by convictions, including Baltimore (Mayors Pugh and Dixon), Chicago (ghost payroll and aldermanic privilege schemes), Detroit (Mayor Kilpatrick’s pay-to-pay graft), New Orleans (Mayor Nagin’s bribery), Providence (Mayor Cianci’s felony convictions) and Southern California (e.g., Bell, Beaumont and Vernon scandals).
Voters have grown numb to legal corruption (e.g., Cuomo’s Moreland Commission, McConnell’s wealth, Menendez’s career and Trump’s business interests). Citizens United has made politics the hand-maiden of dark money. State utility firms have made legal corruption their business model, spending enough on state politics to influence key decisions (e.g., monopoly status, emission standards, drilling practices, rates and return on equity). Since most utility commission members are political appointees, energy firms have substantial incentives to support the right candidates. And they can sleep easily knowing that most voters won’t care.
- Our civic accountability mechanisms are largely ineffectual. With a few exceptions, most public commissions and other forms of civic engagement have little impact on government accountability. Private groups created to monitor government performance come and go. Most public boards fail to hold their institutions accountable. For instance, the UNC System Board of Governors, which oversees one of our most prestigious public university systems, has lost its way. In recent years, the Republican-controlled legislature has gutted the board’s diversity and independence, two markers of university quality. Of the Board’s 24 voting members, five are women, three are minorities and none are Democrats. Once viewed as broadly representative and devoted to the University System (and the public), it now caters to the General Assembly’s narrow political agenda.
- We are rapidly losing our most valuable tool for monitoring government, journalism. With the rise of digital media and disappearance of traditional media outlets, especially local newspapers, we are losing a proven, effective weapon against public corruption. National media seem less diligent about uncovering the self-dealing of national politicians. Downsized (and shuttered) local newspapers are unable to expose wrongdoing or hold government accountable with the same rigor they once did. The consequences for the quality of our public officials and governance are incalculable, if not irrevocable.
A Framework for Accountability
Ensuring governmental accountability is daunting, especially given the threats. Hyper-partisanship can weaken ethical standards. Fragmented and unwieldy governments can obscure organizational responsibility and impede reforms. The brazen disregard for laws and civic norms can pave the way for more unethical behavior. The loss of local journalists can gut the ability of media outlets to scrutinize governments and disclose dubious conduct.
The complexity of this challenge calls for a thoughtful, structured approach. To begin, we recommend a broad accountability framework with six criteria for maximizing public accountability:
- Political accountability – Guided by traditional democratic principles, citizens in representative democracies must hold elected officials accountable for enacting laws, rules and policies that serve the public interest. In turn, elected representatives must fear that citizens will indeed hold them accountable. When voters ignore or tolerate the normalization of political corruption or the manipulation of elections, elected officials will be less likely to realign their conduct with voter interests.
- Organizational accountability – Government organizations must be held accountable with clear bureaucratic structures, clear reporting lines and sound management practices (e.g., plans, administrative policies and procedures, internal controls, accounting, budgets and performance management systems). Once elected or appointed, public officials must be good public stewards, managing public resources in a prudent manner and establishing inspiring norms and service-oriented operating cultures.
- Professional accountability – In addition to political and organizational accountability, many public and private workers are accountable to professional standards. Governments and public officials must be aware of relevant professional conduct standards and enforce those standards through clear codes of ethics and occupational licensure or certification standards (and through relevant boards and committees) for public workers and private contractors alike.
- Legal accountability – Governments and their officials also are subject to legal mandates concerning conduct, transactions and reporting, expressed in the form of statutes, ordinances, regulations, contracts and resolutions. State or local legislators, for example, may impose legal sanctions involving conflicts of interests, misuse or abuse of public office or other corrupt practices (e.g., fraud, bribery or appropriation of public funds). State or local governments also may create institutional checks and balances to bolster accountability (e.g., separation of powers, independent judiciary or independent watchdog commissions).
- Civic accountability – Citizens should hold public officials accountable through governmental commissions and other forms of civic engagement. Most state and local governments have citizen advisory bodies and some of these, like municipal zoning and state licensing boards, possess decision-making powers. Independent civic groups can shine a light on government performance by tracking performance data, but they are hard to sustain. Emerging technologies enable citizens to access public data, monitor government activities and offer real-time feedback on public services. In turn, the changing public information landscape is challenging our traditional approach to the transparency issue, an issue to which we will return later.
- External accountability – Perhaps the most under-valued accountability channel is objective journalism. Before the internet and diversion of media advertising revenues, local media outlets (newspapers, radio and television) fought corruption by exposing corrupt incumbents and promoting honest challengers. Local media markets with high newspaper consumption tended to experience more honest government. While the digital revolution has encouraged the freedom of expression, its impact on the freedom of the press (more specifically the quality of journalism) has been less clear. More about this issue later.
To improve governmental accountability in a systemic and enduring way, the first step is to adopt a framework for accountability. In the near future, we will use this conceptual framework to build and propose a package of more specific recommendations for improving accountability. Stay tuned.