Accountability at Work: A Global Perspective

By Lahcen Haddad

Accountability is part and parcel of good governance and is a pillar of real and effective democratic rule.  Strong and democratically elected institutions with the right powers and means to hold those in power to account are necessary for democracy to have its real meaning of “rule by the people”.  Independent and strong oversight entities producing quality data on how public resources are used by local and national governments should provide parliaments and the public (and the courts as the case may be) with the necessary information to use in the accountability exercise. Professional and independent media as well as strong and well-managed civil society organizations play a major role in informing and mobilizing public opinion and communities to demand for accountability. The more citizens are engaged at the local level, the more those endowed with delivering services feel accountable to them.  

The World Bank has set up a list of Governance Indicators that it aggregated into six clusters: 1. Voice and accountability; 2. Political stability and absence of violence; 3. Government effectiveness  4. Regulatory quality; 5. Rule of law; 6. Control of corruption (World Bank Worldwide Governance Indicators). Most of the indicators involved in each of these clusters revolve around making citizens at the heart of governance, focusing on transparency and improved effectiveness in performance and quality service delivery, all of which are essential features of the question of accountability. Accountability is about good governance.  Holding those in power (elected through democratic ways or chosen via transparent processes) to account means measuring their performance against set targets and objectives and against set rules and standards, and gauging the efficiency and effectiveness of their use of the resources put at their disposal to carry out their mission.

Citizens hold representatives to account when voting for them; council members and parliamentarians summon governments to answer for their actions; and independent fiscal oversight entities verify that financial management follows set rules and standards. But accountability is about “voice” as well; it is about giving citizens, civil society and media the right, the space and the freedom to express their concerns, monitor implementation and offer dissenting views. “Institutional accountability” and “voice” go together; in fact, if both are strong, the chances are that the other indicators in the Governance gamut will improve as well.

The book I edited recently, Holding Governments Accountable to the People is about principles, tools and practices of accountability in different countries and different contexts; the pieces included are written mostly by Parliamentarians, but views of experts (from the IMF, the World Bank, SID etc.), private sector, civil society and distinguished individuals are also included. It is neither an exhaustive study of accountability, nor an expert view of the matter. It is a mere assemblage of various points of views by “policy practitioners”, academicians, and other interesting individuals on the “whys” and “hows” of accountability and good governance. It incudes theoretical statements as well analyses of cases, some of which critical, while others are descriptive, showcasing successes and good practices.  Five major areas of concern are included: theoretical considerations, fiscal oversight, role of parliament, the need to access  information, social accountability and citizen engagement, media and civil society, and, finally the role of coalitions and global indexes.

The “Philisophical” Prologue: More accountability is needed on the part of those in power; otherwise, populist and other extremist forces will exploit the mounting frustration of youth and the middle classes to manufacture detours that are dangerous to democracy and world security alike. The specter of the 1930s should never be forgotten. Politics should be relevant to people’s lives and especially to the new generations who are at a loss when they see older people engaged in fearmongering, a discourse at odds with what they normally learn in school. Access to information in a context of free expression is key to establishing a culture of transparency and accountability (Talib Rifai). One of the cornerstones of the democratic mandate and process is the need for elected representatives to subject themselves to an accountability check (Arthur Murilo). Democracy without accountability could be a simple exercise in populist demagogy.  On the other hand, accountability is inextricably linked to culture. Traditional values in East Asia, for example, are integrated within the group’s duties to preserve a working identity with all actors involved to make accountability a daily concern (El Mostafa Rezrazi).

Fiscal oversight: Fiscal transparency is critical to public financial management and  good governance. Government accountability requires strong parliaments, independent audit bodies, and easy and timely access and publication of quality information (Sailendra Pattanayak & Alpa Shah). But oversight should go beyond reporting on the use of resources to include forecasting and macro-economic and labor analyses as well as oversight of financial market regulations (Liam Byrne). Streamlining the time lag between audit bodies’ reporting cycle and parliament’s need to hold regular fiscal accountability hearings is necessary to ensure regularity in oversight (Driss Skalli). In addition to that, anti-corruption efforts require a fair system with real separation of powers and a clear definition of roles and responsibilities (ShamsulIskandar).

The Information Imperative: Oral questions, Auditor General’s reports, the Information Act and others are some of the tools available for Parliamentarians to access information that helps them hold Government to account (Percy Downe). A robust record management system is at the very heart of a transparency regime and reinforcing the role of citizens is key to its effectiveness; however, the risk of too much institutionalization may burden the process (SV Anil Das). The system should be tight, effective and as lean as possible. On the other hand, strengthening the role of opposition in parliamentary systems helps with giving voice to critical views within Parliaments and accessing otherwise inaccessible information (Elvira Kovacs.)

The Role of Parliaments: In a highly digitalized world and a global disaffection with politicians, new forms of accountability are needed. Accountability helps with providing different forms of checks and balances between different branches of Government (Valentina Martinez). The function of Parliament consists, among others, of monitoring and ensuring that public policies are effectively implemented by the executive branch (Pauline Ndoumoi). The stronger Parliaments are, the more capable they are of acting as the voice of the people, and making government responsive to people’s needs and interests.

When Citizens Hold Governments Accountable Through the Ballots: Elections enable voters to select leaders and to hold them accountable for their performance in office by voting them out. The cyclical nature of elections makes accountability a form of popular periodic review of achievement; in addition, the role given to opposition is a delegation by the people of power to a political group to check on the performance of the others between elections (Nawal El Houari). The decline in Parliament dynamism is both a cause and consequence of Parliament not being more effective. Political divisions within the Majority could weaken parliaments and make them less capable of monitoring government work (Yunus Carrim).

Social Accountability and Citizen Engagement: Citizens need tools, in addition and beyond elections, to hold those in power accountable for their service to the population (Kanishka Balatsurya). Citizen Engagement involves making citizens partners in development from the planning to design and implementation, to tracking and monitoring. The real “citizen engagement” stems from the concept of “direct democracy” as a complement to “representative democracy” (Lahcen Haddad).

Media, Civil Society, Social Movements—the Demand for Accountability :  

The media have always played a role in governance. High quality, informative, truthful and responsible media are essential for democracy, especially in the age of fakenews(Jeremy Lefroy). Everything is possible with democracy, as long as there is  freedom of speech  (Olfa Skouri Cherif). On the other hand, civil society could help with developing concrete tools for cooperation between local communities and other stakeholders to ensure citizen voice is heard (Olga Bielkova & Souad Zaidi).

Alliance and collective initiatives: The Mexican Agreement on tourism was a consensus building process and document that was instrumental in monitoring action against indicators making everybody accountable (Gloria Guevara). On the other hand, the Reykjavik Index for Leadership measures how people’s attitudes towards men and women in leadership roles. Data informs on what to target to engineer change. It is a source that helps build accountability in the field of equality in leadership (Silvana Kich-Mehrin).

Holding Governments Accountable to the People is designed to help policy makers, parliamentarians, media and civil society actors understand the intricacies of accountability and good governance and learn about the different tools available to them to improve their work in their respective political and cultural contexts. It spans a wide array of experiences and practices and represents opinions from different experts and practitioners in different countries, organizations and cultures. It is in no way representative of the wealth of accountability practices in different regions; South American, Central Asian, Oceanic and East African experiences are either not represented or not as well represented as they should be. But the idea was not to produce a geographically or politically representative body of literature on accountability. The goal was to find individuals who are willing to share their thoughts and ideas on good practices and the need to improve the systems, in a way that will help others in other contexts reflect on their own experiences and needs.

Accountability is the only means to win back hearts and souls in an age of doubt, mistrust and rise of easy and populist solutions that are undermining the very basics of democracy and the rule by the people. Improving governance ensures the sustainability of democracy and guarantees improved service to citizens who are the ultimate stakeholders and beneficiaries of our work as politicians, practitioners, experts and activists.

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