Unlike the others in this series who have been working on the ground to implement transparency policies and initiatives, I have not. My background is in political science, so I’m going to do something that political scientists often do. I’m going to theorize and I’m going to offer a typology.
Though we tend to talk about accountability as if it is one thing, I think there are actually three types of government accountability that we care about: preference accountability, character accountability, and performance accountability. And each of these has its own relationship to citizen engagement. By better understanding this, we can better understand the citizen engagement – transparency – accountability nexus.
So first, let me define these types of accountability. By preference accountability, I mean that government officials behave in the way that citizens want them to behave. That is, they respond to citizen preferences. By character accountability, I mean that government officials follow the rules, and they are honest and hard-working. They are not corrupt. By performance accountability, I mean that government officials produce policies that improve the welfare of society and the well-being of citizens.
Transparency is important for all three, but citizen engagement is most important for preference accountability. Arguably, we should care most about performance accountability. But it’s also the hardest to achieve.
Let’s start with preference accountability. To the extent that we wish to maximize this type of accountability, transparency policies that focus on the process of governing, such as legislative transparency, can help. Citizens who have strong preferences can see what their representatives are doing on an ongoing basis. They can use this information to make informed demands, and threaten to act based on what representatives do or do not do.
But this is complicated by the simple fact that different constituents may want different policies because they have different ideologies, or different ideas about what government should do. That is why, many years ago, Edmund Burke had this to say in his speech to the electors of Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
The danger in relying solely on this kind of accountability is that it tends to reward the most passionate factions. This can lead to representatives into merely responding to the most intense demanders, which are often the most well-resourced citizens – those with the civic capacity and usually the money to care the most. These are often small factions.
This is where the second meaning of accountability (character accountability) comes into play. Recall Burke’s promise to his electors: that he owes them both his industry and his judgment. Often, election campaigns are waged on issues of character and honesty. Politicians try to come across as honest and hard-working, disparaging their opponents as corrupt and lazy. Accusations fly. The general tendency is to scold campaigns for these types of ads, and to encourage candidates to run “on the issues.” But information about candidate quality is important. We not only want to know whether we are getting representatives who agree with us; we also want to know whether they are actually going to do what they say, and not enrich themselves and break the rules.
Again, information and transparency can help. More information about personal financial disclosures, campaign finance records, procurement, budgets, etc. can make it easier to detect fraud and corruption.
But in these cases, rarely is it large-scale citizen engagement that makes the difference. Rather, it is usually the work of investigative journalists, watchdog organizations, and sometimes political opponents.. However, citizens do need to be engaged enough to at least pay attention to relevant information during elections. If corruption is exposed, citizens need to know enough to vote out the corrupt representatives.
In some respects, these first two accountabilities are in tension: too much responsiveness to particular citizens (i.e. too narrowly-drawn “preference accountability”) can lead to classic corruption. But representatives who are focused only on being competent and rule-abiding can seem like technocrats or bureaucrats, and lose connection to the concerns of their citizens.
Ultimately, however, citizens should hold government accountable for what it does to improve the well-being of its citizens. Hence: performance accountability. At the most general level: how is the economy doing? What is the state of public health, education, services, etc.? If this is the kind of accountability we want to maximize, we should want more transparency about societal indicators: jobs, healthcare services, educational performance, etc.
Political scientists have long demonstrated that the strongest predictor of incumbent success is the state of the economy. A strong economy means re-election. A weak economy means defeat. But the challenge here is that while these kinds of performance outcomes are the ends that all governments work towards, it’s hard to hold any single government actor responsible for these outcomes. The economy could improve or decline because of a particular government policy, or in spite of it. The true challenge of this kind of accountability is for citizens to be able to tell the two circumstances apart.
For this reason, we need to be careful about focusing too much on performance accountability, important as it is, and even central as it is to the main lever of citizen engagement: elections. The signals here are noisy. The danger is a type of accountability that both rewards and punishes representatives and governments for circumstances beyond their control.
Arguably, the highest-performing governments are those in which high-quality representatives serve the genuine articulated concerns of citizens. Thus, the highest-performing governments are arguably those that combine preference accountability and character accountability, while not taking either to the extreme. For this reason, I believe we get the maximum accountability impact by balancing preference accountability and character accountability. In both cases, transparency and citizen engagement are important, but operate differently.