ACCOUNTABILITY: GOVERNMENT VERSUS THE PEOPLE
By Dr. Ignatius Odianosen Okosun (PhD).
The chief architect of America independence declaration, Thomas Jefferson in 17870 advocated that the drafters of the constitution to clearly identify the rights of the people and government accountability. Jefferson believed past governments had been harsh and restrictive to the populace, governed questionable areas with no just power to act no jurisdictional authority and the result had been a reduction or loss of individual rights.
The concepts of “public” and “private” permeate our everyday discourse, and most people have a general notion of what is meant by the terms. Today, the term “public entity” generally refers to a government body at the federal, state or local level that makes the rules of society that bind those members of the public within its jurisdictional boundaries, and which acts on behalf of the whole of a society in its external relations. In contrast, a “private entity” is considered to be an entity that lies outside the realm of the government and, to some extent, is beyond its reach and control, such as those entities within the private domain of the marketplace.
The idea of “private” and “public” as two separate spheres with discrete boundaries appears as early as the 4th Century B.C. in the writings of Aristotle. The Aristotelian concept of oikos indicated the realm of the household in which decisions were based on individual judgment and discretion, while polis referred to the public political realm where decisions were reached through collective deliberations upon the affairs of state. John Stuart Mill described the distinction as between that part of a person’s life that must be left to the free will of the individual as it concerns only the self, and that part of life that falls within the realm of the collective such that the state may intervene and regulate the individual’s action and behaviours.
Many modern scholars have challenged the popular notion that public and private are two distinct realms with rigid boundaries. Such distinctions, it is argued, could only exist in a hierarchical society, such as the Rome Republic or the city-state of Athens, where the polity was organized upon the belief in a privileged class of citizens with natural superiority. These privileged individuals, considered to be masters over women, children and slaves, had complete dominion over their private realms, unencumbered by state regulation or control. With the emergence, however, of the modern, centralized state and its liberal notions that all people are created equal, free and autonomous, the state takes on both the roles of protector and accountability to its entire people in order to secure for them.
However, accountability originated from the Latin word accomptare (to account), a prefixed form of computare (to calculate), which in turn derived from putare (to reckon). The word itself does not appear in english until its usage in the 13th century Norman England and the concept of account-giving has ancient roots in record keeping activities related to governance and money-lending systems that first developed in Ancient Egypt, Israel, Babylon, Greece and later Rome.
Carmen Malena et al 2002, in their collective research on ‘Social Accountability amassed the role of civil society in holding Government accountable perspective from the World Bank, described accountability as obligation of power-holders to account for or take responsibility for their actions. It is crystal clear that public office holders, especially government officials and bureaucrats are accountable for two major areas; their conduct in the day-to-day affairs of governance and their performances in their routine activities. The conduct of public officers should be reflected in compliance to the law.
Transparency and accountability need each other and can be conjointly reinforcing together they enable citizens to have a say about issues that matter to them and a chance to influence decision-making and hold those making decisions to account. Each concept is part of a strategy used for and by citizens to have the means, resources and opportunities to influence decision-making and affect developmental outcomes
The processes of budgeting in any country determine the measure of transparency and accountability. The stages or processes of budgeting especially the process of implementation impact heavily on both openness and account-ability. In specific term, budget is an instrument of accountability; transparency is often discussed under financial management.
Although, it is important to note that successful mechanisms ran by most developed democracies, ensures that the approach is initiated by direct participation of citizens and also provides a free stage for other sectors like the private sector and government. Research has shown that most often the success of the mechanism depends on the direct participation of the public, an approach that relies on civic engagement, which comprises of citizen-driven measures.
The enablement and answerability schema have emerged as the academic and development community’s response to the increasing recognition that traditional methodologies to promoting voice and accountability have failed to bring about sustained policy change and improved developmental aftermaths. It is contended that these traditional approaches were too focused on strengthening state institutions and creating spaces for public consultation, without addressing power relations between citizens and the state, and the interactions and interfaces between them.
Whilst increasing attention is now given to strengthening the capacity of ordinary citizens to participate directly in policy making, it is generally accepted that empowerment does not work on its own. An endowed citizen requires capable and responsive decision makers whom they can hold to liable. Accountability is therefore a prerequisite for effective empowerment. Conversely, empowerment is also understood as a necessity for answerability: a degree of empowerment is needed if people are to participate and engage meaningfully with decision makers and development processes. Thus, the principal lucidity of empowerment and accountability approaches is that where people have a sturdier voice, they are more able to influence decisions about policies and the distribution of resources and are more able to hold officials to account for their actions.
One of the fundamental features of good governance and efficient delegation is answerability; when citizens empower a government to represent them, it is natural and pragmatic for them to be curious about what the government does with the resources they have been endowed with. They want to know how well these resources have been misused, through what process, under whose supervision and more importantly, whether there was ample value-for-resources obtained.
Accountability is one of the essential best practices in people oriented governance; and since most government activities confederate around service delivery, it is reasonable to consider the process in governance a threat to development, when it cannot be properly meet with the needs of the governed. Nigeria is laden with one of the world’ most unfathomable governments, though the current administration have been making tremendous effort to remedy this situation. This is making corruption a tricky itch to scratch and made it more difficult for a good relationship to exist between the government and citizens. Thus the idea and need develop efficient and effective tools in holding governments accountable emanates from this fate; such tools as exemplified the past, will commit the Nigerian government by any means possible to consider it obligatory to provide accurate, timely and clear reports of her activities, especially in public procurement which is blamed for more than half of corruption in public workplaces.
In very modest terms, a government could be said to be accountable when it can give the true account of its activities to the people or nation which it was set up to serve. This means that when a government, through the relevant and constitutionally approved channels, regularly enlightens her people exactly what it was able to gather as resources, how it planned to use them how it eventually used such resources and the results of the process, then it can be referred to as an accountable government. The process could range from the procurement of goods, services or works, to its review of vital legal documents or even its civil service policies. Whatever the process or activity is an accountable government is one that always tells its people what is going on and never keep them in obscurity.
A more intuitive and comprehensive definition will serve to describe the term accountability as it applies to position of readership. Accountability is the acknowledgement and conjecture of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and policies including the administration, governance and implementation within the scope of the role or employment position and encompassing the obligation to report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences.
The government is indebted to inform the people about her actions and decisions, to rationalize them and to be faced with rejection, condemnations or disapproval in case of eventual misconduct. However, this is professionally termed political accountability and usually encompasses the civil servants and politicians being accountable to the public and legislative bodies. Another definition holds that accountability is “the obligation of power- holders to account for or take responsibility of their actions in both their conduct and their performance.
Power belongs to the people and those in government voted in by the people to primarily take care of their welfare and security. The government manage public sources on behalf of the people, as such, the government own the people a duty to explain how their mutual wealth, is being spent and where the people are not satisfied with the political leadership, such leaders will be voted out during elections or referendums. The government needs to be held answerable so that the, people can ensure that they are meeting up with their responsibilities efficiently and effectively. This is done to curtail the excesses of public office holders, ensure that proper communication exists between the people and their government. Evaluate the performance of the government hence, help the people make informed decisions on their votes, and choice of representatives; establish when the need for a change of approach arises, among other reasons.
In addition, it is very outstanding to note that being able to hold the government accountable helps the citizens to participate in their governance, a key prerequisite in a true democracy and leadership. According to William Reubens, governance crisis best highlights the danger of the failure to enable citizens participate in their governance; he further postulated that smaller the extent to which citizens feel represented and received by public Institutions, the larger the governance crisis. The greater the degree of separation between the actions or rulers and the citizen’s expectations and control over rulers’ actions, the greater the governance watershed.”
Conservatively, it is the responsibility of the supreme book of law, its interpreters and its enforcers to compel the government and public officers to submit to accountability; this is the situation in most civilized societies. But you must have noted that the term ideally was used because this is what the situation should be like but Nigeria is an exception. However, in recent times, due to continues advocacy, vulture-match monitoring of government activities and persistent reportage of findings even in the conventional media; and engagement of relevant bodies, organizations and independent crusaders, accountability seems to be taking root in our political mainstream lifestyle.
Organizationally, the legislatives bodies like the National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly are constitutionally recognized to ensure that both the government and the public are accountable through lawmaking and oversight among other functions. These bodies are in turn held accountable by the provisions of the laws as enshrined in the constitution of the Federal Republic. For strategic tenacities, it is vital to mention that in a true democracy, power which includes the power to ask for proper accounts from the government resides with the people. The people are the employers of the government; they are the government, they form the government and hence have all right to request for accounting of government’s activities.
However the apathy towards public un-accountability has intensified, both new and old democracies are under increasing media and public scrutiny. There is growing demand that governments, public institutions and officials grant access to information regarding controversial actions and decisions. International transparency organizations regularly monitor levels of corruption and social responsibilities efforts of both public and private actors in different parts of the world. Continuous evaluation of effectiveness of public institutions and officials ensure that they are performing optimally, providing value for money in the provision of public services, instilling confidence in the government and being responsive to the community they are meant to be serving.
In the framework of local government, accountability becomes critical since local authorities are closer to the citizens and the central governments channel services to the citizens through them. Their performance is therefore impacted directly on the central government. Many services such as education, health and social services are delivered at the local level and affect the poor, hence stronger accountability and increased oversight provides a better institutional framework for effective delivery of such public services aiming at promoting shared growth and poverty reduction.
The obligation of an authority to explain how it is carrying out its responsibilities is called public accountability, It means that governments will publicly explain what they intend to achieve, for whom, and why; what costs and risks would flow from the intentions, for whom, and why; the performance standards for what they intend and for the agencies they oversee; and what resulted. To make society work properly, citizens must hold government accountable. Furthermore accounting is a powerful force and key is public explanation. This produces a beneficial self-regulating impact on officials. When their intentions and reasons are known from public validation of what they say, they become subject to the Dracula test, meaning that if true intentions are judged by citizens to be against the public interest, they tend to self-destruction. Quoting George Washington (1796) “I am sure the mass of citizens in these United States mean well, and I firmly believe they will always act well, whenever they can obtain a right understanding of matters
Dr. Ignatius Okosun is a researcher, prolific writer on various national/global issues and a social
commentator. He resides in Toronto-Canada. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org