What do we really mean when we say we want our public officials to be transparent and accountable?
One of the unfortunate things about shifting norms is that at some moment in time, everyone begins to use the same words but without always meaning the same thing.
In the past two decades, there has been a meteoric rise in the perceived social desirability of concepts like transparency, accountability and public participation. Today, many more people extol the virtues of these terms, but not always with an appreciable understanding of their meaning.
Those of us who spend our time pushing for greater transparency in public life deserve a share of the blame for this, because we often fail to define and defend proper understandings of the words we use. Thus, we leave them lingering in the atmosphere, to be hollowed out by others.
Observing the recent behaviour of the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has reinforced my concerns about many of the newly empowered independent agencies that are part of Kenya’s reform process.
These agencies tend to interpret their mandate primarily in terms of the ends they deliver. IEBC is to deliver elections; the Commission on Revenue Allocation is to deliver revenue-sharing recommendations; the Transition Authority is to deliver devolution; the Salaries and Remuneration Commission is to deliver salaries. They therefore consider themselves transparent and accountable if they provide these deliverables.
Another view would be that these agencies are not there primarily to deliver ends, but to manage processes of reform. In these processes, the ends matter less than the fact that the inputs and approach are transparent. The agencies are accountable not primarily for the decisions they reach, but more critically for the ways in which they have reached them.
The crux of the matter turns on what one understands by transparency and accountability. The agencies’ understanding is minimalist.
The conception that many of us working in the field have is broader, but perhaps poorly understood. It requires greater elaboration and a robust defence.
When I was a graduate student, I had the fortune of working with a philosophy professor named Dr Norman Daniels on a small research project. Daniels had been asked to provide advice to the Mexican government about their health care system. Specifically, they were designing a public health insurance programme and wanted to set up a fair system for deciding what should be covered and what should be left out, given the limited financing available.
Daniels is a follower of the philosopher John Rawls. At the risk of doing violence to his work, I summarise Rawls’s approach as follows: In modern, diverse societies, we cannot all agree on what constitutes the good life. Therefore, rather than try to identify this and impose it on everyone, we should look for a fair system for making choices that everyone can accept.
This idea, justice as fairness, basically says that what matters most in a modern society is that people feel that the way in which decisions are taken is fair, and not the decisions themselves. Voting is of course an example: A fair voting system yields results that people can accept, even if they don’t like them.
Daniels applied this Rawlsian principle to the case of health insurance. We may never agree on whether limited resources should be used for malaria instead of cancer, but we can agree on a fair process for making that decision. Daniels and his team called their approach “accountability for reasonableness.”
In this view, government officials are considered accountable to the public if their decisions are arrived at through a procedure that is “reasonable.” In order to be considered “reasonable,” the process must have several elements:
First, both the decisions and the rationales for the decisions must be public. So accountability starts with transparency not only about decisions, but about the reasons for those decisions.
Second, those rationales must be “relevant.” This means that they must be based on data and principles that reasonable people trying to solve a public problem would agree are relevant to the problem. Notice how the definition of transparency is deepened here to include not only reasons for the decision, but justification that those reasons are actually relevant.
A third criterion is that there must be some way to appeal decisions made. This implies that public participation cannot be tokenistic, but must potentially lead to changes in the decision. In order to appeal, citizens must have access to the decision and relevant reasons for it.
When looked at through the lens of what constitutes a reasonable process, it is clear that government agencies that desire to be considered transparent and accountable must go beyond providing outputs to the public, and offer in addition comprehensive and relevant explanations for their decisions.
Dr Jason Lakin is a programme officer and research fellow at the International Budget Partnership. [email protected]