35 – Accountability in local government. Who are we really accountable to and why does it matter?

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                                              650 words

The demands for accountability in local government are continuous. The challenge is that they come from many different places and focus on different aspects of performance.   Sometimes they create conflicts. For example, strict adherence to procurement policies can remove the flexibility required to respond quickly and meet complex community needs. But it keeps the Audit Committee happy. A community interest group gains political support for a project that hasn’t been included in the budget. But the councillor and their constituents are happy. I am sure you can think of other examples.

Mark H. Moore talks about the sources of accountability in detail in Recognising Public Value. He identifies four primary sources of accountability:

  1. Auditing accountability – State government agencies exist to ensure local government uses it funding and powers appropriately.   The existence of these agencies and the threat of audits creates a powerful and continuous accountability focussed on expenditures and compliance with policies and procedures. They typically do not focus on satisfaction of clients or achievement of social outcomes (i.e. public value). It is a type of accountability that can limit innovation and organisational learning by keeping organisations focussed on existing policies and procedures.
  2. Political accountability – elected representatives seek to ensure that the organisation responds to their expectations and demands. They have been elected to implement a program. There is no guarantee that they will agree with each other and provide a clear, consistent and durable statement of the public value to be produced. Governments are often divided and elected representatives lack the time, energy, skill or incentives to provide thoughtful oversight. As a result, the source of accountability that could be the strongest is weaker, less committed to performance and less able to effectively influence the organisation. Sometimes, the energy that could create that oversight is lost on the limited and self-interested concerns of the elected representatives.
  3. Pluralist demand for accountability – the uncoordinated demands of anyone with an interest in some aspect of organisational performance and a platform to make that concern heard. This could be anyone in a democratic society and citizens and interest groups can be powerful and demanding agents of accountability. They do not have to wait for special authorisation of elections. They can move on their own whenever they want to and force public managers and elected representatives to pay attention. The media can broadcast and amplify their demands. They play a critical role in focusing the attention of elected officials on the issues they cover.

This type of accountability is problematic and often commands most of the attention of public managers. Whilst this is consistent with government accountability to the people, it is inconsistent with the goal of producing an exacting, consistent, broad demand for improvement on a limited number of dimensions of performance. All too often it focuses on individual incidents instead of aggregate performance, on process over outcomes, and on only one dimension of value creation rather than the full spectrum of values at stake in government operations. It is an unpredictable form of accountability.

  1. Complaint systems and legal recourse – the institutions that hear and respond to citizen complaints about the conduct of government.

Ideally, these four sources of accountability would integrate to create a compelling demand for performance based on an explicit public value proposition that would clarify expectations of public managers and create a context to measure performance.

Instead, the auditing system tends to focus on cost controls and procedural compliance. The political system focuses on the issues of the day. The pluralist system focuses on whatever captures the interest of any individual or stakeholder. The complaint system focuses on the bad experiences of individual clients. Seldom are the four sources coordinated in any way.

Whilst it is impossible to control the sources of accountability, it would be helpful if the organisation considered its response to each one and tried to avoid conflicts.

Moore, Mark 2013. Recognising Public Value.