Citizens are increasingly bewildered at their loss of control over people in authority who are responsible for preventing harm in society and making society work -- mainly legislators, civil servants and boards of the large corporations. The issues swirl about us in the media: quality of health care, food and drugs safety, workplace safety, corporate control, justice in the courts and the issue of the ability and motivation of authorities. We need to understand why our loss of control is happening, why harm continues, and how we can gain control over authorities having important responsibilities. We must understand how to apply the precautionary principle to civics. Citizens in all countries face the same problem.
The source of citizens' loss of control is the lack of public answering by authorities -- the people set in authority as the directing minds of governments, large corporations and other institutions. They haven't been telling us, fully and fairly, before they make their decisions, what they intend as outcomes, for whom, and why they intend it. Nor have they told us their own performance standards. They don't because we have never legislated the answering requirement, yet the requirement to answer doesn't tell authorities what to do. It simply tells them to publicly explain their intentions. The other common denominator in our loss of control is our reluctance to hold to account -- we haven't ordered our elected representatives to install the public answering requirement and to have important answering validated. We must shift from deference to stating legitimate expectations and getting the answering.
As things stand, we aren't informed well enough to do our civic duty in overseeing authorities. Then, not being adequately informed, we increasingly distrust the authorities. This in turn leads to armies of citizens having to get together after work to pour huge amounts of time and energy into fighting the authorities we should be controlling. There has to be a better way.
A Citizen's Guide to Public Accountability explains why we must require those in authority to answer to us publicly and adequately, before and after the fact, and why this would produce a self-regulating effect on what authorities do.
The example of "horror stories" shows what happens when we don't require adequate answering from directing minds. The book then explains what public accountability means and proposes basic standards for public answering by different types of authorities. Legislated answering requirements would give us reasonable information to commend authorities' intentions, alter them, or halt them. The book offers public interest organizations and activist leaders specific guidance for exacting adequate answering from authorities, which should lead to greater fairness in society.
Henry Emerson McCandless, MBA, CA, is a writer and consultant in accountability living in Victoria, British Columbia. His work is based on a 35-year professional auditing career serving accountability relationships, half of which was in the Office of the Auditor General of Canada. He has written extensively on public accountability issues in journal articles and in Internet networks.
In 1996 Mr. McCandless co-founded the Citizens' Circle for Accountability (www.accountabilitycircle.org) to offer help to activist leaders and citizens at large who wish to work on public accountability issues and to develop strategies for holding fairly to account. In 1996 he also co-founded the Ottawa-based Alliance for Public Accountability, which actively intervenes in accountability issues.