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The many guises of accountability

Written by Peter McKinlay on October 25th, 2011.      0 comments

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

In the past few weeks I've been working on how community governance is evolving in Australia, listening to officials in England discuss the challenges of devolution under the Localism Bill and reflecting on the progress of the Auckland (super city) Council one year after its establishment.

Humpty Dumpty would be in his element. In each of those three very different situations the major focus is on "improving accountability and transparency" - but what actually do we mean?

Auckland underwent a massive restructuring including placing much of service delivery in seven council controlled organisations. The objective naturally was to improve accountability. Officials in England are concerned about how to maintain accountability in a decentralised environment. Changes in community governance in Australia are all about making councils more accountable to their communities.

Let's think about accountability for a moment without thinking about specific context. Webster’s unabridged dictionary defines it as "The state of being accountable; liability to be called on to render an account; the obligation to bear the consequences for failure to perform as expected; accountableness".

Here we have two separate components: liability to render an account; and bearing the consequences of a failure to perform.

What a general definition cannot do is tell us accountability to whom for what, and this is where the challenge really starts in looking at accountability in local government.

In England, interest in accountability in the context of devolution is how to ensure local government remains accountable to Ministers and Parliament for the expenditure of public money, when the power to spend that money is devolved. Think of the dilemma. If it's direct accountability in the sense of reporting to Ministers that you have done what they required, you may have accountability but you won't have devolution. If it's reporting to Ministers that expenditure followed due process, and for purposes generally consistent with the policy devolved to local government, you may have devolution but you won't have what Ministers may mean by accountability – which is that “we want to hold you to account for doing what we want you to do despite devolution”.

In Australia, the emergence of community governance is about individual communities being able to influence decisions which have an impact on them. It's a new way of thinking about the relationship between communities and local government. What it is actually saying is that conventional accountability is inadequate; it's not an effective way to give individual communities a sense that their specific concerns have been properly taken into account through a process they regard as legitimate. This requires much more than council-wide strategic and operational plans, and reports against those plans. These are both too general, and lack the second element of accountability: bearing the consequences of failure to perform. We've long known that the local government electoral process is simply not designed to provide feedback on the multitude of individual decisions councils take during their electoral term on behalf of the different communities for which they are responsible.

We also know from New Zealand experience that typically local government reports prepared in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles seldom convey the kind of information people genuinely want to know about council plans and council performance. It may satisfy prudential requirements, but it doesn't get the gist of the outcomes councils deliver.

In Auckland the use of council controlled organisations looks like a good compromise for ensuring a measure of democratic influence whilst placing activities which have a number of commercial characteristics in an appropriate structure (typically a company). Certainly the degree of disclosure, and the requirement to prepare amongst other things local engagement plans, goes further than would be required of the same activity in a council business unit. Again, however, there are questions about the second leg of accountability: bearing the consequences for failure to perform.

Auckland's many communities will be most interested not in the overall performance of (say) Auckland Transport (which is responsible among other things for local and regional roads and public transport), but in how it performs in their own neighbourhoods - perhaps for example in dealing with a traffic calming measure. There is no real leverage apart from political pressure on elected politicians to deal with decisions which the community does not like or where the process was not seen as legitimate.

Consequences, if they result, really come through decisions about appointing or dismissing directors - in other words meta-level consequences. Can this really be an effective mechanism for dealing with hundreds of individual decisions affecting different communities across a population of 1.4 million?

These are three very different examples of practices which are talked about using the common term "accountability". Is it time we started to recognise that, with local government, we actually want multiple accountabilities, to quite different interests, rather than confusing ourselves by speaking as though accountability was a single process?

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