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Transparency Does Not Equal Accountability

February 17, 2010

Last week’s provocative post on the Tea Party Movement took a partially satirical look (à la The Daily Show) at the current state of populist politics and its potential implications for homeland security. (Did anyone notice that the post was tagged under the “humor” category?) Whether the movement will result in a renewed appreciation of or commitment to maintaining the delicate balance between liberty and security or push the country toward armed insurrection and anarchy remains to be seen.

Underlying the movement though are two deep-seated sentiments that we ignore at our own peril, especially as we consider our responses to and recovery from the global fiscal crisis, terrorism, and the natural disasters in Haiti and elsewhere. Trust, or more importantly, the lack thereof, and accountability, or the lack thereof, occupy central places in the disagreements dominating political rhetoric.

We all know that trust in government and government officials has been on decline for decades. We may not agree on the reasons such trust has eroded, but the themes seem consistent enough despite differences in ideology. Put simply, too many of us consider the actions of those in power inconsistent with their stated values, and even more importantly, our stated values. These discrepancies reflect both qualitative and quantitative failings to meet expectations.

When things do not go as expected, we look for someone to accept responsibility. Failing that, we expect someone or some institution to exact or enforce accountability for the perceived or real shortcomings. This expectation arises despite limitations in legal prescriptions or institutional designs. We understand that organizations cannot act independently of the people who comprise them. Someone must be accountable for their design if not their intention or operation.

If such analysis were possible (it might be, but I haven’t yet figured out how to do it), we might find that trust has declined more or less in direct proportion to the lapses in accountability that have accompanied political and policy failures. Systemic error characterized by the altogether too-common use of terms like ‘no one’s to blame,’ ‘mistakes were made,’ and ‘I cannot recall,’ leave people hungry for certainty that someone understands what went wrong and is not only prepared to do something about it, but equally important, also capable of taking action.

So what do we do? Notwithstanding our thirst for consistency of action, abundant evidence indicates that trust is not a prerequisite for cooperation any more than cooperation itself ensures trust. People cooperate with one another for diverse and often complex reasons. In some instances, their agreements have less to do with the common good than their peculiar conceptions of what participation means to them or can deliver for them or those whose interests they represent.

It has become altogether too common, especially of late, to assume that transparency, as in openness or access, breeds cooperation and in doing so encourages accountability, if only through peer pressure or the influence of observer effects. That too seems inconsistent with experience, much less common sense. Flooding the market with information is one of the best ways to conceal your true intentions.

All four of these concepts have a place in the contemporary discourse about how to manage our affairs, especially as they relate to recovery from disasters whether associated with natural hazards or resulting from  human actions (cf. Boin, McConnell & ‘t Hart 2008). (In this sense, disasters simply represent really big errors or inconsistencies between expectations and outcomes.) Integrating them into recovery requires an appreciation of the process that reflects both the physical and cognitive work required of people experiencing loss. In this context loss includes all disruptions or deviations from the desired or expected course of events.

Cooperation and accountability represent processes that manifest themselves in concrete, often discrete actions. They both require people to interact directly with one another as well as the circumstances in which they find themselves. On the other hand, transparency and trust are conditions, one external and one internal, that represent our appreciation of or satisfaction with these interactions.

When these axes – transparency/accountability and trust/cooperation – are arranged perpendicularly to intersect with one another, the point where they cross describes a presumed ideal condition in which the forces are balanced. In the absence of cooperation and accountability (high trust/high transparency), the system tends toward authoritarianism.  High transparency and high cooperation tend to describe simple communal or tribal arrangements. High cooperation and high accountability tend to describe socialist arrangements. And high trust and high accountability are often associated with market systems that involve simple exchange relationships.

As the number of participants and their perspectives increase, the need for cooperation becomes more imperative but tends to come at the expense of trust. Transparency makes it easier for participants to judge the character and intentions of others but does not necessarily encourage them to trust one another. Situations which combine high levels of cooperation and high levels of accountability often succeed in the short-term, but at the expense of trust and transparency as the rationale for judgments and the equitable allocation of consequences becomes increasingly difficult for participants to independently assess. In the simplest terms, the more complex the environment and more diverse the governance roles, the more difficult it becomes to increase trust without increasing accountability.

The concerns about the future of the country evident in the Tea Party Movement are echoed by Progressive discontent with the efforts of the President and Congress to enact their social agenda. In both cases, increasing transparency, even if accompanied by increased engagement and cooperation, will produce few results unless those responsible for the current situation are held to account. Meaningful account recognizes that trust depends more upon certainty of outcome than it does reciprocity. People do not expect equal opportunity or equal outcome, but they will not countenance either circumstance for long in the absence of equity and genuine justice, which inevitably involve accountability.

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