Responsibility not same as accountability

Authorities often substitute public relations for communication

By Henry McCandless, Special to Times ColonistApril 17, 2009

Authorities affecting the public in important ways have the obligation to explain publicly, fully and fairly what they intend, for whom, and why they intend it. The problem is that we haven't required this reporting from governments, their agencies and large corporations.

Responsibility, the obligation to act, drives accountability. But it is not the same thing.

Accountability means the obligation of the directing minds of all authorities to explain credibly, for their intentions, who would benefit, how, and why, and who would bear what costs and risks, and why, for both the short and longer term.

An obvious intention calling for full and fair public explanation is the provincial government's insistence on "public-private sector partnerships" (P3s). All we get are slick PR statements.

Other examples are the major options for Victoria's sewage treatment and for the use of Victoria's harbour. B.C. Hydro's specific land and water use intentions are another example.

Because the obligation to explain publicly is non-partisan and unassailable in a democracy, authorities have no argument against it. Yet we have allowed them to duck their obligation. Financial statements are only a part of accountability, and in any case they are produced after the fact.

It would make sense to ask would-be MLAs to state in public what action they commit to take to place in law the obligation of all authorities to publicly and adequately explain how they are carrying out their responsibilities.

Holding to account means extracting the information citizens need to sensibly commend, alter or halt an authority's intentions. But it also means doing something fair with explanations given in good faith.

The importance of authorities being made to explain their decision intentions and control of their operations is clear. The requirement to explain publicly exerts a powerful self-regulating influence on their intentions that serves the public good.

The moment an authority is made to answer a fair question asked by citizens on how it is carrying out its responsibilities, the authority loses trust if it doesn't explain fully and fairly. This is because knowledgeable organizations can shred misleading responses or refusals to explain.

As to operations, public accountability requires authorities to state the specific performance and control standards they have in place both for their own operations and those they oversee. Obvious examples are the governance and operations of the health authorities and of B.C. Ferries.

Management control means having effective processes that cause to happen that which should and cause not to happen that which shouldn't.

We increasingly see examples of management control failure, as in the Queen of the North sinking. No attention has been paid to the management control responsibilities and public accountability of the Ferries' governing body and its controlling ministers of the Crown.

Another obvious example is the RCMP. Officers responsible for control over events give self-protecting statements rather than explaining publicly, fully and fairly whether they met performance standards that citizens have the right to see met.

The media are key in having authorities publicly answer useful accountability questions.

Recent editorials in the Times Colonist that have included the issue of public accountability are encouraging.

In the case of an editorial on the usefulness of the Vancouver Island Health Authority's reporting, the Citizens' Accountability Group on VIHA had earlier asked each board member to state whether they agreed with a common-sense definition of public accountability given to them, and what the board saw as its own obligation to publicly account.

The group pointed out that the board didn't have to wait for the minister of health to tell it what he thought their public accountability meant. There is no evidence that the ministry's definition of public accountability -- if it even has one -- would meet a standard of explanation that citizens have the right to see met.

The VIHA board gave the group an "I'm alright, Jack" response and refused to give its own view of its public accountability.

Activists working for fairness can easily include holding to account as strategy.

This would provide a common bond across the many different activist organizations, since their total numbers are a formidable force for the public good.

The point of extracting authorities' real intentions is that if citizens see them as leading to harm or injustice, they will tend to self-destruct.

It takes only a week's scan of newspapers to realize that performance by decision-makers and officials across Canada is declining. This is because standards for their performance in action and supervision are declining or even missing.

The result loses us efficacy as a country and influence internationally. To reverse this trend, citizens across the country need to form accountability groups for the main responsibilities in society.

In fact, we need citizens' groups to draft basic performance standards for authorities. These are not difficult tasks for citizens willing to get together and act.

Henry McCandless is with the Citizens' Circle for Accountability.

Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist

Definition: MLA: Member of Legislative Assembly; is a representative elected by the voters of an electoral district to the legislature or legislative assembly of a subnational (provincial) jurisdiction .