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Accountability and Transparency: History

Citizen Oversight in Athenian Democracy

One of the most notable achievements of Athenian democracy in ancient times was its establishment of civilian oversight of public funds and the wealth and incomes of all public figures (including generals), so that they did not benefit from their public positions. Auditors, financial controllers of the treasury, and judges were chosen annually by lot. This system of accountability stood in stark contrast with nearly all other governments in the ancient world, most of which were despotic and marked by corruption, personal enrichment, and aggrandizement.

Two Precedents of Accountability

In England, the Magna Carta, which was signed in 1215, introduced the first standards of accountability in government by forcing King John to accept the basic principle that taxes should not be raised without first consulting his wealthy subjects. Representative councils had to be called to review the monarchy's expenditures. From this grew a form of constitutional monarchy in which parliament asserted increasingly greater powers. Three centuries after the Magna Carta, in 1517, another precedent was set when Martin Luther posted the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. The theses challenged the selling of indulgences (absolution from sin) by the Church, a practice widely used for priestly and papal enrichment. In challenging both the spiritual and the temporal authority of the pope, Luther was asserting the right of believers to accountability. In doing so, he sparked the Protestant Reformation, marking a division within Christianity between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

Embedded in the Constitution

With the rise of representative government, accountability and transparency became much broader in scope, encompassing not just what leaders owed abstractly to the nation or the commonwealth, but what they owed specifically to the citizenry. As an expression of the people's will, government is accountable to all of the country's citizens. In the United States, concepts of accountability and transparency are embedded in the Constitution, its provisions often directly responding to prior abuses of the British crown, such as arbitrary arrests and property confiscations. The U.S. Constitution requires the legislative and executive branches to publish laws, regulations, and proceedings. It also requires the president to report periodically to Congress on the state of the union and to fully account for the national government's expenditures. In this way, the public is made aware of the government's actions.

The Powers of Congress

In the United States, in addition to the voters' power through elections, Congress has the power to impeach and convict the president and other federal officials, such as judges, in cases of "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors." But in matters of corruption, until the late 1800s, there were few controls over U.S. government officials beyond ineffective antibribery statutes. In this early period, government operated according to the spoils system, in which the winner doled out jobs according to party and candidate loyalty, not by merit. The first comprehensive civil service law, the Pendleton Act, was passed only in 1883 following President James Garfield's assassination by a disgruntled office seeker. The Pendleton Act established minimum standards for federal employment, competence and qualification examinations for employment, a merit-based promotional system, and job and pay classifications within the civil service. The act still forms the basis for civil service standards today.

Laws designed to ensure public access to information include the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), passed in 1966, and the Ethics in Government Act, passed in 1978. The Ethics Act was passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the most significant constitutional crisis in U.S. history. It involved illegal activities ordered by President Richard Nixon, who sought to weaken his political opponents and secure reelection and then attempted to cover up the crimes. The crisis also involved the president's protracted challenges to the authority of Congress and the judiciary. In the end, Congress, the media, the public, and even the Supreme Court joined to expose the scope of the president's transgressions, forcing him to resign from office.

The Role of the Media

The role of the media in the Watergate scandal is well-known. It reflects the importance of the media in exposing wrongdoing and keeping the public informed of the actions of government and elected officials. Until 1964, however, the media's powers were very fragile. Two U.S. Supreme Court decisions have been essential in strengthening the media's position. New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) and The Pentagon Papers Case (1971), also involving the New York Times, strengthened the media's rights to obtain information from government, publish material about officials (even if not fully accurate), and print materials the government has kept secret from the public. Nevertheless, journalists often find themselves in conflict with government and legal authorities over protecting sources of classified or sensitive information, especially if the sources are government employees who have committed themselves to secrecy. In such cases, journalists are subject to imprisonment. Recently, a New York Times reporter went to jail for 85 days for not revealing a source to whom she had promised secrecy. In response, several news organizations renewed their efforts to adopt a national shield law that would protect journalists from having to reveal their sources in criminal or federal cases (several states have such shield laws).

Beyond the U.S.

Today, most democracies (presidential, parliamentary, or mixed) have established principles of accountability.

It is clear, however, that corruption and the lack of accountability have been important factors in world events.
Western European countries, most of which have parliamentary systems, began to adopt domestic legislation for accountability and transparency in the 1950s. Accountability and transparency are basic qualifications for membership in both the Council of Europe and the EU. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has adopted standards and proposes model legislation to govern institutions, such as corporations, nonprofit organizations, and trade unions. The United Kingdom has also enacted comprehensive freedom of information legislation for the public sector.

Elsewhere in the world, the achievement of accountability and transparency in government has been mixed. Whereas many democratic countries have moved decisively to end corruption and introduce concepts of accountability, many other countries remain mired in dictatorship and crime. It is clear, however, that corruption and the lack of accountability have been important factors in world events. "People power" was the term used to describe the hundreds of thousands of people who demonstrated in the Philippines in 1986, forcing the corrupt government of Ferdinand Marcos to resign (see County Study of the Philippines below). Recently, corruption was a significant issue in the formation of popular movements against nondemocratic governments in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), and Ukraine (2004). In many countries, the public's disgust at pervasive corruption has been a force for democratization. With the establishment of new democratic institutions, there is a potential to institute more open and effective procedures to deal with corruption, government secrecy, and electoral abuses.