Accountability and Transparency: Essential Principles

Essential Principles

"A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue
to a Farce or a Tragedy  or perhaps both.
Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people
who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."
James Madison, Letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822 

"[T]he concentration of power and the subjection of individuals will increase
amongst democratic nations . . . in the same proportion as their ignorance." 

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 2, 1840

In a democracy, the principle of accountability holds that government officials — whether elected or appointed by those who have been elected — are responsible to the citizenry for their decisions and actions. In order that officials may be held accountable, the principle of transparency requires that the decisions and actions of those in government are open to public scrutiny and the public has a right to access government information. Both concepts are central to the very idea of democratic governance. Without accountability and transparency, democracy is impossible. In their absence, voters are necessarily ignorant in their electoral choices; elections and the notion of the will of the people lose their meaning and government has the potential to become arbitrary and self-serving.

The People's Right to Know

Elections are the primary means for citizens to hold their country's officials accountable for their actions in office, especially when they have behaved illegally, corruptly, or ineptly in carrying out the government’s work. For elections — and the people's will — to be meaningful, basic rights must be protected and affirmed, as through the Bill of Rights in the United States. James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights, believed that the very basis for government's responsiveness was the assurance that citizens would have sufficient knowledge to direct it. If citizens are to govern their own affairs, either directly or through representative government, then they must be able to have access to the information needed in order to make informed choices about how best to determine their affairs. If citizens and their representatives are not well informed, they can neither act in their own self-interest, broadly speaking, nor can they have any serious choice in elections, much less offer themselves as candidates.

A free media is the essential guarantor of the public's access to information. The media must have broad protection against infringements of its rights and responsibilities under the Constitution, and must have the freedom to be able to search out information when the public interest is concerned and be able to publish information relevant to the public’s interests (see also Freedom of Expression).

The people must also have the right to know about government proceedings and have the right to gain access to government information. The US Constitution established that the proceedings of the Congress must be published regularly (and the US President must report regularly on the “state of the nation”). In general, however, the right to access government information has been entrenched in the law only with the passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 1966. In signing the precedent-setting law, US president Lyndon Johnson stated:

[T]his legislation springs from one of our most essential principles: a democracy works best when the people have all the information that
the security of the nation permits. No one should be able to pull the curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury
to the public interest. citizens are to govern their own affairs, either directly or through representative government, they must be informed about how best to determine their affairs and how best to represent and execute them.

Absent these instruments for accountability and transparency, government is likely to succumb to corruption and the general abuse of power. This has occurred throughout history when no controls have been placed on governmental actions and leaders have sought merely to retain their positions of power and privilege.

Separation of Powers

Accountability also involves the separation of powers, which is the principle that no branch of government may dominate another, and that each branch has the power to check fundamental abuses by other branches (see also Constitutional Limits). For example, Congress's authority, granted by the US Constitution, gives it the power to hold the other branches accountable for breaches of the public's trust through impeachment and expulsion. US federal courts, especially the Supreme Court, have the authority to judge the constitutionality of congressional laws and the executive branch’s actions to faithfully carry out those laws. Parliamentary systems do not have separation of powers in the same way, since the executive branch is appointed by the legislature. In such systems, standards of accountability are established through tradition, laws, and oversight by opposition political parties, an independent judiciary, public commissions, and a free press. Ultimately, however, accountability is found in parliament’s power to withdraw its majority support for a government in power through votes of no confidence.

A federal system of government provides additional separation of powers by delegating power to states or regions to have control over the public’s affairs that are not determined at the national level. In the US, the 10th Amendment of the Bill of Rights reserves to  the individual States (or the people themselves) all public matters that are not delegated to the United States — the whole of the country embodied in the structure of the national government — or prohibited to the States (such as the making of money). A similar principle is subsidiarity, found in the laws of the European Union (EU), which establishes that decisions should be made at the lowest level of government possible so that citizens are closest to the decision-making structures, thereby allowing for greater accountability. Principles of federalism or subsidiarity often conflict in significant ways with the setting of national priorities or the protecting of individual rights. In US history and contemporary politics, such built-in tensions have been constant. Yet, the basic principle remains central to the idea of accountability — it is difficult for national governments to be accountable to all local needs.

The Advantages of Democracy over Dictatorship

Governments that are truly accountable can more effectively prevent corruption, which involves the use of positions of power or privilege for personal, corporate, or group enrichment. Corruption, of course, is possible in all systems of government and democracies are not immune to it. Still, democracies have several advantages in dealing with corruption. One is that elected representatives in a democracy have a direct relationship with the country's citizens. Indeed, the various laws, constitutional provisions and internal regulations found in democracies reflect the idea that those who work for the government, whether appointed, elected or hired, owe a high level of accountability to the people, namely the taxpayers who pay their salaries.

By contrast, dictatorships have no such protections or safeguards. Leaders in a dictatorship do not have the same incentives as leaders in a democracy to avoid violating the law and abusing power to their own advantage. Government positions are owed to the dictator (or those serving a dictator) and indeed often dictators encourage officials to abuse their power through corruption in order to gain their loyalty.

The correlation of dictatorship and corruption is certainly much higher than in democracies. The 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International (TI), a global organization committed to fighting corruption, demonstrates the connection. On one end of the scale, out of the top 50  countries ranked least corrupt in TI’s “perception surveys” (out of a total of 168 surveyed), 40 are categorized as "free" in Freedom House's Survey of Freedom in the World 2015, four as "partly free," and six as "not free." At the opposite end of the spectrum, of the 50 most corrupt countries in the TI index, 30 are in the “not free” category in Freedom House’s survey and 20 are “partly free,” with most of these bordering on the “not free” category.

Accountability and transparency tends to help create better policies and stop the abuse of power. The more the public knows about the government’s actions, the better judgements it can make about public policy. This is especially so in the case of abuse of power. In the United States, the media, the courts, and the legislature all played key roles in uncovering a conspiracy by President Richard Nixon and his staff to use illegal means to undermine his opponents and tip Nixon’s 1972 re-election bid in his favor. In democracies, leaders have resigned or been removed from office when it was made public that they used their power and privilege to financially benefit themselves and their friends, repaid election gifts with legislative favors, or engaged in disreputable personal behavior. Even if leaders are not forced from office, the uncovering and investigating of malfeasance or inappropriate actions can sometimes bring about positive changes in leaders’ governance or behavior. Still, there is significant concern within democracies about the corrupting and corrosive impact of private interests in the funding of elections and how this affects public policy and laws. This is especially so in the United States (see History in this section and also in Free Elections).

Representative and Private Organizations in Democracies and Dictatorships

In democracies, standards of accountability and transparency affect not only government, but also businesses, groups, and organizations that operate under public laws. When one speaks of corruption in this context, it usually involves the payment of bribes to powerful government officials in exchange for special treatment or favors regarding lucrative business transactions or other economic activities. But corruption can exist within corporations, trade unions, humanitarian organizations, civic groups, schools, hospitals, political parties, and other voluntary organizations. Democracies generally adopt laws that require all such public, corporate, civic, or representative organizations to conduct their operations in a manner designed to ensure that the interests of the members, stakeholders, and the general public are properly served and that these institutions do not violate the public's trust.

In addition, international groups often attempt to establish universal standards designed to prevent corruption, such as the UN Convention Against Corruption. The OECD and Council of Europe have adopted even more specific measures that are used in regional initiatives, such as in Eastern Europe, while the United States has backed the Open Government Partnership, which is committed to providing data about the way public money is spent.

In dictatorships, while private organizations may exist, many become instruments of the state and are used to control the broader society, enrich the ruler, or benefit his or her closest associates. In communist states, trade unions are controlled by the official structures of the Communist Party. While membership is obligatory, the unions generally do not operate on behalf of the workers, their members, but to serve to centralize control over the workforce (see, for example, Country Studies of China, Cuba, and Vietnam). In some countries, the purpose of privately-run, state-owned companies is to enrich government officials while strengthening the powers of the state (such as Gazprom in Russia). In dictatorships, all of these entities generally fuel a high level of corruption (see Resources).