Rethinking Democratic Accountability Article Review

Pages: 6 (1955 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 10  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: Doctorate  ·  Topic: Government

Accountability for Finances

One of the most intuitive and obvious forms of administrative accountability is solely concerned with financial accounting -- with keeping books and monitoring how money is spent. It is no surprise, then, that the words "accountability," "accountable," "account," and "accounting" have the same Old English, Old French, and Latin root -- computare, the root of the verb "to compute." And indeed, Eugene Bardach, scholar at the University of California at Berkeley and Cara Lesser, scholar at the Center for Studying Health System Change both liken the entire idea of accountability to financial accountability. This is "because financial controls are among the few tools of legislative control of administration" (p. 7).

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The authors of this piece maintain that the concept of financial accountability is relatively direct and easy-to-comprehend. They offer the generic definition of financial accountability from The Dictionary of Accounting Terms, which defines it as, in a number of words, the responsibility of an entity to perform a "certain function" which may be managed or dictated by some law, initiative, or binding agreement (p. 7). Accountability is the tool that maintains our ability to account for where the money has gone. Subsequently, we're able to judge if the money was well spent. If the money was not well-spent, accountability is the tool that allows us to locate the source of the error (read: an individual). Once we locate the source of the error, we can correct it (read: remove the individual from his or her position). Put broadly, financial accountability seeks to find out whether an organization and its representatives have delegated their financial resources responsibly.

Article Review on Rethinking Democratic Accountability Assignment

Financial accountability has helped other accountability methods come into their own. Through the implementation of accountability for finances, a framework has been established. We now know that to accountability can be established by identifying the values by which organizations and individuals should behave, codifying these behaviors into actionable rules, procedures, and standards, creating reporting mechanisms showing that these rules, procedures, and standards are being followed, and allowing another organization to audit these records to confirm that these rules, procedures, and standards are being followed. If the organization auditing catches irresponsibility, dishonesty, and action outside the rules, individuals or organizations can be identified and punitive action can then be taken.

The authors speculate on the significance of these rules, procedures, and standards. Why do we need them? "They specify our expectations for how public officials will handle our money" (p. 7). Without a set of rules or expectations about how our elected representatives will be dealing with the money we give them through our tax dollars, how can there be any accountability at all? Without rules, procedures, and standards, there is nothing for which to be held accountable. In other words, when you wish to hold an individual accountable for its actions, you must first provide that individual with what you expect its actions to be. And, generally, the public has very complex and specific expectations for its elected representatives' behavior. As such, there must also be a large, detailed framework of rules, standards, and procedures (or expectations).

The authors note that financial accountability appears, in theory, relatively straightforward and navigable. In theory, the problem at hand is this: public administrators and employees of public organizations are spending taxpayers' dollars. In return, as taxpayers are entrusting their hard-earned money to them, public administrators and public organizations have the obligation to use this money responsibly. There should be an accountability system in place to hold them accountable to this standard, and if they do not hold themselves to this standard, punitive measures should be pursued.

Accountability for Fairness

Moving on to fairness accountability, the authors write that we must hold our elected officials and government organizations accountable for more than just financial accountability. Fairness -- a well-established norm for democratic governments -- is another standard the authors wish us to hold government organizations and their employees accountable for. Specifically, public administrators should be fair to their employees and contractors, to clients of its many programs, in its services to citizens, in the way it distributes taxes among the public, in judicial matters, and more. Public administrators and government should not only be fair, the authors say -- they should be "exceptionally fair" (p. 8).

We can make sure that our elected officials work by these fairness standards, or democratic norms, by codifying specifically what we mean when we talk about fairness and equity. These rules will in turn ensure -- when followed -- that the government behaves in an equitable manner; treating its citizens fairly and, in reality, defining to ourselves and to the outside world our concept of equity, fairness, and on a more general level -- right and wrong.

And as with financial accountability, ensuring accountability for fairness requires that we create rules, procedures and standards that establish our expectations and codify the behavior that we expect our officials to abide by. In this vein, what first needs to occur is to establish what values we wish our government to promote, protect, and uphold. Second, the rules, procedures, and standards that will create an environment in which our values will be upheld should be created, established and enforced. Effectively, these rules, procedures, and standards will dictate what government officials and employees should and should not do. Third -- just like financial accountability -- it should be mandated that elected officials and governmental employees keep numerous records and accounts of both how they have and have not behaved. Lastly, an organization independent of the government should audit these records and accounts in the effort of confirming that these accounts indeed reflect the actual past, and that the government and its employees have been equitable and fair and as such have followed the rules, standards, and procedures set forth. If the audit finds that they have not followed the rules, the government and its employees should be held accountable by being punished.

The authors again reiterate that the basis for holding governments and public managers accountable -- just as in financial accountability -- is the creation of very specific expectations. Indeed, this is exactly what the rules, procedures, and standards they continually refer to accomplish. "They codify our expectations for how public officials will treat citizens -- what, exactly, we mean by being fair. Because we have very clear, very detailed expectations for how our public employees will deal with citizens, we need a lot of rules, procedures, and standards" (p. 8).

And like accountability for finances, the authors make the same point about accountability for equity and fairness as a relatively straightforward concept. By allowing the government and its employees to decide how to put to use the public's resources, citizens have entrusted the managers and employees of public organizations to ensure a mutual commitment to fairness and equity. As the most visual representatives -- and the most literal -- of a society, citizens should be sure that their elected representatives will yield the power their positions afford them in a responsible, wise manner that promotes the values of fairness and equity of the society that they represent. This is exactly why the concept of accountability exists, and they should be held accountable for fair and equitable behavior. When governments and its employees are not fair and equitable, punishment will hold them accountable and hopefully correct the problem.

Accountability for Performance

Along with the belief that true accountability should include as foundations both accountability for finances and accountability for fairness, the authors also propose that the government and its employees also have the responsibility to accomplish public purposes. This is known as accountability for performance. Shifting the discussion from accountability for fairness and finances to accountability for performance represents a shift in focus -- accountability for fairness and financial accountability represent accountability for how the government does what it does. Accountability for performance is directed at what the government actually does. Accountability for performance is, further, consequence-directed -- we're concerned with the consequences of our elected representatives' actions. We are concerned not only with how our public organization pursues its endeavors, but that the endeavors themselves represent the values that our society collectively holds.

How might we judge the consequences of our government's actions and thus establish expectation and the basis for accountability? The authors tell us to make sure the policies, programs, and activities of our government are yielding the results that they were supposed to yield. Programs must do what they say they will do. The authors give as an anecdote a public school program. In this case, the question should be asked, "How much did the students learn?" Or the clean-up of a polluted creek. "How much cleaner is the river than it was ten years ago?" Or a crime fighting initiative. "How safe is it to walk in the city at night?" The answers to these questions, and questions such as these, provide the basis for governmental accountability for performance.

To begin holding our government and its employees… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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