The Importance of Accountability
INTRODUCTION This essay will seek to explore the importance of accountability in a world where no-one and everyone is in charge. There are many different types of accountability that apply to government each of which empathises a different value such as legal, political, professional, managerial, financial and so on (Boston and Gill, 2011). Whatever the type there is a fundamental requirement in a democratic system for accountability at all levels of government, so that they act in ways that are broadly approved by the community.
After all, government organisations are created by the public, for the public, and need to be accountable to the public. Accountability within governments means that there is someone within an organisation who can accept ‘praise or blame for a particular decision or action (Hughes, 2003). This easy will explore the importance of government accountability and reveal the expectations of citizens. The Debelle Royal Commission 2013’ is the case study that is used in this essay; it reveals how simple procedural, communication and accountability failures by departmental staff can impact on the integrity of government departments. ACCOUNTABILITY
Businessdirectory. com defines that accountability is the obligation of an individual or organisation to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them, and to disclose the results in a transparent manner. CITIZENS ACCOUNTABILITY EXPECTATIONS A study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (A Measure of Australia’s Progress) in relation to people’s expectations in ‘Democracy, Governance and Citizenship Progress’ reveals that the wellbeing of society can depend on factors such as the fairness of our political system, the health of our democracy and the confidence that people have in government and public institutions.
A healthy and stable democracy needs citizens who care and are willing to partake in shaping the common agenda of society. Public trust in government fragile, further evidence of public disharmony has been from the public opinion polls that have provided increasing evidence that citizens trust in politicians and government is in decline. The Australian Collaboration reports a growth in government ‘protest parties’ such as One Nation and the Australian Greens and political slogans such as ’Keep the Bastards Honest’ are all reactions to this mistrust.
Better citizen engagement and participation procedures have been identified as measures that could reduce community anger and frustrations that promote benefits for both the citizens involved and the governments and authorities which serve them. GOVERNMENT ACCOUNABILITY Accountability is essential to the good of government and is one of the cornerstone values of a democratic society; it has become an ever increasing and important factor for governments of the day. Corruption and integrity scandals are media sensations which have toppled the careers of politicians and government employees.
It is therefore in the government’s interest that all levels of government promote standards of professionalism, accountability and transparency. Leaders of government are responding to the concerns and demands of citizens, this has been addressed by both the former and current Prime Ministers. In April 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stated in an address to senior executives and agency heads that the government’s agenda included “rebuilding a culture of accountability across all levels of government”.
Prime Minister Rudd identified the need for public servants to meet the expectations of the community, he discussed seven future visionary elements for the public service, which included ‘strengthening the integrity and accountability of government’. Current Prime Minister Tony Abbott has pledged that his government will “restore strong, stable and accountable government”, with changes that will “simplify the management of government business, create clear lines of accountability and ensure that departments deliver on the government’s key priorities.
” (Thornhill, 2013) The responsibilities of federal government are set out in section 51 of the constitution; the states have residual power to cover other areas of responsibility. Local governments are not included in the constitution; they are generally controlled through state legislation and are accountable to the state. There is an unavoidable overlap of responsibility between state and federal government, however federal power has the upper hand, financially due to vast funding capabilities and legally due to federal legislation over ruling state powers.
There are state and federal accountability organisations and also extensive legislative powers to investigate all manner of corruption. These agencies operate both overtly and covertly utilising extensive powers to obtain evidence and uncover wrongdoing. The Independent Corruption against Corruption ICAC) in NSW choses to hold very public corruption hearings, the ICAC website media releases contains details of operations Jasper and Acacia in 2013 which revealed corruption within the mining industry involving ministers and members of parliament.
This resulted in the ICAC making 26 several recommendations including accountability reforms to govern the conduct of NSW parliamentarians. The newly formed ICAC, the corruption watchdog in SA will conduct all of its hearings in private. The commissioner of the ICAC will determine what matters will be released into the public domain. Persons breaching the confidentiality of processes related to the ICAC face legal penalties under the ICAC legislation.
Interestingly SA in 1972 was the first state to have an Ombudsman and the last state to have an independent body to investigate government corruption which opened its doors in August 2013. Corruption agencies however are expensive costing governments millions of dollars in funding. During the debates regarding the formation of an ICAC in SA former Premier Mike Rann remained unconvinced that it was a cost effective way to prevent or reveal corruption.
He stated “In other states, ICACs have been proven not to be a cure-all in upholding and maintaining public integrity in our government bodies, most of them cost tens of millions of dollars a year to run, spend far too much time investigating vexatious claims and are inefficient” (Dornin, 20111). Achieving accountability can have some negative impacts, in a paper by Bovens in 2010 notions were raised that accountability obligations have progressed well beyond the point of diminishing returns and more accountability does not necessarily produce better government.
Accountability overkill discourages innovative and entrepreneurial behaviours in public managers who get better at meeting requirements posed by accountability measures to the detriment of policy making and public service delivery (Bovens, 2010). ACCOUNTABILITY RESPONSIBILITIES FOR GOVERNMENT EMPOYEES The Royal Commission into Public Service Administration in 1979 (The Coombs Report) recommended improvements for accountability within the public service.
The Howard government implemented legislation in 1999 for federal government, state and local governments throughout Australia soon followed with various legislation of their own, Singleton et al (2007). As in most employment institutions federal, state and local government employees are all governed by codes of conduct and or ethics. The Public Service Act 1999 (section 13), Public Sector Management Act SA 2009 (section 4) and the Local Government Act 1999 (part 4) are examples of the legal obligations of employees.
Government departments are divided into two areas, by departments which contain other departments, branches and sections and by employment grading, classification or occupation. Actions, conduct and decisions made by government employees can be investigated or revealed through a variety of means such as citizen complains, complaints or reports by government employee’s, revelations through internal and external audit processes or maybe through media attention or reporting. Investigative journalism has proven to be an incredible tool for shaming governments and their employees at all levels.
Freedom of Interest legislation has been around for over 30 years, it was eventually introduced after 10 years of political and parliamentary debate after fist being mooted in 1972, Singleton et al (2007). It was seen as an important breakthrough allowing for the scrutiny of government and government information a measure to prevent secrecy and promote transparency. FOI requests are time consuming and costly, with applicants paying only nominal process charges. Today government departments generally fail to meet specific process related deadlines due to the ever increasing number of requests.
Government employees are also legally required to report instances of wrong doing within government, a difficult and daunting task when you are an employee. Whistleblower protection legislation is aimed at affording a whistlblower protection from liability, dismissal and from being identified. As reported by the Australian Collaboration in relations to the protection of whistleblowers sadly, due to inadequate protection whistleblowers in total contradiction to the purpose of the legislation can and do face reprisals and punitive action.
Interestingly, the Commissioner of the ICAC in SA has recently been appointed by the Attorney General to conduct a review of the operation and effectiveness of the Whistleblower Act in SA. The ICAC website invites interested parties to make written submissions, and adverts have also been recently published in the Adelaide Advertiser. Administrative Appeal Tribunals,, this is a tribunal process which can review a wide range of decisions made by government ministers, departments, agencies and other tribunals.
It takes a fresh look at a decision and decides if it should stay the same or be changed. This process is independent of the person lodging the appeal or the organisation that made the decision There is a broad variety of accountability mechanisms available today in addition to what is detailed in this essay. Governments are responding to accountability demands releasing more and more information into the public domain also by utilising modern methods of communication such as blogs, twitter, and facebook to inform, discuss and engage with citizens. TYPES OF ACCOUNTABILITY
There are many terms used to describe accountability relationships, two important types of accountability are the vertical and horizontal systems which govern the relationships within government Vertical accountability represents the system of power or hierarchy, when others are responsible or accountable to a person for a particular task, for instance staff within a department can be accountable to the departmental head, who in turn can be ultimately responsible to a Minister, Ministers are answerable to Parliament, and Members of Parliament are answerable to voters.
Horizontal accountability sits more at an organisational level where people are more or less equal; this has developed more due to agencies interacting more with other bodies, communities and non-government organisations (Boston and Gill 2011). One way of coming to grips with the broad and various levels of accountability is for every public sector manager having a duty to be accountable upwards, outwards, downwards and inwards (Corbett, 1996). CASE STUDY, A FAILURE TO BE ACCOUNTABLE
The following case study is an example of accountability, or rather a lack of it. This is an issue that developed within the Department of Education and Child Development (DECD). Arrogance, rigidity and suggested bullying tactics of staff within DECD contributed to a matter that could and should have been easily resolved. The events which resulted in the royal commission clearly identify how more effective communications and engagement with community groups can avoid high profile and costly inquiries that are embarrassing and damaging.
In December 2010 a child in attendance at an Out of Hours School scheme (OSHC) revealed that she had been the victim of sexual abuse by an educator. The educator was swiftly arrested and charged by police, and was later convicted at court. Members of the school governing council were informed of events soon after the educators arrest and suspension; many council members were parents of children who attended the school. The council members felt that parents of children at the school had every right to be informed that a person employed at the school to care for children had been charged with a serious sexual assault.
They set about on a course of action to release a letter to duly inform to the school community. In pursuit of this the council were misinformed, misguided, bullied and threatened during their interactions with DECD staff. Information provided by DEDC led the council and others to believe that they were legally prevented from releasing information to parents. The council made several requests for DECD to review and reconsider their decisions particularly when the educator was convicted, sentenced and named in the media.
Council member Ms Danyse Soester (Ms Soester) led the councils campaign and endured obstacles including being turned away by eight law firms, a refusal of support by the legal aid commission and limited support from the Ombudsman’s office. Throughout Ms Soester’s persistence it has since been revealed that DECD assumptions and belligerence were from in-house discussions and decisions based on incorrect information and a limited understanding of the confidentiality processes surrounding sexual offence cases. DECD failed to seek any legal advice or guidance (Norvak, 2013).
Over two years after the event the school community were eventually furnished with a letter providing them with information about the sexual assault. The determination and persistence of Ms Soester eventually led to this matter entering the public arena. It attracted much media attention and the then Minister for Education and Child Development Gail Portelisi was questioned in Parliament; unfortunately her responses were based on inaccurate information which caused further controversy and anger. Ms Portelisi after much pressure called for a Royal Commission.
DEBELLE ROYAL COMMISSION, 2012-2013, REPORT OF INDEPENDENT EDUCATION INQUIRY On 1 November 2012, the Hon Bruce Debelle AO, QC was appointed by Minister Portelisi to inquire into the events and circumstances relevant to this matter. The terms of reference included a review of the circumstances, events and issues relating to the non-disclosure of the sexual assault allegations to the school community. The inquiry took seven months, ninety-eight persons gave evidence and more than 560 exhibits were gathered, the cost of the inquiry reached $442,695.
Mr Debelle reported that DECD had failed to inform parents, failed to adequately manage the events throughout this matter, failed to provide correct and accurate advice, failed to obtain legal advice, failed to reconsider its position, failed to provide accurate information to the SA Ombudsman and the Minister, and that some tactics used in correspondence with the School Governing Council and its members were considered to be threats or at least a form of pressure.
Mr Debelle made a total of 43 recommendations, he also identified how powerless and disadvantaged the council were having little procedural knowledge and no access to funds to support them in their quest. One of the recommendations was that funds be made available to ensure that community groups such as this can have access to funding if required (Debelle, 2013). The Debelle findings were eagerly awaited; DECD have provided a public catharsis, to help bring this public failure to an end.
This is an important secondary effect after something like a royal commission (Bovens, 2010). The chief executive officer Keith Bartley publically apologised to school council members “who tried to tell us we were wrong and whom we failed to heed” and also “to the parents and the particular school community at the centre of the report who should have been informed and were not, we apologise,” (Norvak, 2013). Mr Bartley and other executive members have since resigned amid the fallout; other members of DECD face disciplinary action.
CONCLUSION ‘Accountability’ and ‘accountable’ have strong positive connotations; they hold promises of fair and equitable governance, political officials and public organisations sometimes free ride on these evocative powers of accountability (Bovens, 2010) Accountability needs to be real and not just government promises and propaganda, there needs to be a continuous commitment to accountability and effective frameworks so that governments can respond to and manage the expectations that citizens have.
Governments are no longer immune from scrutiny as they once were. Over the last decade in particular there has been a dramatic increase in accountability measures to ensure and promote greater integrity, transparency and accountability including promises for continued improvement from the former and the current Prime Ministers.
To conclude this essay I include a straightforward quote by Behn (2001) ‘the managers and employees of any public organisation have been entrusted with something quite valuable – with entrusting our mutual commitment to fairness. Thus, they have the responsibility to treat all citizens absolutely fairly. They ought to be held accountable for doing so. When they don’t, they ought to be punished’. Word count 2,649