Accountability is a collective responsibility

When was the last time you put your local or national leader to task by asking them directly why a particular project or programme they are responsible for hasn’t delivered on its objectives?

When was the last time you put your local or national leader to task by asking them directly why a particular project or programme they are responsible for hasn’t delivered on its objectives?

Looking back, for instance, have you ever sought to ask the minister responsible for the provision of clean water as to why the delivery of water in your area is irregular?

 

Allan Rosenbaum, director of the Institute for Public Management and Community Service at the Florida International University, writes that “there is no issue more central to good governance than accountability generally, and the accountability of those in government to their citizenry in particular.”

 

With such an observation in mind, it is reasonable to assume that when a public official assumes office and the responsibilities that come with that office, in that process they acknowledge that it is their primary duty to serve the interests of the citizenry pure and simple.

 

Such an assumption holds water even for the President of the Republic, Ministers, Members of Parliament, Governors, Ambassadors, Director Generals, and Mayors – because, when they are elected or appointed to office, they instantaneously agree to become accountable to the citizenry who foots their wage bill and pays for development projects.

For that reason, it is also reasonable without doubt that the interests of a citizen should and must remain paramount throughout any decision-making stage of any public office in the land. Of course, I am familiar with the Annual Leadership Retreat when high ranking government officials congregate to evaluate performance, deliberate on state matters, and set goals among other things.

However, what I wish to discuss today is how ordinary citizens can be encouraged and facilitated to hold leaders accountable on a daily basis through questioning, participating, and following-up on issues bothering them.

Over the years, accountability (a key pillar for service delivery) has remained relevant in the discourse of governance as well as economic development. In fact, although the concept has had to evolve to stay relevant with the ever-changing nature of public service delivery as per New Public Management, the principle has held firm in making it clear that an individual or an institution is responsible for a set of duties and can therefore be required to give at any time an account of their fulfilment to an authority that is in a position to issue reward or punishment, including the electorate.

In my opinion, citizenry participation in holding leaders accountable (which also helps to flag-up minor problems before they become major ones) can be done in three simple but effective ways: through consultations and feedback; transparency in decision-making; and access to information.

Consultations and participation

Prominent public administration scholars such as Henry Mintzberg have reasoned that public consultations and feedback are perhaps the most effective ways to engage the citizenry in finding solutions for existing problems generally, and ensuring actions are actually taken in particular. For instance, consultations made by government officials and institutions alike encourage citizens to familiarise themselves with the wider government agenda, which can spark an interest in the proceedings of government, whether at local or national level.

In particular, consultations and participation are more likely to boost the interest of young people who tend to find political dealings dull and more or less out of touch. Open public engagements can be encouraged with the use of televised policy debates, feedback sessions, surveys, and when necessary, through open letters to the public explaining policy decisions and intended outcomes.

Transparency in decision-making

Almost every day, public officials make decisions that affect millions of people. Consequently, it is vital that the decision-making process is transparent and that Rwandan citizens have their say on policies and on intended outcomes.

For instance, Coglianese et al observe that the process of transparency encompasses varied opportunities for ordinary citizens, private sector actors, non-governmental organizations, and several others outside government to contribute to and comment on proposed policies.

Access to information on how decisions are made is critical in this process, and can be enhanced by attaching statutory obligations on public institutions to regularly update their information portals to be available especially via the internet.

Access to information

The government must continue to make public information readily and widely available to the citizenry as a way to encourage them to assess the work carried out by public officials. It can be safely assumed that with access to information comes confidence, and with confidence, citizens are more likely to engage with the wider government development agenda, which puts citizens in a central position to question and comment on the progress of the work of government as a collective entity.

In other words, a citizen’s access to information has a potential to go a long way in influencing the way a leader thinks, but, more importantly, the way a leader performs.

All things considered, citizen active involvement is a process which provides individuals like you and I an opportunity to continuously influence public decisions and that leaders do what they say they will do.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that Gibson et al.conclude that  soon “it will no longer be sufficient for public officials and local governments to demonstrate efficiency and sound business principles...they must go further to demonstrate their accountability for the appropriate, proper and intended use of resources”.

As ordinary citizens, we have a duty to instigate accountability processes bottom-up. To do that, we must collectively be able and willing to engage in the decision-making processes that are already in place whilst exploring other innovative ways to make the process even more effective.

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