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Everyone wants others held accountable.

Belni, Robert D., Rethinking Democratic Accountability (Brookings Institution Press: 2001)

In Rethinking Democratic Accountability, Robert Behn takes a well-used word in public management discourse--accountability--and asks simply, what does it mean to be accountable to the public interest? Using the Socratic method, Behn takes the reader on a journey exploring accountability's meaning, opportunities, and barriers underlying accountability approaches, and institutional changes necessary for effective performance accountability.

Behn writes everyone wants people--other people--held accountable. He says holding people accountable in government usually means accountability for finances, fairness, and performance, all at the same time. Government is to use money prudently, treat people fairly, and accomplish public purposes.

Accountability for finances and fairness is done through an elaborate framework of rules, procedures, processes, and very specific, detailed standards. Accountability for performance is infinitely more difficult as it requires a clear performance benchmark to provide services to an agency's "customers" and cover citizen expectations as well. Behn says there is an accountability dilemma in that accountability rules and standards for finances and fairness tradeoff accountability for performance.

Because it is easier to have accountability for compliance with explicit rules and standards, accountability holders such as auditors create bias against accountability for producing results through performance--a much more subjective arena.

Behn sets the stage for rethinking accountability by contrasting traditional public administration's emphasis on eliminating corruption and the "new" public management's emphasis on performance. Traditional public administration stressed efficiency, hierarchical authority, and professional accountability institutions.

The new public management stresses performance, but Behn said it must answer democratic accountability's basic question, "How will who hold whom accountable for producing whose results?" This question, Behn explains, ask for four decisions:

* who will set performance standards;

* who individually or collectively or collaboratively is responsible for producing results;

* who will implement the accountability process; and

* how will the accountability process work?

To rethink democratic accountability, Behn posits a compact of mutual, collective responsibility. The compact lays out the overall agency mission, and specific performance targets. It is an agreement between the agency leadership team and its direct political superiors and overseers, and should extend to others in the agency's accountability environment, such as journalists and even citizens. It concerns finances, fairness, and performance, as well as public trust, public interest, and democratic duties.

Everyone in the accountability environment is responsible for contributing to achieving the agreement. The compact is built on trust and the desire of all parties to cooperate to produce results they collectively desire. Having mutual responsibility means removing the distinction between accountability holders and accountability holdees. However, he says accountability holders will not join a compact without a fight. Legislators, candidates, journalists, auditors, and prosecutors make their living by assigning blame. Fostering cooperation and collective advantages will be difficult. The starting point might be "mini-responsibility" compacts involving those most interested in improving the agency's performance that might evolve into charter agencies.

Several features of the book will likely put off some readers. First, Behn's extensive use of questions introducing and analyzing issues might annoy readers. At some point, the reader may say "quit the questions and get on with the answers!" Second, Behn supplements and supports his research and conclusions with extensive endnotes. For academics and scholars alike, these notes are a treasure trove of excellent references and Behn's insightful comments, point and counterpoint discussions, and often humorous comments. One wishes Behn integrated much more of the notes into the chapters. Third, Behn repeats major questions and conclusions innumerable times. This draws attention to them, but might inure the reader to their importance. Last, this book is not a "how-to" quick read some may prefer. Behn's intricate accountability story requires the reader's full engagement from beginning to end.

Behn's book clearly identifies the interdependence of complex accountability issues, actors, agendas, approaches, incentives, and barriers. Unlike many other government results-management books, the book is not a cookbook of well-known control systems, a call for entrepreneurial government, or better accountability leadership. Instead, Behn thoughtfully dissects serious problems with current accountability practices.

While there is a need for accountability for financial stewardship and treating people fairly, he points out that these create adversarial and competitive relationships. Their accountability should not drive out, and actually be destructive to, the public interest in achieving mission results. He challenges the reader to reject current practices and be open to doing the business of government accountability much differently. After reading his book the reader should agree with Behn that "we need to rethink what we mean by democratic accountability."

Sharon L. Caudle is a senior business process analyst with the General Accounting Office in San Francisco.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:The Public Manager
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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