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Accountability and Transparency: 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. Transparency requires that the decisions and actions of those in government are open to public scrutiny and that the public has a right to access such information. Both concepts are central to the very idea of democratic governance. Without accountability and transparency, democracy is impossible. In their absence, elections and the notion of the will of the people have no 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 while carrying out the work of the government. But for elections—and the people's will—to be meaningful, basic rights must be protected and affirmed, such as with a Bill of Rights, as in the United States. James Madison, the author of the U.S. 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, they must be informed about how best to determine their affairs and how best to represent and execute them. If citizens are not well informed, they can neither act in their own self-interest, broadly speaking, nor have any serious choice in elections, much less offer themselves as candidates.

If 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

A free press is the essential guarantor of the public's access to information. The press must, therefore, have broad protection against infringements of its rights, and must be able to search out information when the public interest is concerned. Of course, the people themselves must also have the right to know about government proceedings and the right to gain access to government information. Interestingly, though, such rights have been entrenched in the laws of most democracies only during the last 50 years. When U.S. president Lyndon Johnson signed the precedent-setting Freedom of Information Act in 1966, he 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."

Absent these instruments for accountability and transparency, government is likely to succumb to corruption; this has occurred throughout history when no controls have been placed on governmental powers and leaders have sought only to retain power.

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. Congress's authority granted by the U.S. Constitution, for example, gives it the power to hold other branches accountable for breaches of the public's trust through impeachment and expulsion. U.S. federal courts, especially the Supreme Court, have the authority to judge the constitutionality of congressional laws and officials' actions. Parliamentary systems do not have the 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 an independent judiciary, public commissions, and a free press.

The U.S. system of government provides for an additional separation of powers with the guarantee that states should have the responsibility to govern unless otherwise specified as part of the national government's powers. A similar principle is subsidiarity, found in the laws of the European Union (EU) and in the doctrine of the Catholic Church. This is the notion that decisions should be made at the lowest level of government possible so that citizens are close to the decision-making structures, thereby allowing for greater accountability.

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 enrichment. Indeed, corruption is possible in all systems of government, and democracies are not immune from it. Still, democracies have several advantages in dealing with corruption. One advantage is that elected representatives in a democracy have a direct relationship with the country's citizens, whose votes encourage the winner to act honestly in representing the people's will. 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 public.

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. The 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International (TI), a global organization committed to fighting corruption, demonstrates how corruption can correlate with dictatorship. Among the 30 countries ranked least corrupt by TI (out of a total of 180), 28 are categorized as "free," 2 are "partly free," and 0 are "not free" in Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2007 survey. Among the bottom 30, 11 are listed as "partly free" and 19 as "not free" by Freedom House.

Representative Organizations in Civil Society

Other institutions, including the private groups and organizations that operate under public laws, also need standards of accountability and transparency. Trade unions, corporations, humanitarian organizations, schools, hospitals, political parties, and other voluntary organizations all must operate under laws and regulations designed to ensure that the interests of their members and the general public are properly served, and that these institutions do not violate the public's trust. In dictatorships, such organizations are often state instruments that exist to steal money or create wealth for the ruler's closest associates.