WHAT WENT WRONG WITH PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY?

WHAT WENT WRONG WITH PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY?

by Ridwan Nugraha


Accountability is a distinctive feature of the public sector. It is the “hallmark” of good governance and responsibility for responding to the actions, performance, and policy of public officials and civil servants (Siddiquee 2005, p. 108). Public institutions require operational mechanisms to apply the concept of accountability; some of the mechanism are known as traditional instruments. Hierarchical system and legal mechanism build the foundation of these instruments. While the traditional instruments are irreplaceable in public organisation activities – however, with the constant reform in public bureaucracy, these instruments have deficiencies in exercising public accountability.


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Using examples from Indonesia’s public sector context, this article will argue that the traditional instruments of accountability have weaknesses. Therefore, these instruments need to be strengthened through multi-directional accountability and results-based approach to make public accountability solid and efficacious. Three following points will be presented to support this inference. Firstly, the traditional instruments of public accountability have critiques. Secondly, multi-directional accountability creates intensive scrutiny. Finally, the results-based approach promotes improvements in public accountability. The conclusion drawn is that reinforcing the traditional instruments of accountability can effectually make public accountability robust and effective.


Critiques of the traditional instrument of public accountability


The traditional instruments of accountability are a basis in public organisations. Hierarchical connection characterises the traditional mechanism (Bracci 2018, p. 116; Hughes 2012, p. 193), and it depends on oversight interaction between “superior-subordinate” to achieve personnel obedience as the ultimate goal (Romzek 2000, pp. 23-4). Additionally, Romzek (1998) describes that conventional accountability can be found in a hierarchical system for inputs (e.g., rules, protocols) and legal mechanism for processes (e.g., monitoring, audit). In other words, the traditional instruments of accountability focus on control and supervision through a chain of commands as well as the legal mechanism to attain employee’s compliance towards the organisational direction. Criteria of accountability objectives can be used to determine whether public accountability is robust and effective. Aucoin and Heintzman (2000, p. 45) define that accountability has three essential goals; to control the power abuse by public authorities, to ensure that public resources are used according to the norms (e.g., laws, values), and to encourage learning in sustainable improvement of public governance. While the operation of any government agency is inseparable from the traditional instruments of accountability, however, the instruments have several critiques.


The first criticism is hierarchical accountability as a traditional instrument designed to be upward oriented. This orientation results in public workers have no obligation to be accountable to citizens. They are officially answerable to their supervisor in the chain of command through a hierarchical system (Bovens 2005, p. 196). Furthermore, hierarchical mechanism creates “the trap of accountability” – that is when employees claim that they are more accountable by working based merely on institutional standards (Kelly 2007, p. 47). In other terms, a vertical mechanism encourages public servants to be narrowly accountable only to their superiors. Supposedly, the personnel within the public sector should also be accountable to the public because the reason is fundamental; public institutions are formed for and by the public. The second drawback of traditional accountability is related to public sector performance. The legal mechanism as conventional approach (e.g., regulations) emphasises to avoid mistakes. This instrument is limited to avoiding errors rather than achieving actual performance – while preventing mistakes cannot increase “positive incentive”, such as efficiency (Hughes 2012, p. 196). Consequently, traditional instruments leave gaps in public sector accountability.


It is plausible to say that conventional accountability has weaknesses. For illustration, under the 32 years of Suharto’s regime, the accountability of government in Indonesia was controlled by the central executive, explicitly the president. Public officials, ministers, governors, mayors, and regents were appointed dominantly by the president. In return, they perform finite accountability and loyalty to the president through a hierarchical system. The officials consider that the superior is more central rather than keeping the public well-informed (Hudaya et al. 2015, p. 58). Accordingly, the government displayed a poor performance as well as a lack of accountability in their activities. At its peak, Indonesia was ranked as the third most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International (King 2000, p. 604). From this example, subordinates focus on compliance with superiors without regard to public interests. Likewise, the legal mechanism cannot work optimally since the authorities can compromise regulations. Hence, it is inevitable that traditional instruments of accountability are not optimal to prevent abuse of power and have limitations in ensuring that public resources are appropriately used and publicly oriented.


Multi-directional accountability supports intensive scrutiny


The public sector requires additional strategies for supplementing traditional mechanisms in making accountability robust and effective. Government accountability can be attained through several mechanisms rather than through a single chain of hierarchy system (Mulgan 2003, p. 30). One strategy to cover the weaknesses of conventional answerability is multi-directional accountability. The concept of this strategy is “360-degree” accountability among individuals, internally and externally. Besides the vertical accountability, the multi-directional mechanism allows a superior to be accountable to their subordinates and enables horizontal accountability among the employees. The 360-degree accountability generates an “environment of accountability” in public agency when every individual is accountable to everyone within and outside the agency (Behn 2001, pp. 199-200). However, some scholars identify some issues with this mechanism. Ray and Elder (2007, p. 27) recognise that in the context of horizontal accountability, employees are unwilling to provide explanations with their colleagues when they think it can trigger conflict. Similarly, Pollitt (2003, p. 95) is pessimistic with 360-degree accountability since the public sector and political domain do not support the idea and practicability of mutual accountability.


Despite some commentators’ anxieties, however, there are significant advantages when activating multi-directional accountability. First, it creates rigorous scrutiny inside the bureaucracy. More people are involved in the supervision spectrum since everyone within the public sector is accountable to each other. Public employees are not only evaluated by their superiors, but also by subordinates and co-workers (Behn 2001, p. 198). Hence, public employees need to be more answerable for their activities, because they must be well-prepared to answer those related to their actions, budget consumption, and decision-making process. Now, everyone inside the public institution must be able to present accountability whenever needed. Accordingly, the public agency can avoid the “enemy of accountability”, that is anonymity (Borins 2001 in Stark 2002, p. 144). For example, a public sector involves civil servants in their policy-making; if there are mistakes in formulating policies, in a 360-degree mechanism, public employees cannot escape from accountability.


Second, multi-directional accountability endorses in-depth external oversight through public participation. Besides being answerable “upward”, public servants also have direct “outward” accountability to the public (Corbett 1996 in Mulgan 2000, p. 568). In support, Siddiquee (2005, p. 108) asserts that the bureaucracy is also accountable to external institutions outside the agency that can supervise the actions of public employees and force them to act responsively and effectively. In other words, by activating the 360-degree accountability, the public sector becomes more accountable under the greater spotlight of the public as watchdogs. It is possible because the instrument authorises public employees to be directly answerable to society. For demonstration, the Batang Regency in Central Java Indonesia, apply multi-directional accountability in running their government towards more transparent and accountable governance. The regency implements an “open bidding” mechanism to fill positions in the government structure based on transparency and competencies. They also promote a local accountability forum called “the budget festival”. In this annual forum, 60 working units under the local government make direct justification to the public about their budget’s utilisation as well as the success and failure of their performance (Mahsun 2017, p. 481). Therefore, multi-directional accountability generates benefit in the context of strengthening the level of scrutiny, both internally and externally.


The results-based approach promotes improvement in public accountability


Another strategy to make public accountability robust and effective is results-based accountability. Adopted from the market discipline, the public sector and its workers must also be accountable for their “product” – that is the results of their financial and non-financial performances. Hence, the public agency and its personnel do not have to rely solely on traditional instruments, such as rules. Entrepreneurial organisations can minimise dependence on regulations if they can implement the measurement of results carefully (Osborne & Gaebler 1993, p. 137). Nevertheless, some would argue that the results-oriented approach in accountability’s discipline is problematic. Haque (2000, p. 609) for instance, claims that accountability based on performance is challenging in two ways. Firstly, not all the public outcomes can be quantified, and secondly, public officials potentially take unpleasant method in achieving results if they are over-concentrated with outcomes. This situation signifies reduced control and supervision of inputs and processes in the public sector.


However, this is not necessarily the case. The results-based approach benefits the public accountability. First, it allows public organisations to be answerable by providing systematic explanations about the interrelationships between inputs, processes, and results in their activities. Accountability based on performance creates more organised and measurable evidence that can be utilised to hold public accountability (Peters 2007, p. 27). In short, the data contains a comprehensive justification of the public sector activities. This information effectively facilitates the public institution to gain legitimacy from the citizens regarding their actions – ultimately, the organization can be considered to have fulfilled its liability, as Hughes (2012, p. 190) states that accountability is mandatory to ensure that the government acts in a manner that is broadly approved by the society. For instance, Indonesia, since 2010 has implemented a public sector accountability mechanism based on comprehensive information. It called the Government Agency Performance Accountability Report (known as “LAKIP”). This report contains complete information and explanations about the agency’s programs, budget absorption, and the achievement or failure of their performances. It serves as a control system and instrument of accountability in public sector activities that can be accessed by the public (Akbar, Pilcher & Perrin 2015, p. 4). Thus, the result-based approach supplements the public accountability in terms of providing comprehensive information and strengthening public legitimacy towards the government.


Second, the results-based approach encourages accountability improvements. Public accountability cannot be interpreted superficially as only a government obligation, but also as a mean to improve good governance – such as responsive policy and augmenting public services delivery. Aucoin and Heintzman (2000, p. 52) write that performance-based accountability act as an incentive to encourage sustainable improvement in management and public policy. In other terms, accountability processes generate empirical evidence about the performance of institutions that are useful for improving governance. With this information, the government understands what areas need to be improved. Hence, while the traditional mechanism concentrated on detecting and correcting problems, the results-based approach delivers valuable information for public programs enhancement (Kim 2009, p. 92). Take the city of Yogyakarta in Indonesia for example. The city established an information and complaint service unit that provides an opportunity for citizens to ask for an explanation of public services as well as a channel for measuring and reporting the performance through various media. Then, the government uses the report to improve public services delivery. The result was an increase in community satisfaction index surveys (OECD 2016, p. 284). Therefore, the results-based approach encourages public accountability improvements as well as governance advancement in public policy and public service deliveries.


In conclusion, hierarchical and legal mechanism as traditional instruments of accountability have drawbacks. Consequently, strategies are needed to strengthen the conventional instruments towards making public accountability optimum. At the outset, the paper evaluates two limitations of the traditional mechanism in the public sector. Firstly, the public employees are merely accountable only to their superior through the hierarchical system. Secondly, legal instruments are limited to avoiding errors rather than achieving actual public sector performance. Afterwards, the article demonstrates that multi-directional accountability creates a 360-degree environment of accountability that leads to intensive scrutiny. While some scholars are concerned regarding potential conflicts and lack of support from the political system and bureaucracy – nevertheless, multi-directional accountability generates benefits in public sector accountability. Internally, this mechanism enables public personnel to be accountable in various direction. Externally, it supports greater oversight for by society as the watchdogs. Further, the article elaborates that the results-based approach endorses improvements in public accountability. Despite the challenges related to its practicability, however, this method generates advantages for public accountability enhancement. The results-based approach creates a comprehensive explanation regarding public sector activities that can be used to attain public legitimacy and it acts as a catalyst for improving policy and public services delivery. To conclude, while hierarchical and legal mechanism serve the primary function of accountability, multi-directional mechanism and the results-based approach supplement the traditional instruments of accountability in making accountability robust and effective.


(*This article is a duplicate of this page)


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