Accountability necesitates explanation and consequence

by The Editor

ARTICLE: The idea of acountability seems to be poorly understood from first principles: there is a perception that it involves little more than explanation. In other words, many assume that simply by explaining what when wrong, one has accounted for it. In fact, it must be accompanied by consequence and the possibility that wrongdoing be met by the requisite action. In the piece below I look at this relationship. For anyone interested in further thoughts on the idea, see this video interview with Lindiwe Mazibuko, about accountability and its nature.

Accountability necesitates explanation and consequence

By: Gareth van Onselen

23 March 2010

There exist two common misunderstandings of ‘accountability’, as a principle and practice. Each is worth interrogating, for they are often presented as mutually exclusive, each vehemently disowning the other. That conflict blurs clear thinking, to the detriment of our democratic lexicon.

On the one hand, there are those that would contend accountability a euphemism for explanation; that is, for someone to have been ‘held to account’, they need only to have offered a justification – an account, if you will – of their actions. For such people justice is served when reason is provided, regardless of its veracity.

On the other hand, there are those that would declare accountability irrevocably chained to consequence; that, for someone to have been ‘held to account’, their actions must have been met by sanction. For such people justice is served only when its parameters are enforced, regardless of circumstance.

The former lends itself to those in power, for rhetoric detracts the public eye and offers a refuge away from repercussion; the latter lends itself to those in pursuit of power, for the law often serves as a powerful ally in political debate, uncompromising in a way politicians are not.

Both interpretations assume some wrong doing, and rightly so, for accountability is a principle only fully tested when some or other transgression necessitates its intervention. Outside of such a transgression, like the right to freedom of expression, ‘accountability’ serves a certain purpose, but its true value is not necessarily interrogated.

The truth, of course, is that neither interpretation on its own constitutes ‘accountability’ in the best sense of the word. On the contrary, each relies on the other to survive and to give ‘accountability’ its full and proper meaning. And so to present them as foes is in fact to put two close allies at odds with one another: for accountability to work, both must play their part. In practical terms, anyone, most particularly anyone in public office, who has acted in an improper manner, should be obliged both to explain their actions and to accept the consequences.

And here both explanation and consequence need to be appropriately interpreted; for just as any reason must be full and proper to be credible; so any punishment must be proportional and fair, to serve its purpose in the public mind. Indeed, at each respective end of the spectrum, it is perfectly possible for an explanation itself to serve as sufficient punishment, just as it is possible for a particular punishment to follow a refusal to explain. But each for its own sake denudes the other of its purpose.

Yet even that is not properly to define the complicated way in which these two elements relate to one another. It is the threat of consequence that acts to ensure the truth is exposed and any explanation forthcoming and extensive, if only by setting a precedent; likewise, it is appreciation for a complete explanation that ensures any consequence is appropriately chosen.

Those that contest this view would do well to consider this fact: there exist already, as alluded to above, two principles dedicated to each respective view. For those that would advocate explanation over consequence, transparency serves that very purpose; for those that would champion consequence over explanation, justice is the word you seek. What is unique about accountability is that it merges these two democratic ideals; and it is in that singular combination that its power resides.

In any properly functioning democracy accountability should be a first principle, a basic building block upon which any public reputation is forged, to the extent that it need never be invoked by an irate citizenry, rather lived and embodied by responsible representatives, who fear the consequences of any incomplete explanation.

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