How parliament misunderstands accountability

by The Editor

ARTICLE: Parliament has produced a guide to help Members better understand committees, how they work and what their purpose is. Central to that is, obviously, the idea of accountability and being able to ensure it takes place. Unfortunately, the guide’s defintion of the concept fundamentally misunderstands what accountability is and so renders the whole exercise somewhat redundant. Read on to see Parliament’s definition of accountability and why it is wrong.

How parliament misunderstands accountability

By: Gareth van Onselen

11 May 2012

If you take a walk through Parliament, you will currently find in each Member’s pigeon hole an educational booklet titled ‘Manual for Parliamentary Committees’. Produced in 2011, it is one of many such tools Parliament regularly disperses to MPs, to help those new to the job better understand the way Parliament works as well as the various mechanisms that define it.

One such mechanism – indeed, one of the most important – is the Parliamentary Committee, the very heartbeat of oversight and accountability.

Chapter 4 of booklet deals with, among other things, ‘Effecting Accountability’, about which it says the following:

“Accountability can be broadly defined as ‘a social relationship where an actor (an individual or an agency) feels an obligation to explain his or her conduct to some significant other who can be the accountability forum, accountee, specific person or agency’. Accountability means explaining or justifying an action.”

Not to put too finer word on it, that description – which revolves around a definition first formulated by Director for the Centre for African Renaissance Studies at UNISA, Shadrack Gutto – is complete nonsense.

It is the source of some profound worry that Parliament, ideally the very epitome of accountability in South Africa, has so fundamentally misunderstood the idea. It is to render the very purpose of committees somewhat redundant. Let me explain why.

There are two components to the idea of accountability. The first is explanation. The second is consequence. These two things enjoy a complex relationship but together they give accountability its true worth and full meaning.

In order to have been ‘held to account’, one must offer an explanation for one’s actions. Depending on the nature of that explanation and when appropriate, consequences should follow. Sometimes an explanation on its own will suffice. Other times the explanation will necessitate a sanction. But, importantly, without the possibility of sanction, one way or the other, there is no reason for an explanation to be honest and forthright.

If you remove consequences from accountability, as Parliament’s definition does, you strip the idea of all its power. Any explanation will suffice, regardless of its veracity.

Besides, without consequences attached to it, accountability effectively becomes a euphemism for transparency. What is the difference? Likewise, ‘consequence’ on its own becomes a euphemism for justice. That is what makes the idea of accountability so special: it brings together these two ideas – transparency and justice, explanation and consequence – into a single concept.

That Parliament itself has misunderstood this is cause for serious concern. Its practical effect is to legitimate a person’s subjective justification as opposed to gauging their behaviour against a set of formal values, principles, rules and regulations, and then responding appropriately to it. Either to commend or counter it.

As a consequence, the lesson one learns – and the political culture it engenders – is one where any action can be explained away or justified without meaningful consequence. And that this itself is enough to satisfy those tasked with ensuring best democratic practice is promoted and protected.

They are, however, only fooling themselves.

[For more on the idea of accountability, see this previous Inside Politics blog or this video interview with DA Parliamentary Leader Lindiwe Mazibuko on the subject.]

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