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Democratic Accountability Redux

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Accountability is a ubiquitous and pervasively important question in democratic politics. It can take many forms, but it is always bound up in who is responsible to whom and whether those relationships are perceived as sufficiently transparent and legitimate by the general public to ensure freedom and to secure official responsibility. These concerns are endlessly and properly the source and subject of popular and media scrutiny and debate in free societies.

We find ourselves considering these issues in nearly every project in which we become engaged at the Institute. In the Community Change Collaborative, for example, we work assiduously to engage as wide a cross-section of the populations of each jurisdiction in which we work as possible. We nonetheless must also keep in mind that only elected officials have formal standing to make choices for their communities, recognizing that they should listen to all of their constituents’ desires and needs as they weigh their decisions. Likewise, all of our program evaluation work here at VTIPG must grapple with ensuring that we can incorporate or reflect relevant and often disparate stakeholder voices, while also conducting our efforts according to accepted technical canons of excellence. Anything less in either domain may jeopardize the perceived credibility and probity of our results.

I had the privilege to reflect afresh on these and related accountability concerns at a recent research conference in which I participated. One of the presenters at that event serves as a post-doctoral investigator on the water quality team led by Professors Marc Edwards and Amy Pruden of our university’s College of Engineering. Their work gained national and international attention and acclaim in recent years when it led to the discovery of undue and harmful amounts of lead in the Washington, D.C., and Flint, Michigan, water supplies. In both cases, their excellent efforts exposed poor, if not corrupt, public decision-making and a lack of accountability to vulnerable populations in each community.

In Flint, the state eventually stepped in to accept responsibility and to set matters on course to address what had emerged as a needless and heedless public health travesty that disproportionately affected specific sub-populations, especially the poor, seniors and children. Federal agencies, too, bore a share of the responsibility for the Flint and Washington, D.C., tragedies by not swiftly requiring local and state officials to act to address deteriorating conditions as a part of their oversight (accountability) role. While the web of reporting and administrative relationships was complex in each of these cases, there is no doubt of their direct costs to citizens and to all of the governments involved, which lost face and a measure of legitimacy, and the trust of their citizens, by dint of their failure to act with dispatch and openness to address what became a high-profile public health debacle in each jurisdiction.

With this scenario as backdrop and recent history, the post-doctoral fellow at the conference raised a specific accountability concern that the Virginia Tech water team has encountered in its work and that, indeed, it now confronts as it has expanded its efforts to rural areas nation-wide, whose populations are especially susceptible to water quality issues. He argued that the study group now routinely works with community volunteers who have shared concerns about their drinking water. In so doing, the Virginia Tech analysts are not explicitly assuming local jurisdictions are not doing their jobs or complying with law, so much as they are providing citizens an alternate means to determine for themselves, via an impartial arbiter, whether their water is meeting potability standards. To do so, the researcher noted, the investigators have sought to train interested individuals in how to obtain water samples and how to ensure those are appropriately tested, packaged and shared with Virginia Tech so its students and staff can assay them. All of these steps, he argued, leave the faculty and students involved in the projects vulnerable to the vagaries of volunteer capacity and willingness to follow prescribed processes to secure the scientific accuracy and legitimacy of the tests. This fact made the presenter nervous, even as he observed that it was surely democratic in its provenance in one sense: Citizens had assumed personal responsibility for a vital resource in their communities and were actively working to ensure its safety. Nonetheless, neither the residents so engaged nor the researchers, whatever the technical merits of their findings, possessed electoral accountability and legitimacy. They had instead to rely on public advocacy in efforts to mobilize duly accountable government actors when they found remediation efforts to be necessary. In turn, they depended, too, on the good faith and technical capacities of those officials, as well as on the willingness of the majority of citizens in the communities in which they worked to support the actions they requested.

In brief, the research team not only has had to grapple with whether its findings will enjoy scientific credibility and legitimacy, and the accompanying accountability to professional expectations that such a concern represents, but also its members have had to identify ways to contend that communities and other levels of governance should accord the volunteers’ water testing results democratic legitimacy when, in truth, they may possess little. The conference presenter rightly maintained that this matter is critically significant and that those involved “had to get it right,” if they were to achieve change when such appeared necessary (as in Flint, for example) to alleviate public health dangers.

This discussion reminded me of the similar long-running debate in federal executive agency administrative rulemaking concerning whether and how to employ and adopt negotiated rules. At its core, this construct suggests that executive agencies can bring affected stakeholders together and ask that they develop a rule further to relevant law for its consideration. Theoretically, the agency can umpire this process in a way that ensures the representation of all interested parties, irrespective of the resources they may command, and that allows it to make its own independent call concerning the merits of the outcome of their proposed settlement. In fact, however, as a practical matter, if major players agree on a course during a negotiated rulemaking process, it can be very difficult for agency officials to assert that their efforts are insufficient on whatever basis, as those groups are perceived broadly to represent a disproportionate share of relevant interests and to know how their work affects the broader populace and the environment alike. Yet, among such a mix of actors, only agency officials are democratically accountable and responsible for ensuring that the process is equitable for all affected. They also arguably possess independent technical expertise to evaluate the stakeholder claims in play in a fashion that is not driven by profitability or cost avoidance, or any other criterion apart from the general public’s interest in an appropriate and reasonable outcome under relevant law.

However, our culture and reigning neoliberal public philosophy have delegitimated executive agency officials as a class as bureaucrats with little popular standing, whatever their formal democratic stewardship roles, even as it has enshrined efficiency as its principal evaluative criterion. In consequence, and in practice, executive organizations can exercise only a culturally diminished capacity to challenge private actors generally or on grounds of equity, particularly, when a proposed negotiated rule is at issue.

Nonetheless, as with the citizen volunteers testing water supplies for even the most praiseworthy of purposes, industry stakeholders possess no democratic/representative legitimacy, whatever their “grassroots” standing when bargaining concerning rules that will affect their operations. As such, they are appropriately subject to the same accountability and transparency concerns that can be raised about citizens testing water separately from their governments. Notably, this is true in principle, whether or not the intentions of the stakeholders are beneficent or relevant governments are appropriately accountable. This concern is especially common and fraught in international politics, when ruling regimes are undemocratic or corrupt or lack capacity to act on behalf of their populations, but are formally the only electorally legitimate and accountable agents in a nation.

All of this sets up a knotty set of issues for our governance as we confront the question of accountability in our politics and policy processes. We encounter this concern as a culture, having adopted a public philosophy that routinely assumes, without evidence, that public institutions are per se inadequate and less legitimate than for-profit and nonprofit ones, especially if these are seen to emanate from the bottom-up. In fact, neither nonprofits nor for-profits are accountable to any actors beyond their supporters and those they choose to serve, while governmental officials and agencies are duty and electorally bound to serve their entire populations and are accountable to voters when they are perceived not to be meeting that charge, broadly understood. Virginia Tech’s team implicitly relied on both the media and public officials to respond to its findings, and on the latter to change course when necessary for the common weal, whether or not they had been responsible for previous practices. This fact suggests that matters can become complicated, indeed, when officials are willing to discriminate against specific groups when implementing policies, or to break law or precedent to advantage a specific constituency while imposing the costs related to that benefit on other stakeholders.

This brief discussion illustrates only a share of the complexities of securing democratic accountability in policy-making in our representative republic. All claims to legitimacy and accountability are subject to widely shared views and beliefs among citizens, whether those are realistic and informed or not. Accountability claims may emanate from formal electoral and institutional sources or from cultural beliefs (which indeed, shape institutional norms), and these are often mediated by citizen perceptions of the legitimacy of technical capacity and knowledge claims. I was also struck anew as I reflected on these examples that technical or scientific legitimacy does not necessarily connote democratic accountability and may be in tension with it, yet our culture tends to assume their ready consonance.

Virtually all of our work here at the Institute is suffused directly or indirectly with questions linked to technical and democratic accountability, and to their dynamic interplay within a culture that often simplifies both, and that just as often fails to acknowledge their relationship. We will continue to be challenged by these realities as our work proceeds. In that, we will serve as a microcosm of the broader society in which we live and work.

Publication Date

July 1, 2019

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