The Local Government Accountability Statement

Donald Kettl describes accountability through two questions: “Who is accountable to whom?” and “what are they accountably for?” On the surface, the answers to these questions (when applied to local government) are simple. Government is accountable to citizens, and for performance. The reality, however, is more complicated given the vague and amorphous nature of accountability. What exactly does being accountable to citizens entail? What is meant by performance? Can accountability be an actionable concept in local government?

I have explored these questions in a couple peer-reviewed articles and blog posts. My goal is to understand how accountability can be made a tool for improving local government, as opposed to a contested idea that is demanded yet rarely defined. My admittedly simplistic idea is for local governments to articulate and publish an accountability statement. I tweeted about this and received a reply from Eric Zeemering that “Elections tend to be important accountability statements by the electorate.”  He is of course correct, and those familiar with Romzek and Dubnick (1987) know that politics and elections are prominent and important external accountability mechanisms.

But when I say accountability statement I mean exactly that, a paragraph or two that clearly answers Kettl’s questions. An accountability statement can serve as a parallel to a mission statement. A good mission statement both articulates an organization’s goals, audience, culture, and values, and lays out measurable objectives for meeting said goals. A good accountability statement serves a similar function of taking a broad concept and turning it into a management and communication tool.

So what does a good local government accountably statement include? First, a clear definition of the clientele to whom the governing body is accountable. In most cases this would be municipal residents, of course in the case of special purpose governments the clientele would be more specific. Second, a clear definition of how the governing body conceptualizes accountability. This could be citizen satisfaction, transparency, sound fiscal management, legal compliance, service quality/performance, economic growth, etc. The specifics of accountability is conceptualized in each individual case are less important than the fact that the governing body clearly articulates their accountability definition. Third, an articulation of what successful accountability look likes when implemented, i.e. increased citizen satisfaction, increased tax base, etc. The key is that the local government’s accountability conceptualization is measurable.

Below is an example for the fictional Wisconsin Heights:

The City of Wisconsin Heights is accountable to all city residents. Our government defines accountability as meeting the needs of citizens at an affordable price, and in a transparent fashion. Our government will comply with all open-meetings and transparency laws, will survey residents to ensure majority satisfaction with municipal services, and keep the property tax levy below the average for medium-sized Wisconsin cities.    

Producing and regularly updating an accountability statement serves multiple functions. First, it forces the local governing body to coalesce around a common definition of accountability. If a governing board cannot agree on what accountability means in practice, it is impossible for the organization to be accountable. Second, it sends a clear and consistent message to government employees and managers that will hopefully empower them to build an accountability culture throughout the organization. Third, it creates an accountability contract with the public that articulates overarching values, and specific measures by which the governing board can be judged.

I am still working on this idea, and hope to learn more as I work with and do research on different types of local governments in the United States. It is a simple and obvious idea, but one I think holds promise. If you have thoughts, please chime in.

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