Published in Times of India, Pune on 3 October 2018. Lost and found. Posted here for you.
Accountability is an essential component of a democratic system. It is based on periodic elections and different types of vertical and horizontal accountability arrangements that hold executive branches accountable to legislature; civil servants to politicians; and businesses to their shareholders. Such systems consist of a range of independent regulatory agencies, such as superior audit institutions and corruption commissions that scrutinize the actions and decisions of businesses, politicians and bureaucrats.
So just who is accountable? The simple answer to that is ‘those who govern and have the power and authority to do so.’ By this definition, the elected representative wins legitimacy by getting the political mandate in an election, and then the law of the land confers power and authority upon her/him. This constitutes political authority, which is in turn delegated to the bureaucracy as administrative authority. In this way are policies, programmes and decisions implemented, through a well understood and well-regulated delegation of power and authority.
Through regulation, governments are both mandated by, and made accountable to society at large, putting all governance in an essentially social context – hence SOCIAL accountability. Further, this mandate confers the power and authority to use PUBLIC funds to run the country and its government, making those who govern, financially accountable as well.
Accountability (or the lack of it) in public life is often discussed in the context of corruption, and along with clientelism and crony capitalism, it is branded as the main reason that developing countries never really make it. The underlying assumption is that a corrupt act or practice is always at the cost of the rights of another individual, group or organization.
Compounded over its entirety, corruption results in huge financial losses and social cost to any country.
Instinctively, we all understand corruption because we grow up bribing and tipping our way through life, but how corruption gets into every system and how its mechanisms really work, needs a little understanding.
Robert Klitgaard, economist and academic – considered the world expert on corruption – set forth the problem succinctly in his famous formula:
Corruption = Monopoly + Discretion – Accountability
Therefore, if a country seriously wishes to tackle corruption, it must minimize monopolies, reduce discretion in procedures, and enhance accountability.
Monopoly: Where possible, the effects of monopoly can be reduced by allowing some private operators to provide the same services, but with proper regulation. Where a service provider is monopolistic by its very nature (like a Municipal Corporation) we need to look at ways to mitigate the monopoly of decision-making. The most obvious way is widening the space for decision-making through regular and formalized public consultations and participation. Furthermore, outsourcing the basic services to workers’ collectives, NGOs and CBOs, will also soften the monolithic, monopolistic work culture of these places. Another way would be through the lateral induction of managers who have had corporate experience in the areas which the monopoly deals with.
Discretion: Most day-to-day bribery is a result of the enormous discretionary powers given to individuals. It is necessary to revisit some of the archaic laws, vestiges of British Rule, where the ruling class did not trust the natives, and all powers were vested in senior civil servants. Did you know, for instance, that there is a major element of discretion in assessing the property taxes for your property? The only way to outwit individual discretion is through e-Governance, where there are several layers of checks and balances; business processes have been re-engineered; and standardization has been put in place. Moreover, people’s access to information is much greater in an IT-enabled environment, allowing for greater vigilance by civil society.
Accountability can be increased by Access Legislation, like the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005, provided it is adhered to in letter and spirit by both sides. And most importantly, we need much greater transparency in the procurement process and the award of contracts by Municipal Corporations, State Governments and the Central Government.
Summarizing: Governments that are serious about reducing corruption in public systems need to look earnestly at 5 key issues:
- Building objective criteria and benchmarks for decision-making, thus reducing individual discretion and arbitrariness
- De-bureaucratization or simplification of procedures so that expediency does not become a reason for corruption
- Enunciating clearly the role of various agencies, provisions, conditionalities, benefits, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms of Government schemes
- Putting in place mechanisms for social, financial, legal and political accountability at every level – local, regional and national
- Creating public awareness of the mechanisms of redressal available to citizens when faced with corruption
Only ridding the system of its tendencies of monopoly, discretion and lack of accountability, can stop everyday bribery and corruption.