Over more than three decades in Congress, I had the chance to question a lot of federal officials. Most of the time I wasn’t after anything dramatic – I just wanted to understand who was responsible for certain decisions. How often did I get a straight answer? Almost never.
It was easily one of the most frustrating aspects of trying to ensure robust oversight of the government. Our representatives’ job, after all, is to help make government work better. And you can’t do that if you don’t know whom to hold accountable for important decisions.
Accountability is essential to good governance. I’m not just talking about “transparency” – that is, citizens’ ability to know what’s being done in our name. That’s important, but equally important is holding accountable those who made the decision to do it: ensuring that they are accountable to policymakers, adhere to their obligations, follow the law, and that their actions are appropriate and responsive to the needs of the country.
This is elusive. Accountability requires that officials step up and take responsibility for their decisions, and not try to shift that responsibility to others or to some ill-defined group. It requires unambiguous performance standards, clear codes of ethics, timely reporting, and acceptance of responsibility, especially with regard to budget or spending decisions.
So how do we get there?
Without clarity on who’s in charge of what and who’s responsible for which decisions, it becomes too easy for officials to remain unanswerable for their actions. Yet clear lines of authority mean nothing unless the deciding officials are identified and measured against what actually takes place. Officials need to give a full account of what they do and the decisions they make.
As a nation, we face a growing issue on this front when it comes to federal contractors – that is, the private workforce doing jobs for federal agencies. There are very few mechanisms for holding contractors responsible for their errors, abuses and missteps.
Accountability also requires a robust media to tell us what’s going on in the entire system – within the bureaucracy, in the behavior of contractors, and among legislators who ought to be overseeing both but often don’t.
Accountability is key to good government. All I wanted to know in those congressional hearings was who made the decision about the public’s business. Is that too much to ask?
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.