A right understanding of matters

I will copy/paste an article published in the Common Ground of September 2009. I just find it in a box of papers I was filing. Pretty interesting… but… not quite easy to do when you are stuck in the labirynthic government’s craziness. My follow up on the next entry.

CG : Archive : September 2009
A right understanding of matters

WRITING ON THE WALL by Henry E. McCandless
Canadian citizens accepted thousands of preventable deaths and
wrecked lives from contaminated blood in the 1980s, and later the
needless deaths of 26 Nova Scotia coal miners in a disgraceful mine.
We tolerate wrongful imprisonments across the country and police
forces inadequately managed, motivated and trained for
interventions. We accept the corporation-driven medical treatment
fixation rather than install rules for prevention. We don’t require the
standards of care for seniors they are entitled to see met, and we
don’t require facilities to uphold seniors’ dignity. We accept
government ideology transferring public money to corporations and
we don’t uphold the precautionary principle for the environment and
our natural resources. We accept quiet decline in the competence of
Canadian officials and don’t question their training and motivation. We
tolerate Canadian legislators steadfastly sidestepping the application
of public accountability even though it is a society imperative. We
allow them in their ritual processes to refuse to grasp the basics of
management control for what they oversee, something essential to
running their jurisdictions competently. The list goes on and on – and
for all countries.
In 1796 George Washington made an important observation: “I am
sure the mass of Citizens in these United States mean well, and I
firmly believe they will always act well, whenever they can obtain a
right understanding of matters…” It is not clear whether the majority
of Canadian citizens seek a right understanding of matters, or simply
hope that someone else will fix things, while complaining about them
after the fact.
Yet by holding to account fairly and relentlessly, citizens can control
what goes on.
Holding to account means extracting the information from authorities
that citizens need to gain a right understanding of issues they should
deal with. Given the information, and not just data, citizens can more
sensibly act to commend, alter or halt what authorities intend. Thus
the essence of public accountability is the obligation of authorities to
explain publicly, fully and fairly before the fact what they intend and
why, the performance standards they intend for themselves and those
they oversee, and later what resulted from what they did and how
they applied the learning available from it. We have failed to install
this basic obligation.
Most people think accountability is responsibility, the obligation to act
(a related but different obligation). The fraudulently-titled federal
Accountability Act is a prime example. Or they see it only as
explanation after the fact, from financial statements, court cases and
inquiries. But financial statements are only a part of public
accountability and after-the-fact attention doesn’t prevent harm,
injustice or irreversible environmental damage. We don’t get full and
fair public explanation of the intentions of the directing minds of
authorities such as governments and the agencies they control
because the requirement, if seen headed into law, is apt to turn
authorities’ knuckles white. (Think of the classic BBC’s “Yes Minister”.)
The lobbying against it would be over funded.
Citizens should not trust an authority that does not explain publicly,
fully and fairly what it intends, and why. As a former Provincial
Auditor of Ontario put it, “If you know it, you can report it.”
Authorities certainly know their underlying agendas.
When the Board of the Vancouver Island Health Authority acted to
close the Cowichan Lodge facility in Duncan and turn over its
operations to the private sector with no credible intention explanation
before the fact, the spokesperson for 80,000 Cowichan-area citizens
told the Directors at a public meeting, “You have lost the public’s
trust.” This ought to have been devastating to the Board members
sitting there, facing her. Given the Board’s purposeful ignorance of its
public accountability, it likely wasn’t.
So why does holding to account work? If elected or appointed officials
must explain their intentions, reasons and performance standards
within their authority, knowledgeable organizations can publicly shred
identified intentions reasonably seen to lead to harm. As well,
independent audit can attest to the fairness and completeness of
what the authority says. Fear of consequent loss of credibility with the
public will exert a self-regulating influence on what the authority
“Checks and balances,” monitoring and performance audit after the
fact don’t create this self-regulating influence. Review boards for
professionals review processes but don’t examine and report whether
performance such as professional medical diagnoses and treatments
met the standards of diligence that citizens are entitled to see met.
Citizens can act in two ways. They can require their legislators to
install in the law the requirement for full and fair public accounting by
all authorities affecting the public in important ways. That allows
auditors general to audit compliance with the legislation.
As well, citizens can form citizen accountability groups to hold
authorities publicly to account for their responsibilities in the issues of
concern to the groups. They can set out publicly, for the relevant
authorities, what they see as the nature of the public explanations the
authority should be giving for its intentions, reasons, performance
standards and results. Alongside external auditors, the groups can
then publicly assess the fairness and completeness of the authority’s
public explanations.
If we don’t do this, we carry on with activist citizens putting in terribly
long hours, largely after work, to try to overturn intentions and
actions seen as unfair — with the intentions not being given public
challenge before the fact, and with officials who plan and carry out
the intentions getting salaries and pensions for it.
As to the type of public reporting needed, George Washington’s
observation fits with the 1989 Massey Lectures of Dr. Ursula Franklin,
who said: “Whenever someone talks to you about the benefits and
costs of a particular project, don’t ask what benefits? ask whose
benefits and whose costs?”
Thus we can develop a useful form of public accountability
explanation we can call an Equity Statement (EqS). The statement
sets out, for proponents of an intention that would affect the public in
important ways:  who would gain what benefits from what is proposed, and why
they should, in both the short and longer term;
who would bear what costs and risks, and why they should, in
both the short and longer term; and
assuming the proposal were to go ahead, who would be
required to meet what standard of performance and public
explanation of how responsibilities are being carried out.
The proponents for an intention — and those opposed — can each
draft an equity statement for public challenge of an intention. This
can range from property developers and residents to governing and
opposition parties in a legislature. The elected representatives making
the decisions would account to their constituents if they disregard
what a valid composite equity statement logically points to as the
Whether a local municipal property development application, an
intended “private-public sector partnership” or other executive
government policy or regulation intention, a validated equity
statement would give citizens information they should have to do
their oversight duty. To be effective as a self-regulating influence on
governments’ intentions, equity statement reporting would have to be
assessed by auditors general for its fairness and completeness and by
knowledgeable public interest groups.
As a society imperative, public accountability is non-partisan and isn’t
political policy. In serving the accountability relationship between
government and the legislature it is therefore open to auditors
general to recommend to their legislators that equity statements by
the executive government be made the law. But it is up to citizens to
require their elected representatives to install it.
Henry E. McCandless is General Convenor of the Citizens’ Circle For
Accountability (www.accountabilitycircle.org) and the author of A
Citizen’s Guide to Public Accountability: Changing the Relationship
Between Citizens and Authorities (Trafford 2002). From 1978 to 1996
he was a Principal in the Office of the Auditor General of Canada.

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