GENE ROBERTSON: We must demand accountability

Tuesday, June 17, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:42 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 17, 2014

We often glibly say parents, other individuals, officials, organizations and institutions ought to be held accountable without realizing what the word or the process really means.

Solutions do not occur if accountability measures are not developed, managed and implemented. The public and consumers suffer directly and indirectly if accountability issues aren’t adequately addressed.

The Wall Street crisis, 9/11, major product recalls, proliferation of arms, and health, food and pharmaceutical issues all point to inadequate accountability. Local problems might be just as pressing.

Circular patterns

Generally, accountability is not achieved. Citizens complain for a short time, and a new set of ideas and proposals are introduced and proclaimed to be so good that they must be acted upon immediately.

These promises, ideas, policies, products and services are offered as though there are built-in protections to ensure good faith, performance and positive outcomes. Consequently, practices that should be “old news” and have never been addressed become new again.

Failures in the health, judicial, regulatory, religious, energy, ecological, economic, familial and educational systems all result in our demanding accountability again.

We often fail to hold people or entities accountable because we expect others to do it. We are ignorant about what we can do, or we simply forget. Worst of all, we might not care and are not accountable ourselves.

Government, Wall Street, education, health, safety and judicial systems all make inflated promises. President Obama, the U.S. Supreme Court, Eric Holder, Susan Rice, the Clintons, the Bushes and others come to mind regarding national and international accountability.

We assume that they are the ones to be held responsible or that they should hold others responsible for actions in their domain. Yet, we are all responsible for the action or inaction affecting others and ourselves.

Responses to accountability are often not apparent, simple or predictable. The process is varied, complex and often falls on so many that no one takes responsibility.

Rigorous analysis

Any grandiose proposal ought to contain a transparent and rigorous cost-benefit analysis that all of the stakeholders understand. That process should enable us all to make the best decisions and share in the accountability process and outcome.

This is akin to the decision-making that occurs when a family is planning a daughter’s high school prom experience. Everything possible must be understood so that the best outcome can occur. Everyone ought to be buying into the accountability process with its rewards and penalties.

What then is accountability? It is responsibility, reliability, liability and guarantees of posited outcomes. Actions are often easier to implement than to hold accountable.

Consider the recent release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. While all entities are to be reasonably held accountable, we needed answers about who, what, when, where, why and how accountability can be accomplished.

Many of us think the accountability process starts after an action has occurred. This process ought to begin when the action is being conceived.

When local development projects are being considered, production of consumer items are being planned, health measures are being debated and policies are being developed or ignored, accountability should be considered early in the process.

Accountability is not simply punishment of some kind. Compensation, forgiveness and resolution are all in the mix when accountability is being considered. Legal actions, removal from office, reparations, castigation and reimbursement might all be considered remedies.

In sports, referees and umpires are expected to hold athletes accountable during competitions. However, sports associations such as the NCAA, the NBA and the NFL are expected to hold themselves and those governed by them even further accountable. 

Politicians and those responsible for policy, as well as others who enjoy the public trust, should have their own appropriate mechanisms to assure accountability.

President Obama, Pope Francis, Eric Shinseki, Chris Christie, the news media, our local politicians and service providers, as well their audiences, constituents and clients, ought to all be instruments of the accountability process.

We should never be satisfied with any less because we are all either directly or indirectly accountable.

William E. "Gene" Robertson is a Columbia resident and a professor emeritus at MU. He writes occasional columns for the Missourian.

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