Saturday, October 02, 2004

The Great California Accountability Hoax

The California Performance Review is big on "accountability". The Report recommends rebuilding state government into eleven bureaucratic mega-pyramids because this will supposedly enhance "accountability". The word appears 57 times in the transcript of the Review Commission's final hearing on state reorganization held at UC Davis on September 27th. By now, however, we've learned not to take the Review at face value, but instead to view it as an example of the Hollywood studio approach to public policy. Just as a movie set must *look* real tho it need not *be* real, a Governor must appear to champion the public, and special interest politics must resemble bold, revolutionary reform. There must be reasons why the image masters in charge of promoting Governor Narcissus are now emphasizing "accountability" -- in such contrast to the Groeper's own reputation for youthful debauchery. Let's go behind the scenes, and find the motives behind the Performance Review report recommendations.

To begin with, what is this "accountability", and why does it have such nice associations in the public mind? The favorable aura surrounding the word probably owes something to its widespread use in Christian ministry ("personally accountable to God"), to which must be added the warm and satisfying glow one gets from using it as a polite form of vengence oath ("I'll hold you accountable!") against teachers and petty officials. The word marks the speaker as one of the elect, as an educated person for whom revenge is a middle-class virtue.

Words frame the way we view the political world. The campaign to abolish the tax on multi-million dollar inheritances appeals to our dislike of the "death tax" and to our sentimental regard for "small" "family" "enterprises". Because "accountability" triggers a favorable response from right wing Republicans in Orange County suburbs and Central Valley small towns, Governor Narcissus may be using it to shore up his standing with the party faithful. We know that selective inattention can be powerful. The year 2004 Ig Nobel prize in Psychology honored an experiment where test subjects watching basketball practice and told to count the exact number of passes proved oblivious to a costumed gorilla that wandered among the players. Perhaps Ahnold's consultants view state government reform as a basketball that can divert the attention of some voters from his more liberal personal or political morality.

But rational public policy debate should involve more than the use of subliminal symbols to manipulate public opinion. The Performance Review catalogs many real problems, but its analysis is crude and shallow. Would reorganizing to fit the Reviewers' notion of "Accountability: Responsibility to someone or responsibility for some activity" really put California on the right road to better government? Do state agencies now fail the citizens because they lack "clearly defined lines of leadership, responsibility and authority"? Surprise! The reviewers who faked the numbers in order to claim billions in savings and who conflated "citizens" with "customers", also got accountability wrong. They forgot that accountability also involves monitoring, reporting, and a system of checks and balances. A Federal performance handbook explains:

"Accountability is an often used word, yet the concept of accountability is not easily understood. When people hear the word accountability, they know that it means something important, but that’s about as far as it goes. Subsequently, because they don’t grasp the concept of accountability, they don’t know how to (and can’t) achieve it. Often, the word responsibility is used in conjunction with the word accountability. When hearing the word accountability, many people immediately equate it with responsibility and see the two as being the same. However, (in our opinion) they are not.... Accountability refers to the obligation a person, group, or organization assumes for the execution of authority and/or the fulfillment of responsibility. This obligation includes:

  • Answering - providing an explanation or justification - for the execution of that authority and/or fulfillment of that responsibility,
  • Reporting on the results of that execution and/or fulfillment, and
  • Assuming liability for those results."

The Performance Review's emphasis on authority and a chain of command is no accident, nor is the failure to mention any duty to report, any independent review or any need to limit the holders of power. Political reality keeps intruding on administrative theory, as though the Review were a movie filled with bloopers, like bluejeans on gladiators, windows instantly fixed after smashes by Terminators, or cars that un-wreck themselves when Ahnold takes the wheel. Behind the entire Review program there is a not-very-well-hidden agenda: to concentrate government power in the person and office of the Governor. One may infer a variety of motives among the contending crowd of advisors who are "Working toward the Groeper":

A final possibility is even more disquieting. No doubt there are some idealists mixed in with the partisans on the Review team, so "accountability = follow the leader" may express a sincere conviction that this is the best form of government for California. Our idealistic Reviewers quote James Madison, but they have forgotten his message: checks and balances are essential for real accountability in a democracy. The Reviewers imagine a government where every worker, manager and agency is responsible only to The Leader. The Leader, in turn, is personally responsible to the citizens (at least those who vote) for everything that the State does or fails to do. In governments of this type, The Leader's ability to stay in power typically depends on purchasing the support of business interests and the wealthy elite by using the machinery of the state in ways they favor. History tells us that this form of government is not new. It resembles the elected dictatorships of Late Republican Rome (@ 130 - 44 B.C.), led by ambitious charismatics like Sulla and Caesar. The modern equivalent is rule by a popular strongman who makes the trains run on time (or would if we had any trains left.)

The mission is clear. We must find more celebrity leaders like Governor Narcissus. The future of California depends on it.

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