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Opinions of Friday, 14 August 2020

Columnist: Charles Manu

Accountability in the Public Sector

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Experience gained and ideas shared with me by my colleague managers over the years in the public sector overseas indicate that in leadership roles, accountability is the acknowledgement and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, policies and programs. This includes the administration, governance and implementation within the scope of the role. And you are obliged to report, explain and be answerable to your actions or inactions.

Accountability in the public sector has a variety of meanings. The most obvious is financial accountability, which means just what it means in the business world, though in the public sector the ways of ensuring accountability are distinctive.

It is the broader meanings of accountability that are our chief concern here. A number of terms, such as political, legal and constitutional accountability, social and community accountability, and personal and ethical accountability, all need to be considered. One way of coming to grips with these various terms is to portray every public sector manager as having a duty to be accountable upwards, outwards, downwards and inwards.

Upward accountability

Upward accountability means the obligation to report to and take orders from the manager's superiors up the line, all the way up to the Chief Director and the Minister. Upward accountability is the primary legal and constitutional obligation of the public servant. However, under administrative law, the manager may also be held accountable to the courts, and to administrative tribunals from which there are appeals to the courts. The public sector managers may be summoned to Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), Economic and Organised Crime Office (EOCO), Office of the Special Prosecutor, various Commissions of Inquiry and like instituted bodies set up by the government to answer pertinent queries in relation to financial and other transactions. So legal and constitutional accountability includes more than just upward accountability, up the line within the organisation.

Upward accountability may seem simple, but a complication arises when the public servant has more than one legitimate boss. For example, there could be conflict between an obligation to obey audit regulations or procurement procedures concerning the handling of money, (especially where they lay blame or guilt on the officer personally) and an urgent order from the head of one's department to get an immediate result requiring expenditure of money in a hurry, bypassing normal procedures – in the Ghanaian parlance “order from above”. Eliminating such conflicts has been the purpose of managerial reforms in the public sector here in Ghana and elsewhere. As a matter of fact, program managers, under some circumstances, become confused as to which way to turn or which path to take in relation to applying resources, money, people and physical assets available to them in the execution of their prescribed core duties.

Another complication arises when a manager is responsible for a program financed by one level of government but administered by another. This is the case with a vast number of programs in the Ghanaian unicameral system and is also the case when metropolitan and municipal departments and regional, district and local governments administer a state-funded service. To whom is the manager then accountable? There are guidelines to be obeyed or program objectives to be achieved, but the government which employs the manager may be at odds with the fund-providing department or agency of the government, e.g. Ministry of Finance over how these guidelines should be interpreted. Officers from the fund-provider may have the right to inspect work being done and may assert their right to give instructions. Divided authority and divided accountability is a price we pay for the convenience and practicality of having country-wide programs administered by the metropolitan, municipal, regional, district and local governments.

Still another complication arises for managers in statutory authorities such as TOR, VRA, VALCO, Tema Drydock, ECG etc. These entities are generally headed by a board of directors but a Minister also has oversight responsibility over them as well, and there is a requirement of periodic reporting to parliament either directly or through the Minister. To whom is the statutory authority manager accountable? To the board, or to the Minister or to parliament? In theory a near answer can be suggested: that the manager is accountable to the board for day-to-day management matters but to the Minister and/or to parliament where the statute requires it. Unfortunately, however, that theoretical answer is difficult to apply in practice and the manager may sometimes be caught in a crossfire between a board and a Minister who are finding it impossible to agree. Disagreements about the proper lines of accountability for statutory authorities are never-ending.

Despite these complications, upward accountability is and remains the foundation of our (Ghanaian) system of public administration.

Outward Accountability

Outward accountability is a more recent and less familiar concept than upward accountability. It means the obligation of managers to report to, consult and be responsive to client groups and other stakeholders in the community. This is where “customer service” comes into play. In other jurisdictions like the Australian system of government, while this is not an absolute duty, public servants at the strategic, middle and tactical levels feel obliged to provide services to the mutual satisfaction of both the service provider and the citizen seeking the service. Sad to say, here in Ghana, we see, we hear and we experience sub-standard services being offered the citizenry by some public sector practitioners in some ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs). What is required here is constant, adequate, professional in-service training on public sector values, standards, norms, ethical practice etc. including “customer service” for both new and existing employees at all levels of the hierarchy. And we should remember that “the customer is always right”.

In Australia if a manager is under orders to keep any matter confidential, upward accountability is the only kind of accountability that applies. This is no different from what pertains here in Ghana. However, in the Australian system, there are laws such as those dealing with freedom of information (FOI) which do reinforce the general duty of public servants to answer legitimate questions and to be honest and informative in their dealings with the public.

Ghana government has passed the Right to Information Bill in parliament, which works in similar fashion to that of Australia’s FOI. Now that we have it passed let us see how things pan out in this regard. Reforms as “right to information” legislation, a system of appeals against administrative decisions, and a reduction in the anonymity of public servants - all of these are aimed at increasing the outward accountability of public servants.

Outward accountability includes giving interviews to journalists and television interviewers. Except when the Minister or District Chief Executive has explicitly forbidden it, or the manager's intuition says that they would be likely to forbid it, it is a normal and expected part of a Program Manager's duty to be available to the media and to respond to questions. The questions are quite often hostile, expressed in terms intended to embarrass the manager and the manager's superiors, so it takes more than a little skill to come out of the interview with one’s credibility unimpaired. Nevertheless, these skirmishes with the media, often represented by reporters who are ignorant about the program and about the fundamental rules of the system of government, have to be endured and the skillful manager can sometimes contribute greatly to the success of the program by handling them well.

Upward and outward accountabilities together take care of a public sector manager's political responsibilities. The notion that public sector managers have any political obligations is offensive to some, but when the term ‘political’ is properly understood as describing the whole range of relationships between society and government, there should be no cause for alarm. It is not being suggested here that public sector managers are under an obligation to serve the narrow, partisan interests of political masters and especially not when such service would conflict with their proper forms of accountability.

Downward accountability

To what extent is a manager accountable to his subordinates? How far should such accountability go? This raises the whole question of industrial democracy, employee participation in decision making, trade union issues and the like. At the national level, there is already a long history of this kind of experiment, and a record of changes that can be attributed to influence from below. The public sector union movement from time to time exerts pressure for this form of accountability to be strengthened. In the recent past we read about such episodes in the energy sector, particularly, VRA and ECG with regards to the government’s plans to invite the private sector to be part of the operational and management aspects of the sector and the unions’ reaction to that policy. A case in point is the Power Distribution Service (PDS) phenomenon.

Undoubtedly, such reforms could go further and could, to some degree, result in improved industrial harmony, conducive working environment and enhanced productivity. The only question is where a line should be drawn so that this form of accountability leaves room enough for upward, outward and inward accountability.

The policy imperatives where downward accountability comes into play are those governing allocation of resources and work, working conditions, outsourcing, occupational health and safety, leave, remuneration or salaries and personnel management practices in general, all of which can be negotiated, and once these policies are determined, managers can be held accountable to the whole workforce for implementing them. In this regard, industrial sanctions such as strikes, laying down of tools, protests,
picketing etc. are invoked if the manager does not live up to his or her obligations.

Another aspect of downward accountability is the manager's obligation to keep employees informed about any matter affecting their working lives. For example, health hazards in the workplace that may have a vital bearing on employees’ safety or welfare. In other words, the obligation to account adequately to subordinates has to be seen as a moral obligation of managers, one which they should respect even if it is not enforced.

In most cases, adherence to these obligations is not easily enforced at workplaces here in Ghana. Freedom of information (FOI) legislation, as being practiced in Australia, gives employees certain rights of access to information concerning themselves as individuals, and FOI processes can be used to gain information sought by the workforce as a whole, or groups within it. Now that the “right to information” (RTI) legislation has been enacted in Ghana, we hope henceforth workers will enjoy similar rights of access to information as is pertained in Australia.

Inward accountability

Next we come to inward accountability, the most debatable of the four. What this means is that a Public Sector Manager has the duty to obey personal conscience.

Inward accountability requires managers to be able, if challenged, to defend their actions as being in conformity with moral standards. We are on tricky ground here; what appears to be immoral to one person may not be so judged by others. How can that difficulty be resolved? What if, for example, the manager considers that the orders given by a superior are unconscionable, but the superior has no moral qualms about giving them? There can clearly be conflict between upward and inward accountability.

There is no doubt, however, that a Public Sector Manager does have a duty to apply the test of conscience to every official action. The law requires it.
It should be made clear that a person cannot get away with the defence, ‘I was only obeying orders’ if what that person has done is contrary to obvious and universal norms of human conduct.

There is far too much secrecy in Ghanaian government (past and present). Confidentiality is imposed when it should not be, and secrecy is used to cover up mistakes or malpractices which ought to be exposed.

Exposure would not only serve the cause of democracy it would help to improve administration. It is often a public servant's wisest course of action to make full disclosure of things that have gone wrong. As a public sector manager or practitioner, to hide mistakes or wrongdoing, only to have them discovered later and the cover-up exposed, is to incur the certain wrath of, superiors, peers, subordinates, politicians, media commentators, pressure groups and the public. Besides, when a ministry, department, agency (MDA) or Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assembly (MMDA) is known for its candid admissions of mistakes, it has a greater chance of being believed when it says things are going well.

Lack of self-governance attributes, namely, honesty, integrity, ethics, commitment and leadership that have degenerated into lack of accountability, responsibility, liability, probity, transparency and answerability has corroded public respect for public sector practitioners and politicians in the country. Let us in our respective endeavours make self-governance ingredients, stated above, be the hallmark of whatever we seek to do at the workplace or within the community so that our personal and professional integrity is not compromised.

It should be realized that the fundamental basis of all accountability is the personal conscience which insists on ethical behavior. This realization is true because all other forms of accountability can too easily be avoided, or too often broken down.

In light of the above, it is imperative that a responsible government must ultimately rely on the consciences of all participants, including especially politicians, public sector managers and practitioners.