Public Accountability

Accountability appears to be elevated to the level of a buzzword – national governments, the ECB, the media, science. Is it the solution to public anxieties over the way the public world moves?

In general, given the absence of a single social point of view, it is often argued that social reality occurs within a space of reasons. People in general expect to be able to ask for and be asked for reasons explaining, justifying, urging the positions they take and the things they do. This might be no more formal than a friendly pub discussion, or a chat on a bus. It might be more formal, like a public debate or a rally.

Given social reality’s reliance on reasons and discussion, in its protean forms, the internal logics and cultures of social subsystems stand as an anomaly. Formally at least, the fourth estate, banking, politics and (increasingly) science stand as engines of social change.

Each of these areas’ can be described as having their own ‘internal logic,’ or ‘culture.’ This structures the perspective that the editor, the banker, the politician, the scientist takes. This perspective fits into the overall history and self-perception of the practice at hand. But these parts of life are not the whole of life – they are subsystems within an overall highly variegated way of life.

The possibilities opened, closed, emphasised and shunned by these loci of action are possibilities in this broader way of being – social reality. What’s more, this singular term ‘social reality’ hides the myriad options that structure the reality. Pluralism of value, of cultural legacy, of personal affiliations and taste mean that there is no singular ‘social perspective.’ There may even be no possibility of forming an aggregate position.

At the very least, the press ought to provide information upon which social discussion act. Banking ought to work to enrich social actors either personally or through bringing a more distributed prosperity through economic channels. Politics, in a general western European sense, is meant to be representative of the public somehow and to be concerned with bringing about the conditions for a maximally free and safe society. Science is meant to provide us with a view of the world at some fundamental level such that we can increase our control over our environment.

The cultures that prompt internal advance or perpetuation of the status of these subsystems are other than the discursive means of social understanding and comprehension. There is something general that it is like to be an editor, a banker and so on, that is less open to discussion than what it is like to be ‘a citizen.’ When press standards, banking’s self-perception, political culture, or the scientific image confronts social actors, there is often a shock akin to a conversation being interrupted. Internally, the subsystems meet no resistance or query as they are persisting as they always have – justification is not proffered as it is not sought.

Socially, challenge to norms is expected to be met with a voluntary justification of that very challenge. So, when press practice is suddenly revealed, or bankers’ actions suddenly exposed, there is a gasp from society at large. The confrontation of social reality at large at the subsystems that inform and enable it is an obvious problem now.

In the UK there have been the scandals in the media culminating in the Leveson Inquiry. In banking, the impacts of that system’s internal practices for global ways of life can scarcely be overstated. Politicians in Europe, owing in part at least to the banking crises, are not trusted. Science too is often seen as ‘other’ and serving hidden industrial interests.

Through accountability, to put it very bluntly, these subsystems are invited to explain themselves to broader society. This is the clear notion at work here, but of course the reality is murky.

When the press is asked to explain itself, worries are raised about its ability to conduct itself under scrutiny – sanctity of sources, definitions of public interest and so on make for new debates within the fundamental explanatory push. In banking the pace and obscurity of matters make explanations hard to grasp and come by. More often than not, risks taken can only be discussed after the fact. When the risks don’t pay off, it’s a scandal, but when they do, little remains to note there was ever a risk. Payday makes us blind to what might have been, perhaps.

Politically, trust is so low that little is relied upon as sincere and so justifications of anything, if heard, are thought of as mealy-mouthed. Science, also sometimes mistrusted, harbours similar feelings to the press: how can research proceed when we have peoples’ fears and ignorance holding us back from our important work? Like banking, moreover, if things go wrong it’s often too late for meaningful discussion.

These challenges hint at the broad, value-laden perspectives of social reality and its subsystems that is required in order to comprehend the practical logic of social action at all. Gaining perspectives on these perspectives seems essential to the project of accounting for social action in all its plurality. Accountability seems a promising notion in the quest for this goal, but it should be clear that in itself it is not ‘a solution.’

Explaining oneself still means having the perspective than enables or prompts some action. Often, it is this that is at issue. Reasoning from the basis assumed might be perfectly valid, but the assumed basis can be contested. How to use social discussion as an effective forum for explaining perspectives as well as a means of changing perspectives when their animating values are at stake is a fundamental problem. Accountability is instead a useful new problem whose discussion might bring solutions to a perennial knot of problems.

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