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The Essence of Accountability: Speak for Yourself

Antonio Lambino's picture

Last November 2007, CommGAP organized a workshop entitled Generating Genuine Demand with Social Accountability Mechanisms in Paris, France.  Since then, we have been reflecting on the word “accountability” and what it really means in the work of governance.  I recently recalled that Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson defines the term in the context of political campaigns as candidates (and I would add officials and elites in other public settings) speaking in their own voices, thus keeping themselves open to challenge and criticism.  Simply put, the essence of accountability in political discourse is being answerable to others for what one says in public.

The other side of the accountability equation is whether citizens demand accountability from their leaders and, if not, how they might be encouraged to do so.  This is tricky because the public is usually not as organized as elites.  There exists, therefore, an accountability gap that must be bridged.  The news media -- if one accepts their watchdog function -- should fill this gap by scrutinizing public statements and making discrepancies known to the public.  However, modern newsrooms in many countries, due to practical constraints and established work routines, do not have the in-house capacity to examine public statements to the degree that I believe accountability requires.  Investigative journalists may be exceptions because they have more time to pore over documents and dissect public statements.  They are exceptions that prove the rule.  The mainstream news media are dominated by organizations that, in the case of dailies, are constantly chasing after the proverbial 4 pm deadline.  Broadcasters and online journalists on the ceaseless 24 hour news cycle have it even worse.

So who else can do the scrutinizing?  One possible answer is the blogosphere.  There are many examples of bloggers setting right what journalists initially get wrong.  But blogging, writ large, lacks an editorial function.  Aren’t most bloggers, practically speaking, only accountable to themselves?  For example, I’m not double-sourcing anything that I’m writing here.

That said, there are innovative models of harnessing the raw power of citizen participation through editorial restraint, such as South Korea’s OhMyNews.  Under this particular model, both professional and citizen journalists write the news, and professional staff provide editorial review.  An alternative model is bringing to bear the skills of academically trained researchers.  In the U.S., the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania (headed by Dr. Jamieson) runs a website called that helps the citizenry at large, and the journalism community especially, separate fact from falsehood by deeply scrutinizing public statements made by political elites.  In fact (pun intended), Time Magazine named as one of “25 Sites We Can’t Live Without” in 2006 and the Webby Awards honored it as the best political and government website in the 2007 People’s Voice vote.

In case you haven't had the chance, please have a look at OhMyNews ( and (  Do you think these models of citizen journalism and public scrutiny measure up to the demands of accountability?  If so, are these models developed in rich countries applicable to developing country contexts?  Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.


kia orana, greetings, Congratulations to the world bank for catching up with the rest of the world and identifying not just blogs but public opinion as essential to good governance! Could not agree more about there being an "accountability gap." Antonio identifyies what makes OhMyNews work in Korea - that it is a partnership between bloggers and media professionals - a true future model. At the moment, however, public opinion is scattered far and wide over the internet. What needs to happen next is an information partnership between media, NGOs, business and government - to identify and agree on issues of public concern - and provide links to a statutorily recognised 24.7 polling service to gauge public opinion. Here in the Pacific Islands, we are dealing with fallout from the deportation of Russell Hunter, a publisher of the daily Fiji Sun newspaper, by the interim Bainimarama military regime. Authortarian regimes have a very low threshold of pain when it comes to freedoms of speech! Issues raised elsewhere here - by Sina particularly - point further to problems related to matching public opinion to governance priorities. It is my belief that it is not so much a matter of work cycles or deadlines as resources. The World Bank has championed policies for the last decade or so that put ultimate faith in the powers of the free market. However, over the same timeframe, we have seen a dramatic loss in public broadcast journalists across the globe, and relentless culling of private newsrooms as well. This at the very time as the virtually unlimted capacity of the internet has become open to more people than ever before - at the very time when we need information specialists like journalists most - free markets have decided that we need less information, not more. Similar to the question posed in these forums - is public opinion always right - we need to ask the far more pertinent question - are free markets always right? I suggest not. Not when they are aimed almost exclusively on second-by-second profits, rather than long term effects and causes. For that, we need journalists, not sharebrokers. As ye reap ... jason brown editor avaiki news agency

Submitted by Antonio on
Hi, Jason. Many thanks for your contributions on this topic! I was hoping to follow-up on a couple of points you make. You say: “… what makes OhMyNews work in Korea - that it is a partnership between bloggers and media professionals - a true future model.” In addition to partnership between bloggers and professionals, a crucial aspect of OhMyNews’ success is South Korea’s broadband infrastructure which is not typical among developed nations, much less in the developing world. Is there a way to adapt this model to a development context? Some arrangement based on traditional media and/or cellular phones, perhaps? You also say: “What needs to happen next is an information partnership between media, NGOs, business and government - to identify and agree on issues of public concern - and provide links to a statutorily recognised 24.7 polling service to gauge public opinion.” I agree that tri/multisectoral approaches can be very effective in generating broad buy-in and developing innovative policy solutions. Please let us know if successful models come to mind. I.e., experiences from around the world from which we can pick out good practices and lessons learned to be shared with the global development community. We would like to build a knowledge base in this area, and any lead would be much appreciated. Again, thank you very much for posting! Tony

kia orana tony, thanks for the kind response, didn't catch it at the time. Lucky I was doing one of those vanity searches, drooling over how clever I am, and came across your follow up. By now of course you would have heard about the Obama administration adopting Google Moderator as its platform for formalising public opinion on whatever issue they care to name - by enabling votes for different suggestions, questions, etc, ... as posed by proletariat! This enables not only the government of the day but voters of the day to gauge how closely an administration adheres to public opinion - not definitively, sure, but certainly an indicator to start with. And something unfiltered to triangulate against public opinion polls. But one of the most important aspects of adopting web2 approaches like Google Moderator is that this displays (much needed) new information leadership by using an openly available platform that can easily be used by others in their own efforts towards participatory democracy. This puts the "we" in "yes we can" - so that instead of using some fancy pants, IT'd to death, custom-made, bells-and-whistles, we're-so-clever, gazillion-character weblinking nightmare that crashes most of the time (yes, talking about you UN and OECD fellas) - we get a simple, elegant interface that anyone can use. As you might be able to tell, I am as excited about this aspect as the fact that this is evidence Obama - born here in Polynesia by the way - is serious about web2 as the future interface of public relations. He has, with this one stroke, changed the face of governance forever.

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