I have just read a fascinating paper published by the Institute of Development Studies in the UK and written by Naomi Hossain. It is titled 'Rude Accountability in the Unreformed State: Informal Pressures on Frontline Bureaucrats in Bangladesh' [IDS Working Paper Volume 2009 Number 319]. The paper describes and analyzes what happens when poor peasants in Bangladesh are being poorly served by frontline service providers like doctors and teachers in an environment where the institutional accountability mechanisms do not work. So, what do these poor peasants do? They get angry and they show it. They speak rudely to these doctors and teachers who normally expect deference. They embarrass them. They get local newspapers to name and shame them.They even engage in acts of violence like vandalism. And their reactions often produces results, particularly the media reports. This is what Hossain calls 'rude accountability'.
She concludes thus:
'The tools of accountability, in this account, are status and reputation; instead of Citizen Report Cards or participatory budgets, there is the weapon of embarrassment and the looming threat of the crowd. It is not obvious that these are factors that good governance policymakers would want to take into account....'More importantly, much can be learned about the power of "soft' social sanctions on public officials who fail in their duties. Accountability is a big word if it lacks enforcement. Given that the state seems unable to enforce administrative sanctions against failing officials, shame and embarrassment and the loss of political face may be reasonable stopgap measures.'[pages 28-29]
This is an important paper; for it captures an important reality about governance that is often missed. I have no quarrel with the paper except this: what she calls 'rude accountability' is really public opinion as social control, and there is a long and distinguished tradition of political thought on these matters. It is what John Locke calls the law of opinion and reputation. It is what Jeremy Bentham calls the popular or moral sanction imposed by the Public Opinion Tribunal in the face of misrule. It is what Hannah Arendt calls power as something people make as well as 'the reserve power of revolution'.
Public opinion has many tools - strikes, protests, demonstrations, riots, mass disobedience and so on - but one of the most powerful is the power to shame and embarrass those guilty of what the relevant community considers wrongdoing, including public officials. And publicity is the supreme instrument of public opinion. As Bentham says in his Securities against Misrule (page 28) 'It is by publicity that the Public Opinion Tribunal does whatever it does; any further than employment is given to this instrument, the workman cannot do anything.' Which is why on page 20 of Hossain's paper she reports that rural doctors fear being named and shamed by local newspapers.
The point is that transparency plus publicity plus public opinion all work together to provide direct pressure for accountability. This is not 'rude accountability'; it is the real deal. And that is the point of the tradition of political thought that includes the views, opinions and activities of the people in its account of governance. Any account that excludes these things is incomplete. Formal accountability measures are important...if they work. Social accountability mechanisms can help...again if they work. But you always have public opinion as a critical force in governance. Those who care about good governance should be supporting the power of public opinion by setting the conditions that help it: transparency (via regimes of open government) and publicity (via plural and independent media systems). These are not 'stop-gap' measures but at the very heart of how to provide securities against misrule.
Photo Credit: Simone D. McCourtie/World Bank