Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Strong and Weak Accountability

I'm skeptical of accountability as a concept because of the coercive social control apparatus I see at work behind it. The charitable sector is allowed to take risks, to be innovative, to be different precisely because it doesn't answer to constituents or stockholders. As long as there are convictions that aren't up for a vote or sale, there ought to be a sphere in which we are largely able to act upon them, and that sphere is the philanthropic world.

So the problem for nonprofit and philanthropic accountability is: to whom do we answer? The quick answer for me, in the interest of absolute and perfect freedom, is: no one.

But how do we account for the fact that we employ accountability as a concept?
Perhaps, introducing a new distinction in to our notions of accountability might help. I'm aware of procedural/legal (filling out your 990) vs. substantive (do you fulfill your mission?) distinctions that have been drawn, but I don't know of any that specifically highlight the coercive element. Actually, in the notion I'm about to talk about legal accountability is the only accountability there is. In my mind, you're only really accountable if you can be either stopped (strong thesis)... or bested (weak thesis):

Strong thesis: Person X is accountable to Person Y if and only if:
1. Y may question the activities of X.
2. X must answer to Y to the satisfaction of Y.
3. Y can legitimately compel X to cease and desist his/her activities.

Weak thesis: Person X is accountable to Person Y to the extent that:
1. Y may question the activities of X.
2. X must answer to Y to the satisfaction of Y.
3. Y can engage in competing activities that neutralize the effects of Y's activities.

This demonstrates the alternatives available to those who want to see the sector become more accountable. In an attempt to make philanthropy as free as possible, the only notion of accountability I can admit is one which minimizes the amount of coercive power brought to bear on the sector. Therefore, I endorse the strong thesis, and I'm incredibly skeptical of most regulation of the charitable sector. This, however, leaves a lot of room for abuse of the sector. What good is this freedom of ours if it's squandered? This is where the weak thesis ought to come in. Accountability is about competition, pushing someone to compete with you, to answer to you.

We make the tools of philanthropy available to as many people as possible so if someone comes in to the sector and creates a think tank we don't like, we are able to answer them in kind - we start our own think tank and neutralize the overall effect they might have. If people are funding harmful groups, we fund the helpful. They counter with more refined efforts; we anticipate their actions and push ourselves to innovate.

Accountability is often about the less powerful demanding more from the powerful or vice versa. Viewed in the way we just described, however, accountability can become about equals demanding more from one another and pushing one another to greater heights.

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