Go ahead. Read the comments that anonymous users post under online news articles. Fire up your smartphone, your tablet, or your laptop. Maybe the news outrages you. Why not create an anonymous account of your own? Join the online accountability machine.
Better yet! Jump on Twitter and tell a politician or journalist how you feel about them in no uncertain terms. You could reveal your name or use a nondescript handle. Civil or callous, constructive or hostile, curious or insular, the topic and the tone are up to you. In our digital democracy, speaking your truth to their power is easy.
If only wishing for accountability made it so.
Accountability should serve three functions, Peter Aucoin and Ralph Heintzman have suggested. First, it should restrain abuse of public authority. Second, it should assure citizens that government uses public resources while adhering to the law and public service values. Third, accountability should update governance and management practices through debate and constant evaluation.
At the recent Digital Governance Forum, one panelist called digital technology amoral. That seems about right. Constructive debate is not a precondition for virality on Facebook or Twitter and the web determines neither access nor reach solely on the basis of merit or principles of fairness.
To be sure, anonymous news comments and vicious tweets illustrate a cynic’s take. Most public policy on digital culture and accountability focuses on latent opportunities. Digital technologies lower transaction costs, remove barriers to participation, and create new spaces to exchange information and discuss ideas. Users can – if they so choose – leverage digital platforms to promote accountability through constructive debate and conversation.
Some governments have sought to leverage these spaces. For example, Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government argues that digital culture promotes accountability. The government emphasizes open data, open dialogue, and open information. The Action Plan highlights the ways in which participatory culture can enhance accountability. Technologies can enable “greater information sharing, public dialogue, and collaboration.”
Yet digital culture can also complicate accountability. Optics – not ethics – can come to dominate politics and bureaucracies. Communications systems are shifting toward “networked information environments,” as Yochai Benkler of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society calls them. This shift parallels a rise in frenzied accountability discourse. Conversations about accountability can exacerbate optics versus ethics tensions. A digital mob may fixate on personal blameworthiness at the expense of systemic issues. In many ways, digital culture privileges communication within groups, not between them.
Open data is considered by some to be a partial remedy to the challenge but it cannot guarantee the quality of information. Nor do public dialogue and collaboration ensure comity. Even online, partisans and advocates colour information that citizens produce and consume. Information asymmetry and political polarization persist. The digital divide is such that many Canadians do not enjoy quality access to the internet.
The advent of digital has not solved accountability challenges. Digital has altered the context in which government confronts oversight and risk management. It may be easy to express outrage online, but this alone does not make for good governance. While digital technologies may offer new forms of participatory democracy, in extreme cases they may in fact hinder accountability. For example, shallow consultations can be spun as consent for pre-determined policy choices and/or can lead to government by opinion poll.
Nor is it clear that transparency can solve all accountability challenges. The benefits of increased transparency are widely recognized, but transparency also comes at a cost, both monetary and cultural.
Even in a digital world, sharing information requires resources. Overlapping or ad hoc mechanisms intended to provide greater transparency might not always provide the best value for the material costs they incur. Demands for transparency can also negatively affect organizational knowledge and skills.
Institutional memory may suffer due to blame avoidance strategies as increasing demands for transparency are known to encourage shifts to oral cultures from written ones, for example. More troubling still, studies suggest that demands for transparency can stifle creativity and promote blind faith in tired protocols.
Digital culture also seems to amplify the systemic nature of risk. Fragmented, process-focused accountability mechanisms will not suffice in this type of policy environment where policy choices and implementation in one branch of government can have profound effects across the continuum of governing institutions. Governments cannot reverse societal shifts toward digital culture. But they can capitalize on them.