Testimony from our working group was emphatic that dedication to accountability must start at the top – from elected officials to appointed administrators to professional midlevel managers. Suspicions that leaders are less than seriously committed can undercut the mission. By logical extension, because citizens and voters themselves are the true bosses of our governments, interest in the subject and support from the general public must be encouraged.
An ideal accountability framework would start from a consensus vision that identifies key long-term outcomes for expanded prosperity and improved quality of life. It would express these outcomes in clear and measurable terms and specify the indicators for marking progress toward the goals. Executive and legislative branches would refer to this big picture as they develop policy recommendations, legislation, appropriations and investment strategies. Annual reports on the selected measures would help citizens, managers and policymakers understand what is working and what needs to be adjusted. Annual priorities for closing the gap would be set. If priorities change, all parties have a basis for discussing direct effects, as well as how related goals may be affected.
Minnesota’s state and local governments should increase efforts to open up their books, records and governmental processes. Following this principle, however, must be about more than a passive “go-ahead-and-look” attitude. Effective monitoring requires consistent reporting. And it doesn’t matter how transparent and retrievable information is if few people can understand what it means.
A disciplined approach to fiscal management strives to project costs and revenues accurately. Leaders should aim for the revenue sufficiency required to provide stable, reliable services and programs. Countering revenue volatility in a dynamic economy requires a diverse revenue mix as well as maintaining adequate reserves.
Managing volatility must go hand-in-hand with maintaining tax fairness. The current state-local system results in those at the very top of the income scale paying a significantly lower effective tax rate. Except for the personal income tax, most solutions to budget shortfalls – whether cuts or revenue increases – are likely to fall disproportionately on low- and middle-income households.
Fiscal managers should develop life-cycle cost analyses and more comprehensive fiscal impact statements to guide long-term investment.
Efforts at improving accountability are bedeviled by the frequent confusion between effectiveness and efficiency – doing the right things (effectiveness) and doing things right (efficiency). Efficiency can be understood and measured using the universal inputs of time and money. Effectiveness, however, concerns the quality of the outputs, which requires careful definition in terms of specific policy goals. Measures must also be selected to mark progress toward the desired outcomes. Too often, we demand better short-term control of the inputs without grasping what works best to achieve long-term results or what the outcomes are ultimately worth.
The best organizations build accountability into their culture and ongoing operations. But government’s complex delivery system – not to mention resistance to “big government” – makes adopting a single, integrated approach difficult. Regular audits and assessments help reinforce expectations and provide important feedback on performance. Rigid rulemaking may be counter-productive, because it undermines managerial discretion and accountability at the point of service.
Major aspects of accountability can be established independently of specific policy initiatives, so consistent practices can be maintained even if priorities change. For example, organizations can: