Governing By Network: What about Accountability?

The executive branch has a huge responsibility to assure that third-party providers are held accountable.
April 25, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

Over the past year and a half, this column frequently referenced "governing by network," the transformation of government from direct services provider to network facilitator. Since my most recent book is titled Governing by Network, I've gone so far as to call the evolution inevitable: Government is finding it impossible to resolve complex horizontal problems through narrow vertical, hierarchical, command-control bureaucracies, and government simply cannot afford to discharge all of its current and future responsibilities by itself.

If you take as given that the government is increasingly using private actors to extend its reach, the $64,000 question becomes, "how do we manage and protect democratic values in this new system?" It seems to me that the answer lies in getting the executive branch to concentrate on producing outcomes and protecting democratic values. Seems simple enough, but ensuring accountability without destroying the very flexibility and discretion that prompted the creation of this new delivery system presents difficult challenges.

In a networked government system, third-party providers are entrusted with substantial public assets, and it is the responsibility of the executive branch to assure that private actors are held accountable for discharging state action appropriately. For example, when I was mayor of Indianapolis, we privatized half of the trash routes in the city. We immediately notified citizens that the mayor retained responsibility for trash pickup and directed them to contact the city call center to complain if there were problems -- regardless of whether a city employee was assigned to that route. So, what procedures should the executive branch consider in order to protect democratic values in a system of networked government?

Use Transparent Procedures that Allow Public Scrutiny

An open and competitive bidding process and a well defined contract monitoring system help ensure that equity and fairness reign. The transparency of the contracting process and accessibility of the performance metric system administered by the executive branch help ensure civic participation.

Setting the Rules

Rules provide the most direct route to protecting citizens, and government's core competency is applying a narrow set of rules uniformly. But inflexible, discretion-narrowing rules stifle creative problem-solving and tie the hands of innovative public officials. Obviously, the use of taxpayer resources triggers certain accountability requirements, but strict rules and regulations accomplish superficial fairness at a huge cost in terms of effectiveness. Ensuring accountability in a networked arrangement requires getting the following four components right: incentives, measurement, trust and risk. With a good network partner and government manager, the goals and outcomes will remain sharply in focus, but inputs and processes will change as required.

Force Accountability Downward

There is a school of thought that believes the answer to protecting democratic values in a networked government model is to impose "public requirements" on private actors delivering government services. These efforts compel private partners to divulge profit, salary and/or work processes and comply with public-record requests. Ensuring that network partners are responsive to important standards is a given, but forcing them to behave more like government minimizes their value and stifles their creativity.

The advent of technological tools, such as the Internet, intranets, service synchronization and collaboration software, shared databases, and common data interchanges makes it possible to supervise outsourced partners in previously unimagined ways. Restrictive input requirements are no longer required to hold governmental agents responsible for protecting public values and securing agreed-upon outcomes.

Governing by network brings with it new opportunities and new risks: Public officials can produce considerably more public value -- and in a more personalized fashion -- but risk losing control over the delivery system. In this new world, government officials will need new talents, tools and approaches to insure democratic accountability and protect important values, but it can be done.