Towards accountability in the public sector (Write-up)

Almost everyone would agree that accountability is desirable for a clean, efficient and effective government. Without accountability, there is likely to be a trust deficit and It will be difficult for a government to function without trust.

Unfortunately, the reality is that few people would like to be held accountable, and they will resist any effort to hold them accountable. Accountability is a complex subject, and the related issues are well documented in the references provided in this article. The references are for jurisdictions like the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.  

A prerequisite for accountability is transparency or access to government data and information. In Malaysia, cabinet papers, discussions and decisions are by default under the Official Secret Act. Unless there is a major change of policy, there is little or no transparency or accountability at the ministerial level.

There are several worldwide initiatives promoting transparency. The Open Government Partnership initiative (established in 2011) now has about 70 countries taking part. Another international organization promoting open data is the Web Foundation. They are supported by the Open Data Institute and the Open Knowledge International, two technical organizations.

Malaysia, through MAMPU, launched the Public Sector Open Data Portal (http://data.gov.my) in 2014. The main aim of this portal is “Enables data to be shared to a wide range of users and to increase the transparency of government services.” At the time of writing this article (c. 1st January 2016), there are over 1,600 datasets available. The UK has a similar site (https://data.gov.uk/data/search) with over 40,500 datasets while the Open Government Portal, Canada (http://open.canada.ca/en) has over 120,000 datasets and 53 open information set. Needless to say, Malaysia has a long way to go.

Open datasets often contain data that “the government officials wish to release rather than those that might hold officials accountable”. However, the data released may be beneficial for service delivery or improve our lives in some ways. In any case, to use open data effectively requires specialist knowledge and skills.

The AG’s Report

In Malaysia, there is one information set, the Auditor General’s Report, that is produced to strengthen the transparency, accountability, and integrity and to promote good governance. The AG’s Report is mandated by the Federal Constitution and Audit Act 1957. The Auditor General is the auditor of the public sector which comprises about 1,400 government department and agencies, and about 1,700 governments linked companies.

This annual AG’s reports are tabled in Parliament and the States’ legislative assemblies. The report contains disclosures in the financial, management, activities and performance of the public sector entities. The information in the AG’s Report is unstructured information in PDF format. Each year, there can be more than 100 documents. As such, related information in the AG’s Report can be spread across hundreds of documents.

Rational Ignorance Theory

”Ignorance about an issue is said to be ‘rational’ when the cost of educating oneself about the issue sufficiently to make an informed decision can outweigh any potential benefit one could reasonably expect to gain from that decision, and so it would be irrational to waste time doing so.” Anthony Downs proposed this economic theory in 1957 and it is usually applied to politics. Unfortunately, no viable solutions have been proposed.

Users of the AG’s Report suffer from this effect because of the complexity of the public sector, the voluminous reports and the spread of the audit information over hundreds of documents. It is likely that because of this effect, the mass media only highlight the sensational audit findings when a new series of the AG’s Report is published.

The AG’s Report InfoGraph

The AG’s Report InfoGraph (InfoGraph), available at http://myagr.mcthosting.net, is a private initiative by Multicentric Technology Sdn Bhd (MCT) to make the AG’s Report more accessible, integrated and usable. This is our attempt to address the rational ignorance effect is to increase the benefits of gaining the knowledge, i.e. make the knowledge more useful, and reduce dramatically the cost of gaining it. We make the information more useful by displaying the focal information and related information while at the same time allowing the users to reorganize the information from various viewpoints. We reduce the cost by integrating the related information into a single web-based system.

The information in the information graph is related and interconnected. A graph computing platform is used to manage and display the information and their relationships from different perspectives using the list, grouped list, trees, and cross-tabulation.

The Content Model of InfoGraph

agr-content-model

The essence of InfoGraph is the integration of the information shown in the content model and the management of the relationships and connectivity of the information. This allows the information graph to be explored from the viewpoints of any of the items in the content model.

The notable characteristics of the content model are:

  1. It is much more than the audit reports;
  2. It includes all our legislature, national plans, budgets, government programs, rules and regulations and so on. Some of the audit reports make reference to these documents;
  3. Audit areas are used to group the audit results based on similar business areas or topics;
  4. Audit issues are used to categories audit results with similar issues.

Use Cases

The effectiveness of InfoGraph is best illustrated by the following basic use cases.

Use Case 1 – Audit Results of an Organization

Without InfoGraph

  1. Search for the name of the organization using Windows Search provided all the relevant reports document has been downloaded and index or try searching for the PDF files on the NAD website.
  2. Open the matched annual AG’s report documents and search for the name of the organization.
  3. Extract the relevant audit results for further investigations.
  4. Search may fail because of spelling differences
With InfoGraph

  1. Search for the organization’s name using keywords in InfoGraph.
  2. Select the organization document from the search result.
  3. Information about the organization is displayed together with related organizations and audit results.
  4. Select any of the audit results to view the content.
  5. View all related information and audit results.
  6. Related audit reports can be cross-tabulated against the audit issues.

Significance

This is the most basic process of finding audit information from the AG’s Report.  Without InfoGraph, it will be very slow and tedious, so much so that most users will not persevere, resulting in the rational ignorance effect. With the Information graph, this is almost a trivial exercise as all related information is accessible, integrated and usable.

Use Case 2 – Public sector procurement

Without InfoGraph

  1. Search for the keyword “Procurement” using Windows Search provided all the relevant AG’s reports document has been downloaded and index or try searching for the PDF files on the NAD website.
  2. Open the annual AG’s report document and search for the keyword “Procurement” again.
  3. Extract the relevant audit report for further investigations.
With InfoGraph

  1. Select “Procurement Management” from the list of audit areas.
  2. The full list of procurement related audits will be displayed.
  3. From the list of Audit Issues, select “Procurement”, which has 15 sub-issues.
  4. For each sub-issues, you can view the related audits.
  5. The list of related audit results can be cross-tabulated against the audit areas.
  6. In the cross-tabulation, click the intersection between the audit issues and audit areas to view the relevant audit results.

Significance

Procurement is one of the typical issues in the public sector. In a typical research scenario, finding the related audit results would be a major exercise. Finding their common weaknesses add to the challenge. The same process described can be used for all the other main issues.

Readers can browse the system at http://myagr.mcthosting.net. If you register with the system, you will get free access for seven days.  Registration is free.

Using InfoGraph for Accountability

Accountability comprises many chained relationships such as:

  1. Government to the citizens;
  2. Ministers to the Prime Minister and Parliament;
  3. Secretaries to the Ministers;
  4. Departmental heads to the Secretaries;
  5. Public sector officers to the Departmental heads and so on.

These relationships are described in some detail in “Modernizing government accountability: a framework for reform” by Peter Aucoin-Mark Jarvis. There are many mechanisms used to hold the government accountable and we provide a short explanation on how InfoGraph can support these mechanisms.

Parliamentary Question Time

The parliamentary question time is an opportunity for the MPs to scrutinize the government on its policies, decisions, actions, and implementations. The quality of the questions and whether they will elicit the right response from the ministers depends on the skills and preparatory work of the MPs in framing and focusing their questions.

A brief survey of the Malaysian Parliamentary orders shows that most of the questions are connected with government plans and intentions related to current and local issues. There is also some request for factual information which is the domain of the government Open Data portal. Unfortunately, there are very few questions related to government policies, decisions, and actions.

The AG’s Report raised many issues and InfoGraph makes these issues more accessible and organized such that we know their frequencies and where they are occurring. This feature is helpful in identifying if the cause of the audit issue is local, inherited or inherent in the service.

Public Accounts Committees (PAC)

The role of the PACs is to scrutinize and review the AG’s Report. The primary purpose of reviewing audit reports is to assess whether audited agencies have responded appropriately to the Auditor General’s findings.

As part of this scrutiny, the PACs can also provide a diagnosis of the recurring issues for the public administrators. These diagnoses can help develop strategic plans to address the weaknesses in the public sector.

Currently, the reports are mainly used piecemeal because of the difficulty in integrating the audit findings across different organizations and audit years. It is likely that the PACs may overlook the systemic and endemic issues.

InfoGraph will allow the PAC to examine the audit findings of the audit entities vertically (parent-child relationships) or horizontally (siblings). This feature is helpful in identifying if the cause of the audit issue is local, inherited or inherent in the service.

Shadow cabinet

As the government machinery is highly complex, it is important that those trying to hold the government accountable is organized so they can focus on different policy areas. This can be in the form of a shadow cabinet. The shadow cabinet has to monitor systematically the policies and initiatives of their policy areas, including the existing blueprints. They must become experts in their policy areas.

With InfoGraph, the audit results of all the entities in the ministry and their identified common issues will provide a good background to work from. This information together with current events will help the shadow cabinet in framing incisive questions to hold to account those responsible.

Other lawmakers

As lawmakers, MPs need to be more knowledgeable of the various issues faced in the country. Many of them are affected by the rational ignorance effect. InfoGraph can help in mitigating this effect where the public sector is the concern.

The MPs have to tackle the local issues and raise them in Parliament. Project allocations are scarce and they should not be wasted.

The AG’s Report includes a number audit findings on projects with poor management, bad design, and maintenance and these may be in the MPs constituencies. The lawmakers can verify these audit findings and hold to account those responsible.

Policy Development and Research

The changing environment, technology, and aspiration of the country require new policies to address them. Policy development involves research, diagnosis, analysis, consultation and synthesis of information to produce the policy or policy’s recommendations. One of the main difficulties in policy work is the lack of information and data. Collecting, processing and managing information is time-consuming and expensive.

InfoGraph will be useful for public sector-related policy work, especially in the preliminary survey of the problems to identify the focus area for the research required. Also, the experience of the public sector, documented in the AG’s Report, should be taken into considerations when formulating the new policies.

Mass media and journalists  

The mass media have an important role in promoting transparency and accountability in the public sector. To be effective, media organizations face the challenges in developing the knowledge, skills, and resources to explore open government information on behalf of the public.

The civil society and social media have a lot of expertise available. The mass media should recognize this and seek to form a partnership with them to apply this expertise. These are ongoing efforts by the mass media.

Investigative reporters are also affected by the rational ignorance effect on issues related to the AG’s Report.

We develop InfoGraph to address this issue by increasing the benefits and reducing the cost. Instead of just reproducing the sensational audit findings in the AG’s Report, investigative journalists can gather the information to report on the systemic and endemic issues raised.

Public Administrators

Public administrators have political, administrative and professional accountability to their superiors, colleagues, the public, and their professional associations if any.
The public administrators should be thoroughly familiar with the audit findings as this directly involves their work. Recurring issues that are rooted in the entities themselves will reflect badly on the administrators.

With InfoGraph, the auditors and auditees can share the same page in discussing and offering solutions for these issues.

The civil service will need to be reorganized from time to time as the social, political and technological environment is always changing. This business process re-engineering will have to address the issues raised in the AG’s Report and elsewhere, to remove obsolete and redundant processes and procedures.

Citizens and the social media

The citizens represent an important resource with a wide range of expertise and experience if only it can be tapped. Unfortunately, these people are most affected by the rational ignorance effect. They have little to gain to keep up-to-date with the affairs of the public sector.

With InfoGraph, this is no longer the case as they can find what they want on a just-in-time basis and with their expertise, they will be able to appreciate what is going on.

An unfortunate problem with the social media is that people without the requisite background and knowledge are providing anecdotes, opinions, and conjectures. This can complicate the issues. It is difficult to educate these vocal members of the public especially if they have preconceived ideas.
With InfoGraph, there is a possibility of self-discovery if only they will explore the system. Hopefully, other members of the public can confront them with the pertinent information from InfoGraph.

Takeaways

  1. Accountability needs to be promoted from many fronts as it is in the interest of the government and the citizens.
  2. One of the key issues to accountability is the public apathy due to the rational ignorance effect. We can reduce this effect by increasing the benefits of the knowledge and reducing the cost of acquiring the knowledge at the same time.
  3. However, there is no free lunch. Some investment in learning the tools and structuring and building the system is still required.
  4. InfoGraph or a similar system need to be a shared resource as it requires the economies of scale and the integration of the community’s skills and knowledge.
  5. Transparency and accountability are means to an end and not an end in themselves.

A slide deck of this article is available at https://goo.gl/6TCVfD

Further Readings

  1. Effective Public Sector Accountability. (n.d.). Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://www.acag.org.au/epsa.htm    
  2. Chapter 9 – Modernizing Accountability in the Public Sector. (December 2002). Retrieved December 11, 2016, from http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/parl_oag_200212_09_e_12403.html   
  3. Strengthening Accountability, Transparency, and Governance. (November 2013), Retrieved December 11, 2016, from http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/meth_gde_e_38838.htm  
  4. Modernizing government accountability: a framework for reform, Peter Aucoin-Mark Jarvis – Canada School of Public Service – 2005. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/272145/publication.html  
  5. 2010 to 2015 government policy: Government transparency and accountability. (8 May 2015). Retrieved December 12, 2016, from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/2010-to-2015-government-policy-government-transparency-and-accountability   
  6. What to Expect-An Auditee’s Guide to the Performance Audit Process. (November 2016). Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/meth_lp_e_30860.html  
  7. A Guide To Policy Development, Office of the Auditor-General, Manitoba (2002), Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://www.oag.mb.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/PolicyDevelopmentGuide.pdf
  8. Transparency in Politics and The Media: Accountability and Open Government (2014), Reuters Institute in the study of Journalism, Retrieved December 19, 2016, from http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/publication/transparency-politics-and-media  
  9. The Media and Open Government: partners or adversaries? (2013) Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://www.opengovpartnership.org/sites/default/files/OGP-Media-Council-Report.pdf    
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