Accountability, Transparency Always Matter, But Now They Really Do

In my last post I talked about the part of The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s analysis that says structural racism is maintained in ALANA (African, Latino, Asian and Native American) communities in part because gatekeepers are not accountable to the community whose poverty makes their work possible and necessary. While below I explain more about what I mean by “accountability”, I support the general point that gatekeepers are not structurally responsible to the neighborhood, because this is what I have seen having worked in, governed and consumed services in the Hill District for nearly twenty years. Increasing the transparency element of accountability (see below) is something I worked on as part of the formation of One Hill, by using an online community, posting of minutes, membership based voting on critical issues, such as staff salary (the staff member was my wife) and org leadership. However, even One Hill’s transparency lessened once it had a formal leadership structure and negotiations for the CBA began, and most of my other work in the Hill, whether managing the African Brazilian arts organization, Nego Gato, Inc. or working as a case manager or board member for the Hill House Association, was not a part of a process that was accountable to the neighborhood in a substantive way.

To be clear, the issue of accountability is not simply about personal choices and values. It’s how most neighborhoods like the Hill District are structured and its nature of the non-profit industry generally. So, as one would expect, this lack of accountability is still the case in the Hill today. However, greater implications, because the Hill is in such a state of flux as the Hill House builds a new Grocery Store, the Urban Redevelopment, in partnership with the Hill District Community Development Corp, redevelops Centre Ave, and the Master Plan is implemented (although the process by which this will happen is not clear to me). When this is coupled with either our local politicians weakening what accountability mechanisms now exist in the community (see Laing letter to Lavelle-Support the Planning Forum) or missing opportunities to develop these mechanisms (see exchange with Rep. Wheatley in my first post about the lack of public information on the Hill District Growth/Casino Fund), it makes for a situation ripe to come out in a way a residents do not like or understand.

I need to be more specific as to this idea of “accountability”. What does it really mean and what would it look like if Hill District institutions were more accountable to community members? Andreas Schedler in Conceptualizing Accountability breaks accountability into two sections: answerability and enforcement. In the context of gatekeepers, answerability is having to say what the organization is doing and/or why it has done it and enforcement is the capacity for constituencies to impose standards or sanctions on gatekeepers who have not kept their end of the bargain. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on answerability. In order for gatekeepers to meet a standard of answerability, information about the organization and its work should be visible and high quality. Visible is pretty self-explanatory, but it includes the idea of the organization making its best effort of offering a full picture of what is going on so we can really “see”. By high quality, I mean interested community members should be able to make meaning for themselves as to what is going on because the data is in as raw form as possible (minutes, financial reporting, periodic updates) and is prepared for a variety of consuming styles (public meetings, internet postings, newsletters). While Schedler is talking about accountability for political actors or public agencies, I have applied his ideas to the challenge of making gatekeepers accountable as non-profit agencies are public charities. For me, the idea of answerability is best understood as transparency and my explanation of answerability is taken from Greg Michener’s and Katherine Bersch’s Conceptualizing_the_Quality_of_Transparency–.

So, how could these ideas around accountability be made real for gatekeepers and gatekeeping organizations in the Hill District? Staying with the part of accountability that is answerability and the part of answerability that is transparency, I’ll give some examples of transparency standards for the community’s gatekeepers that we all might better legitimize the notion of speaking in the name of the neighborhood. Here are five standards or practices that could be implemented fairly easily and one that would take a little more doing (membership):

  • Publicly posting synopsis of funded projects, the dollar amount awarded and the success indicators associated with the project;
  • Posting of 990s on websites with a standard they will be up within 9 months of the FY ending.
  • Posting of bylaws on website;
  • .A membership structure that allows community residents to have a voting stake in the organization;
  • A publicly available written policy for the amount of board members that will live in the community for organizations housed in the community;
  • Annual meetings at which all the above materials would be available and the organizations success against goals would be discussed and open for conversation.

These standards are only examples and in many ways they represent less accountability than is required by the various funders who support the work, yet its the community’s financial poverty, social challenges and collective history that underwrites much of it. My point is that residents and gatekeepers would benefit from asking for and designing more powerful accountability processes than the ones in place today. According to Michener and Bersch, the amount of transparency in a sector is directly related to the demand for it. If we fear losing the neighborhood, one of the ways to prevent this from happening is to become more active in asking what is happening now and not simply waiting for the “inevitable”. One of my intentions with this blog is that it will increase demand for accountability in the Hill. If you agree it’s an issue worth more attention, please share this entry with someone who lives or works in the neighborhood, comment and then follow the blog for further discussion.

2 thoughts on “Accountability, Transparency Always Matter, But Now They Really Do

  1. meticulouswarrior

    Gatekeepers are accountable to the people who paid for the gate. The gate was constructed to maintain white control. Ignore the gate and the keeper. Start acting like citizens who own the democratic process and who have a constitutional right to make it work for themselves. Try showing up with 300 people talking like Republicans, but aiming to achieve democratic goals.

    Reply

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