Transparency is a characteristic of governments, companies, organisations and individuals that are open in the clear disclosure of information, rules, plans, processes and actions*.
Transparency and accountability need each other and can be mutually reinforcing. Together they enable citizens to have a say about issues that matter to them and a chance to influence decision-making and hold those making decisions to account.
Below are definitions of the two terms as agreed by the Transparency and Accountability initiative and endorsed by the Victoria Hospitals Foundation Board of Directors.
WHAT IS TRANSPARENCY?
As a principle, public officials, civil servants, managers and directors of companies and organisations and board trustees have a duty to act visibly, predictably and understandably to promote participation and accountability.
Information should be managed and published so that it is:
- Relevant and accessible: Information should be presented in plain and readily comprehensible language and formats appropriate for different stakeholders. It should retain the detail and disaggregation necessary for analysis, evaluation and participation. Information should be made available in ways appropriate to different audiences.
- Timely and accurate: Information should be made available in sufficient time to permit analysis, evaluation and engagement by relevant stakeholders. This means that information needs to be provided while planning as well as during and after the implementation of policies and programmes. Information should be managed so that it is up-to-date, accurate and complete.
WHAT IS ACCOUNTABILITY?
Accountability means ensuring that officials in public, private and voluntary sector organisations are answerable for their actions and that there is redress when duties and commitments are not met.
Accountability is an institutionalised (i.e. regular, established, accepted) relationship between different actors. One set of people/organisations are held to account (‘accountees’), and another set do the holding (‘accounters’).
There are many ways in which people and organisations might be held to account. It is useful to think of an accountability relationship as having up to four stages:
- Standard setting: setting out the behaviour expected of the ‘accountee’ and the criteria by which they might validly be judged.
- Investigation: exploring whether or not accountees have met the standards expected of them.
- Answerability: a process in which accountees are required to defend their actions, face sceptical questions, and generally explain themselves. This applies both to negative or critical as well as to positive feedback.
- Sanction: a process in which accountees are in some way punished for falling below the standards expected of them (or perhaps rewarded for achieving or exceeding them).
Accountability can usefully be categorised in terms of horizontal, vertical and diagonal mechanisms, with the condition however that success is most often found not in one of those approaches alone, but in their interaction.
- Horizontal accountability consists of formal relationships within the state itself, whereby one state actor has the formal authority to demand explanations or impose penalties on another. Its focus is on internal checks and oversight processes.
- Vertical forms of accountability are those in which citizens and their associations play direct roles in holding the powerful to account.
- Diagonal accountability operates in a domain between the vertical and horizontal dimensions. It refers to the phenomenon of direct citizen engagement with horizontal accountability institutions when provoking better oversight of state actions.
The Transparency and Accountability Initiative was used as the primary reference for this Statement. The (T/A Initiative) is a collaborative committed to strengthening democracy and development through empowering citizens to hold their governing institutions to account.