We often think about effective bureaucracies and accountable bureaucracies as tradeoffs—the tighter we make accountability, the less effectiveness we get because we increase the amount of red tape we create. And, to some degree that is true.
After all, accountability isn’t free. It imposes constraints on what bureaucrats can do, it creates mandates for the information they must collect, and it establishes expectations about the transparency in which they must operate. Bureaucrats sometimes find the collection of constraints annoying. Sometimes the steps toward accountability get in the way of good government, by creating mindless forms and piles of paper that no one reads.
In a democracy, however, there is nothing more threatening than a bureaucracy that is NOT accountable. Bureaucracies are how governments exercise their power: how they collect taxes, deploy armies, regulate commerce, manage programs, and often limit the rights of citizens. But, on the other hand, there is nothing more threatening to the effectiveness of government than a bureaucracy that is unaccountable. A bureaucracy that fails to meet the standards of accountability—that does not answer to the policy goals of elected officials or the policy aspirations of citizens—soon loses its legitimacy. That makes it harder to raise money to do what citizens and policy makers want done. It heightens everyone’s suspicions about how bureaucrats use their power and invites even greater controls on how bureaucrats behave. That only ties the hands of bureaucrats more, driving costs up and effectiveness down.
The key lies in a predictable relationship of trust: bureaucrats who earn the trust of policymakers by their high levels of effectiveness, and who earn at least the grudging appreciation of citizens for how they do their jobs. New technologies, including online reports and smartphone apps, have made it far easier for government bureaucrats to demonstrate their accountability through the results they produce. And there lies the key: bureaucrats earn trust by demonstrating performance; demonstrated performance builds on accountability; and accountability works best for everyone by what bureaucrats do and how they do it.
So at first, this might seem a tough tradeoff. In operation, accountability is the product of effectiveness, and effectiveness flows from accountability. And the keystone to both is trust, built on relationships and results.