The Principles of Recordkeeping Primer: Accountability

 

The New England Primer (call no. Franklin 391 1764n)
A primer is a small, introductory book on a given subject. They used to be part of every child’s education. The New England Primer (ca. 1690), was the first to be printed in North America. Image from Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Accountability is equated with answerability. It is not about scapegoating, or taking the blame when something goes wrong. Neither is it a confession. It is about fulfilling a responsibility to a commitment or an outcome. In the United States, our framework for applying accountability is steeped in Western European ethical and moral heritage. That which is right or wrong is colored by our personal philosophical and/or religious beliefs. For someone to hold themself accountable to a standard, or for us to hold them accountable for their actions, would imply a shared set of behavioral expectations. In short, an understanding that human behavior has consequences for the welfare of others and if there is no accountability, then there is a serious ethical failure.

Definitions of Accountability

Merriam-Webster

  • An ‘account’ is a statement explaining one’s conduct, or an exposition of reasons, causes, and motives.
  • To ‘account for’ is to furnish a justifying analysis or explanation.
  • To be ‘accountable’ is to be subject to giving an account, to be answerable, or to be capable of being accounted for.

Society of American Archivists

  • Accountability is “the ability to answer for, explain, or justify actions or decisions for which an individual, organization, or system is responsible”.

ARMA

  • Accountability is the “ act of holding an individual or organization responsible for a set of activities, requiring them to ensure that the activities meet desired outcomes, and expecting them to explain any variances or non-conformances”.
  • The Principle of Accountability is a Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principle; A senior executive (or a person of comparable authority) shall oversee the information governance program and delegate responsibility for records and information management to appropriate individuals. The organization adopts policies and procedures to guide personnel and ensure that the program can be audited.

Types of Accountability

Political Accountability

Anchored in Western democratic principles, political accountability is a means to exert political control or oversight and is arguably the strongest form of governance.  

Bureaucratic Accountability

The fundamental feature of hierarchical accountability is the delegation of authority from superior to subordinate and commensurate accountability from subordinate to superior. Usually, a strict performance management system of standard operating procedures is well established. In this approach, bureaucratic accountability is achieved by strategies, administrative rules, budget reviews or performance management systems. 

Citizen Accountability

Citizens can hold government administrators accountable through laws and forums. Communication technologies are being utilized to empower citizens’ ability to directly access bureaucratic information, monitor government activities, and supply real-time feedback on public service delivery.

Legal Accountability

A central purpose of law is accountability. Law is designed to expose and sanction people, organizations, and nations when they violate a public norm or breach an enforceable private agreement.

Professional Accountability

Professional accountability is a means of relying upon skilled employees to provide appropriate solutions for technically difficult and complex problems. Authority can be enforced through performance standards, codes of ethics, or licensure.

In Ethics, Accountability, and Recordkeeping in a Dangerous World, the authors suggest that, “in terms of archives, records and information, accountability assumes issues such as explaining the importance of records, working against unwanted secrecy, the importance of corporate and societal memory, and the trust that is necessary between government and its citizens”. 

Society of American Archivists – Core Values of Archivists

“Accountability:  By documenting institutional functions, activities, and decision-making, archivists provide an important means of ensuring accountability. In a republic such accountability and transparency constitute an essential hallmark of democracy. Public leaders must be held accountable both to the judgment of history and future generations as well as to citizens in the ongoing governance of society. Access to the records of public officials and agencies provides a means of holding them accountable both to public citizens and to the judgment of future generations. In the private sector, accountability through archival documentation assists in protecting the rights and interests of consumers, shareholders, employees, and citizens. Archivists in collecting repositories may not in all cases share the same level of responsibility for accountability, but they, too, maintain evidence of the actions of individuals, groups, and organizations which may be required to provide accountability for contemporary and future interests.”

ARMA – Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles

“Accountability is the act of holding an individual or organization responsible for a set of activities, requiring them to ensure that the activities meet desired outcomes, and expecting them to explain any variances or non-conformances. The Principle of Accountability is a Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principle; A senior executive (or a person of comparable authority) shall oversee the information governance program and delegate responsibility for records and information management to appropriate individuals. The organization adopts policies and procedures to guide personnel and ensure that the program can be audited.”

 

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