The increasing loss of public trust in U.S. government institutions is of urgent concern. Efforts to diffuse public cynicism about these institutions have met with little success. But there is a solution. Rather than trying to persuade the public that they should trust government, we should create a government worthy of the public’s trust. A fundamental first step in this direction is strengthening the accountability measures — the checks and balances — that curb abuses of power and ensure our institutions are responsive to the people.
Cynicism is caused by of a lack of accountability when public officials violate the public trust and government is no longer seen as responsive to the needs of the people.
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Frighteningly, the growing disconnect between government and the people it represents in the U.S. tracks with a trend that is emerging around the world, a shift of government systems away from democratic principles towards authoritarianism.
The solution to this existential challenge is to reform our government institutions so that they are held accountable and are genuinely responsive and effective for the common good, not simply for the powerful few. Accountable government means political power is neither corrupted nor abused, and if a public official intentionally breaks the public trust, they are held to account. It’s been said and it’s true — Accountability is the antidote to authoritarianism.
The Pillars of Accountability
There are six primary mechanisms that, if working properly, serve as pillars of accountability in federal government. They are: whistleblowers, who expose wrongdoing; inspectors general, who serve as independent watchdogs at each government agency; congressional oversight, which provides a check on executive power; transparency and civil society participation, which ensure that the government answers to the people; independent journalism, which investigates and exposes wrongdoing; and the equal application of the rule of law to the highest levels of government.
Worldwide, it has been shown that strengthening accountability pillars is an essential element of the effective administration of public policy and the delivery of public services. These pillars ensure that citizens are able to exert effective pressure on government to be responsive and effective. When operating properly, these mechanisms can not only help refocus our institutions to become more effective at executing their missions, but they can also stave off the authoritarian concentration of power.
There are many examples that demonstrate how these accountability pillars improve government effectiveness. We’ll offer one that shows how whistleblowers can identify a problem, an independent press can help investigate and publicize a problem, civil society can uplift and demonstrate its scope, and congressional oversight can work to address it.
In 2014, whistleblowers from an Arizona Veterans Administration medical facility worked with investigative journalists to disclose secret waiting lists, where veterans in need of medical care languished for months waiting to be seen. We at POGO partnered with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and put out a call to other VA employees to ask if these problems were systemic across the country. In just one month, we received an astonishing 800 whistleblower disclosures. We pulled together our findings, which resulted in congressional hearings. The legislative reforms that followed resulted in dramatic improvement in services for veterans. In a 2019 survey of veterans, nearly 75% of respondents reported improvements at their local VA. More than 80% indicated they were satisfied with their VA health care, and more than 90% said they would recommend VA care to fellow veterans.
Another example shows what can happen when one or more of these pillars falls away. In 2009, when then-President Obama launched the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he asked a strong inspector general to oversee the rapid pumping of $800 billion in federal funds into the economy. The independent watchdog was tasked with ensuring the funds were not subject to waste or fraud and that they were able to reach their intended communities and programs. That IG launched an aggressive transparency plan, tracking the spending with maps on a public website. As a result of that radical transparency, there was essentially no fraud. At the same time, the proactive support helped to usher in a significant economic recovery.
We can compare that to the $2 trillion Trump era CARES Act for COVID-19 relief. In 2020, Trump actually replaced, rather than empowered, the inspector general tasked with overseeing the spending. The new IG failed to replicate the tracking and transparency demonstrated a decade earlier. As we now know, without the support of an empowered inspector general and a commitment to transparency, much of the CARES Act funding was subject to fraud and failed to reach those most in need, especially in traditionally underserved communities.
Urgent Reforms Are Still Needed
Former President Trump’s efforts to exploit Russian interference in the 2016 election and his subsequent attempt to extort Ukrainian President Zelensky paint a compelling picture of the essential importance of accountability mechanisms. His efforts also spotlight the weaknesses in — and need for reform of — those same mechanisms.
For one example, we might look to the last accountability pillar: the equal application of the rule of law to the highest levels of government. As you remember, in 2017, Robert Mueller was appointed as special prosecutor to determine whether President Trump had committed any crimes in his dealings leading up to the election. That an independent special prosecutor was appointed at all is a testament to the potential for our system of rule of law, and the importance of that accountability mechanism. Ultimately his report outlined ten instances where the prosecutors believed the president may have obstructed justice.
However, in the end Mueller concluded he could not pursue an indictment. This conclusion highlighted a clear weakness in the government’s commitment to the equal application of the rule of law, a fully undemocratic internal policy of the Department of Justice that concludes that a sitting president cannot be prosecuted – for any crime. The Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice, which crafted this terrible opinion in the Nixon era, regularly exercises its outsized power to protect the power of the presidency.
We also would never have known about Trump’s corrupt efforts to bribe Zelensky were it not for the whistleblower who reported on the phone call and possible criminal conduct, the inspector general who investigated that disclosure and concluded it was a matter of urgent concern, and the Congress which conducted oversight of the matter. But while that series of events is a vivid reminder of the importance of three other accountability mechanisms — whistleblowers, congressional oversight, and independent IGs — the Trump administration exploited ongoing weaknesses in each of those systems that remain additional priorities for reform.
While the initial whistleblower was successfully protected, for example, additional whistleblowers such as Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, his brother Yevgeny, and Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch were all fired. Military and intelligence community whistleblowers remain subject to particularly weak whistleblower protection laws that are in urgent need of reform.
Trump also fired the inspector general responsible for bringing the Zelensky phone call to Congress, kicking off a string of firings and removals of four IGs and demonstrating the clear need for stronger rules surrounding presidents removing inspectors general without cause.
Finally, the Congress was largely stymied in its efforts to conduct oversight of the entire affair given the refusal of the Trump White House to honor congressional subpoenas. The weakness in congressional inherent contempt powers round out the urgently needed accountability reforms made clear during the Trump presidency.
Accountability Can Defeat Authoritarians
Around the world, authoritarians have been defeated with the kinds of accountability mechanisms and strong checks and balances highlighted above, including inspectors general, legislative oversight, transparency and civil society participation, and the equal application of the rule of law to the highest levels of government.
In Italy, Prime Minister Berlusconi attempted to use his office to protect himself from legal prosecution while in office. He successfully pushed through bills that conferred immunity onto himself and other high officials while they operated in their public positions. However, both bills were overturned by the constitutional courts, which allowed lower courts to decide whether prosecuting an official impeded their duties in a case-by-case bases. Berlusconi was ultimately prosecuted and chose to serve community service time instead of house arrest.
The South African watchdog agency Public Protector’s Office (analogous to a combination of U.S. inspectors general and our Government Accountability Office) released two scathing reports detailing populist authoritarian President Zuma’s theft of public assets for his private gain. In 2017, the constitutional court called for parliament to establish a process to impeach Zuma. He resigned in February 2018 after his party demanded his resignation and threatened to call for a vote of no confidence if he did not resign.
In Ukraine, as recently as 2014, the military was so riddled by corruption they were incapable of defending Crimea from the Russian invasion. In 2019, newly elected President Zelensky implemented anti-corruption transparency and accountability laws around military procurement that had been promoted by civil society organizations. Those reforms are now being given some credit for the extraordinary success of the Ukrainian military against a much larger invasion by Russia. It’s hard to imagine a better example of how accountability leads to increased effectiveness in government.
Civic Engagement Brings Accountability to Life
An effective and responsive government is, by definition, accountable to the people it serves. However, for a government to be accountable it needs engaged citizens who leverage their roles as constituents to push for reforms that matter to them. And while polling has shown how very concerned Americans are about the abuse of public trust for personal gain in office, what we at POGO figured out is that most of these same Americans very much want to see concrete, common sense reforms to fix the problem.
In other words, in order to engage citizens to push for accountability reforms, we needed to give them something to be for, not against. We also learned, from research by the Congressional Management Foundation, that the most effective way to move an elected official to care about an issue is to have constituents talk to them about it in their home districts, rather than in Washington, D.C.
So, in order to advance some of the reforms we need in the U.S., POGO activated a pilot civic engagement program.
Our first project was to advance protections for inspectors general that would protect them from being fired by a president for doing their job too well. We focused on the battleground states of Ohio and Michigan for two reasons. The junior senators from both those states head the committee responsible for drafting and advancing legislation relevant to government accountability reforms, including inspectors general reform. And our polling shows Michiganders and Ohioans care very much about corruption in government, and they want their elected officials to do something about it.
In the summer of 2021, we polled likely voters in both states. We found that voters in both states saw corruption in government as a very serious problem facing the country — more serious than any other issue, including climate change and the economy. Promisingly, we also learned that a broad coalition of voters support a host of measures the federal government is considering that would prevent or stop corruption in government. Across state and party lines, a majority of respondents indicated that corruption is not seen as a Democratic or a Republican problem, but a systemic problem that needs systemic reforms. And, perhaps most importantly, our polling showed that constituents are clearly more motivated to support fixing the problems in government than they are just being angry with what is broken.
POGO took several approaches to activating civic engagement in these states. Conducting local radio interviews on the issue, encouraging constituents to meet with their members of Congress, and helping them write local op-eds and letters to the editor calling for specific reforms, we were able to demonstrate to our targeted elected officials that their constituents very much care about making inspectors general more independent and accountable, and better resourced to do their jobs effectively. Subsequently, after relative inaction on the issue, those officials called a hearing on the inspector general reform and then moved legislation through the committee to the floor for a vote. Now, the U.S. Senate is poised to pass that essential reform to protect inspectors general, a repair that will add support and strength to a crucial pillar of government accountability.
To protect our democracy, we need to attend to our government between elections, not just on Election Day. And making government institutions more accountable to the public is key to fighting the existential threats our democracy is facing. As we focus on ensuring effective government and engaging the public to participate in its operations, we need to focus on the right solutions.
Our goal should be to create an ethical, effective, and accountable government worthy of our trust. It’s possible. Scandinavian countries and New Zealand are regularly cited as both least corrupt and having the happiest populations. We can do it here in the U.S. too.