Public Accountability in the Age of Social Media – Case Study Egypt (Part II)

This second part of the series takes a look at the different kinds of accountability in the Egyptian context and beyond.

Types of Accountability

In traditional views on accountability a person’s actions are accounted for by whether an external person, organisation or by an internal higher rank official. Accountability is often referred to as the responsibility of civil servants towards values, and professional standards of their organisation, or towards others outside of the organisation (Mulgan, 2000, p. 557). In these views, there is a degree of interaction between public officials and those who hold them accountable. This interaction involves questioning or imposing sanctions. In a state of traditional public administration and democratic governance, accountability starts with the elected officials then the bureaucrats down the pyramid shaped hierarchy, who are held accountable to their actions by various external and internal parties (Mulgan, 2000, p. 555).

Channels of accountability are those mediums through which accountability is being practiced, whether these channels are ethical, contractual, legal or democratic. Some channels may not be tangible, such as public opinion or the responsibility of the person towards the public and his own values and belief system. Often people hold politicians accountable directly through elections and by deciding whether to vote for them or not. Elections are the time where voters can get into a dialogue with the politicians, exchange questions, evaluate the past and hold them accountable for their actions and requesting answers. If politicians were not able to justify their actions, they may not become re-elected. Post elections, politicians can still be held accountable by the public through questioning in the parliament for example, which is often conducted towards ministers and is named as ministerial responsibility.

According to Considine (2002) there are two types of accountability, vertical and horizontal. The vertical type follows the line of authority within the government where each official is accounted to his/her superior and in the end of the line all accountable to the public (ibid., p. 25). The horizontal type is the form of accountability that occurs between networks of control outside the government’s organisation (ibid., p. 27). In contrast, Mulgan (2000, p. 562) identified five detailed forms of accountability which are personal, professional, political, managerial and public. Combining both views, accountability can be classified into two major categories: internal and external accountability. In addition, it can be explained in terms of the relationship between two parties: civil servants and those who hold them accountable, which can be oneself, values, professional codes, line managers, legislations, external individuals, organisations or public pressure.

Internal Accountability

Internal accountability can be defined in relevance to professionalism and responsiveness of public officials. Professionalism is often based on experts who are handled the jobs and no appropriate external control is exercised. If they fail to meet the targets then their service can be ended. In this type everyone in a TPA is controlled by someone in the same organisation, thus accountability is distributed across the hierarchy (Mulgan, 2000, p. 559)

Professionalism is a cornerstone of internal accountability in TPA where boards are created from professionals who can conduct peer review on civil servants and they are held accountable to them. Professionalism sometimes intersects with public accountability where civil servants have different external channels that they have to answer. In addition, it entails the adherence of the civil servant or politicians to the set of values and internal standards that are set for them and upon which they can be held accountable personally (ibid., p. 560). This can be illustrated in terms of the oath of office for the president, or doctors that they adhere to after being elected or appointed for office. It can be represented as well in the set of personal values held by a political party or professional union upon which they are held accountable.

There are two aspects of professionalism, which constitutes internal accountability. First, the preservation of organisational values and codes within government institutions can be achieved by separating politics from administration. However, this separation is an ideal case scenario in a TPA system. When a government with a certain political ideology holds office for extended periods, politics and administration become interwoven and generally, appointed civil servants can adhere more to the values promoted by the ruling party rather than the professional values of their institution. In addition, accountability of officials can be more towards the political party than it is towards the public. In Egypt, and particularly in Mubarak’s regime, the appointed officials often belonged to the National Democratic Party (NDP) (Blaydes, 2008, p. 1). The political scene was dominated by one political ideology for long time. For more than 30 years since its establishment, the NDP in 1978, the party has held no less than three-quarters of the seats in the People’s Assembly and has been controlling the political and administrative scene (Brownlee, 2002, p. 7). Later on and particularly in Morsi’s regime, many administrative officials refused to cooperate with the government and expressed that in public due to the conflicts in political ideologies and interests. In spite of the efforts exerted by the Morsi’s regime to appoint officials that belong to their ideology, it was considered by many Egyptians as a repetition of a similar mistake of Mubarak mixing politics with administration and a diffusion of accountability.

Second, The difference in urgency, competency between politically elected officials and appointed civil servants can create many challenges of internal accountability in TPA (Behn, 2000, p. 45). Politicians are often affected by external factors that push them to act accordingly and to take certain decision, while the administration is mainly concerned with doing the job right. Thus, some policies may fail to meet public expectations but still politicians are held accountable for it. In addition, politicians may see urgency in certain tasks that the administration cannot cope with. In 2014, the Egyptian President General Abdelfatah Alsisi in the inauguration speech of the project has ordered the administration bodies to finish the new Suez Canal project in one year instead of three years due to public and political pressure (Farid, 2014). Specialists had identified potential problems with this tightened deadlines, and as soon as the digging started some of these problems started to appear and is sought to affect future operation and increase the costs of implementation (AlMonitor, 2014). Although, the president will not be held accountable for this decision and the resulting increase in a project’s budget or potential problems due to the absence of channels of accountability under his government, the public still hold direct accountability and virtual public accountability channels as a last resort to display their dismay about such decisions.

Responsiveness is another aspect of internal accountability. Government officials are required to be responsive to events and changes in the circumstances and reflect public interest. Any occasions of events that may emerge can hold government officials accountable (Mulgan, 2000, p. 556). When the Egyptian revolution sparked in 2011, Mubarak system’s responsiveness to the situation did not meet public demand, and thus the whole regime had failed to contain the situation and outrage became overwhelming. Mulgan argues that government officials are responsible directly to the public without the need of politicians even to be involved. However, the compliance of civil servants to their superiors is always debatable and is subject to various different reasons.

External Accountability

External accountability is defined in terms of the external entity that can hold officials accountable. This entity can be the public, external organisations or even legislations. Without the control exercised by external entities, accountability would not have existed and it will only depend on the conscience of public servants, which varies from a person to another. In democracies, control is needed to make sure that civil servants are working for the interest of the public and not for personal gains (Mulgan, 2000, p. 563). This control keeps every part of the government constrained and held to account. Courts are one example of these organisations; another example is civil society, markets, interest groups, regular media or even social media. Some organisations are solely responsible for holding civil servants accountable to their actions such as the audit offices, Ombudsman and administrative tribunals. The constitution, federalism, separation of power are some of the notions and political structures that are associated with a diversified control that is exercised over all institutions in the government and holding them all accountable for public interest (ibid., p. 563). The disappearance or dysfunction of such control organisations may lead to a disruption in the accountability process, which can result in public outrage or attempts to exercise this control by the public through demonstrations, strikes or set-ins to hold public officials accountable. These aforementioned control functions are exercised through law and competitive elections, which are illustrated in the following paragraphs.

Here, law is an autonomous form of external accountability and control. Mulgan (2000, p. 564) argues that this form is often unquestionable by politicians who make their policies to fit the legal constraints. Thus, this form of accountability is a good tool to control civil servants behaviour. However, in some cases this is not true especially when the separation of power is not fully exercised and corruption takes over the government institutions. In Egypt, although it was unconstitutional before the revolution in 2011 to nominate ministers who own their own business (Arab Republic of Egypt, 2007, art. 158) ,some of the appointed ministers by the president were the shareholders of a big business companies. Such actions were unable to be questioned by the parliament or any court. The judiciary system was mainly controlled by the ruling party and so was the parliament that was dominated by members of the National Democratic Party (the ruling party) (Brownlee, 2002, p. 1).

Competitive election is another form of external accountability and control exercised on politicians. Elections are believed by most scholars to be the one of the corner stones of democracy that reflects people’s needs through their elected politicians and connects people with the policy process in a way that reflect people’s preferences in public policies (Powell, 2000, p. 251). Although, Public can hold politicians accountable through channels that are created for this purpose such as the ombudsman, administrative tribunal and other organisation, elections stays the most pertinent tool for the public to hold politicians accountable in case of the dysfunction of the above organisations and channels. In Egypt, citizens created their own channels for holding politicians accountable through demonstrations that call for overthrowing the regime or organising early elections.

No forms of external accountability can be possible without a basic amount of transparency. Access to information and transparency can enable citizens to hold officials accountable. In contrast, O’Neill (2002) argued that the increase in transparency undermines professionalism in public administration and destroys trustworthiness. However, this argument may not necessarily be true as transparency helps the public to question and debate the actions of public officials. These public debates make officials more responsible, as their work will be eventually shared with the public. O’Neill’s argument is based on the way information is presented by governments, which is often a one-way communication. This information in his argument is received by the media who manipulates the crowd and especially those who may not have enough knowledge to interpret officials’ information correctly or judge media interpretation of the subject. However, in the presence of social media, the space of interpretation changed from media organisations to individual interpretation, thus making no space for manipulation. An example of that is a recent issue that occurred in Egypt, where a carrier with 500 tons of phosphate rocks sank into the Nile River. This news went viral on social media and different people had their own interpretations; some held the government accountable while others said it is not an important issue to discuss and finally people had come to a common understanding that this case was not dangerous for public health and that this accident was a human mistake (Aljazeera, 2015). Thus, social media plays an important role to avoid misinterpretation of information or any manipulation exercised by the media and helps reach common understanding among citizens online.

The concluding third part of this series will highlight the role of social media in promoting public accountability and establishing a linkage with other types of accountability.

Author Biography

Haytham Atef is currently a postgraduate student at the Willy Brandt School – University of Erfurt. He graduated in 2014 with an MA in Global Citizenship, Identities and Human Rights from the University of Nottingham in the UK. Formerly, he worked as a researcher in the cabinet of the ministry of planning and international cooperation in Egypt, Haytham Mones has been working on developing strategies for transparency and access to information in the ministry. Through his 12 years of involvement with civil society in Egypt, working on various projects and initiatives, Haytham has cofounded Qestas NGO for peace, development and Human Rights in Egypt. He has also co-founded other initiatives, such as Sinai Development Project and Nation without Borders and currently RefUlink in Germany. He also worked as the deputy director of Tahrir Lounge project at the Goethe Institut and the Program Coordinator of Lazord Academy at the American University in Cairo.

References:

Aljazeera. (2015, April 25). A Phosphate carrier sank in Egypt [Gharaq Naqelet Fosfat Fe Masr]. Aljazeera.net. Cairo. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.net/news/reportsandinterviews/2015/4/25/%D8%BA%D8%B1%D9%82-%D9%86%D8%A7%D9%82%D9%84%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%81%D9%88%D8%B3%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A8%D9%85%D8%B5%D8%B1-%D8%AA%D9%87%D9%88%D9%8A%D9%84-%D9%88%D8%AA%D9%87%D9%88%D9%8A%D9%86

AlMonitor. (2014, August 12). Questions remain on Egypt’s Suez Canal project. Retrieved May 15, 2015, from http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/08/egypt-sisi-project-new-canal-suez-feasible-economy.html#

Arab Republic of Egypt. (2007). THE CONSTITUTION OF THE ARAB REPUBLIC OF EGYPT, 1971 (as Amended to 2007). Retrieved May 15, 2015, from http://www.constitutionnet.org/files/Egypt Constitution.pdf

Behn, R. D. (2000). Rethinking Democratic Accountability. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Blaydes, L. (2008). Authoritarian elections and elite management: Theory and evidence from Egypt. Retrieved May 15, 2015, from https://www.princeton.edu/~piirs/Dictatorships042508/Blaydes.pdf

Brownlee, J. (2002). The Decline of Pluralism in Mubarak’s Egypt. Journal of Democracy, 13(4), 6–14.

Considine, M. (2002). The End of the Line? Accountable Governance in the Age of Networks, Partnerships, and Joined-Up Services. Governance, 15(1), 21–40.

Farid, D. (2014, August 5). Al-Sisi kicks off new Suez Canal project, lays down tightened completion deadline. Retrieved May 15, 2015, from http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2014/08/05/al-sisi-kicks-new-suez-canal-project-lays-tightened-completion-deadline/

Mulgan, R. (2000). “Accountability”: An Ever‐Expanding Concept? Public Administration, 78(3), 555–573.

O’Neill, O. (2002). Reith Lectures. Retrieved May 12, 2015, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00729d9/ broadcasts/2002/04

Powell, G. B. (2000). Elections as instruments of democracy: Majoritarian and proportional visions. Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Cover Image: Gigi Ibrahim under a CC BY 2.0 generic creative commons license

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