Vigilant Watchmen: Informed Citizens and Government Accountability

Last night I attended a lecture by Jerry Brito of the Mercatus Center where he highlighted his project, Stimulus Watch. The site tracks all projects funded by federal stimulus money and allows individuals to comment and vote on the projects’ effectiveness. The site highlights the importance of accountability in a free society.

Organizations and individuals need response mechanisms. Prices and profit/loss signal businesses and individuals about the effectiveness of their actions and decisions within the market. Performance reviews within an organization signal employees about whether or not their labor adds value. Neighborhood associations signal members about whether or not they are effectively adding to the community. And a good friend will inform you of inconsistencies within your own life. Each mechanism provides accountability by responding to actions.

Unfortunately, the government today has no such response mechanism. And as Thomas Sowell once said, “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.” Why would anyone invest in an institution or an individual with so much of their personal power and resources and yet not hold them accountable for their use?

Yet the solution lies within the problem. Individuals must be ready and eager to hold their elected officials and their governments accountable for their actions. Government derives its power from the consent of the governed and thus we are responsible for ensuring its right use.

Sites like Stimulus Watch, Open Secrets, and Michigan Capitol Confidential, among others, empower individuals to hold government accountable by providing information on what exactly government is doing. Citizen accountability must begin with informed citizens. Only once we know what works and what does not work can we then begin to propose solutions. And these are only first steps towards broader institutional change.


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