What does “accountability” mean for government experts?

This post first appeared on IBM Business of Government. Read the original article.

Monday, January 29, 2024

I had a really insightful colleague who used to say that “accountability” wasn’t a thing but a relationship. The question, he said, was “who was accountable to whom, for what—and how?”

That’s the puzzle hiding at the core of the increasingly raucous debate about Schedule F and the future of the American civil service. Former Trump officials are promising to bring back the executive order launched at the end of the administration. They hope to make it easier to fire poor performers inside the federal government—and those intent on blocking Trump’s policies in a second term. Critics contend that the plan would politicize the public service, which would undermine the government’s performance and its accountability to the public and to the law.

I’ve just put an exhaustive study on experts in government since ancient times into a 68-page book, free to download until the end of January. Some important lessons come out of the 2000-year history of the “deep state.”

Today’s “deep state” debate is nothing new. The Roman emperor Caligula miscalculated in trusting his life to a hand-picked bodyguard, who assassinated him in a back corner of his own palace. There’s no better example of a “deep state” than that—or of the risk of defining accountability in terms of personal loyalty to the ruler.

Like it or not, it’s impossible to run a government without relying on experts. The ancient Chinese emperors discovered this and created the world’s first civil service system to hire the best and the brightest to work for the government. They had an exam system for picking new government officials. It was tough: fewer than two percent of those sitting for the exam passed it. 

These experts inevitably accumulate power. There’s something to be said for knowing something that others don’t. During the Dark Ages, monks painstakingly copying texts in candlelit offices had extraordinary influence because they could read and write, and because the texts they produced contained the wisdom of the age. For hundreds of years, they were the repository of “deep state” knowledge in the church and state, which were indistinguishable because their role crossed over both.

That power is hard to control. What deepens the state is the accumulation of knowledge about how to do complicated things on which everyone relies. Voltaire, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosopher, admired the work of ancient Chinese thinkers so much that he hung a portrait of Confucius in his office. In the days of the ancient thinker, the dynasty standardized the Chinese language, built the Great Wall of China, and constructed the remarkable 8,000-statue Terracotta Army. However, the dynasty also burned books it found less than useful, which points to why such power can be so politically useful—and so intellectually dangerous.

The path to accountability rests in the rule of law. The thread that defines accountability for experts in government, from ancient times to the present, is the rule of law, which defines the power they have and how they can exercise it.

The enduring lesson is that accountability ultimately works best not in personal terms—accountability to the plans of any political leader—but in accountability to a basic system of laws that shape social, economic, and political behavior. It works best in the pursuit of goals defined in law, not in the goals of individual leaders, which can whipsaw a government with every change in administration.

As we argue over Schedule F, the “deep state,” and the role of experts in government, that’s the moral that ought to shape the debate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *