Can Government Be Less Accountable Than Nonprofits?

Mayor Bloomberg’s keynote remarks at the Slate 60 conference a month ago, honoring the nations top givers in 2005, included this statement: “…there’s much greater demand for accountability when using public money. The practical political reality is that you just can’t commit taxpayers’ dollars to a project that hasn’t already been proven to work or to an idea that not everyone agrees is appropriate. But with private dollars and volunteers there is more flexibility to try new things. To experiment. To take risks.”

What knocked me flat in that remark was the direct opposition that Bloomberg sees between accountability and innovation for those who are stewards of public dollars. After my initial recoiling from such a thought I began to believe he was right, insofar as accountability and more accurately, the fear of appearing unaccountable, has stymied investment in new, creative, and sometimes edgy solutions by “established” organizations including government and many foundations. Fear. When what we really need is boatloads of courage.

It’s no wonder that a new cadre of philanthropists is emerging, both big and small, to begin to fill the void. Courage. Courage to take matters into our own hands. Courage to find solutions and peers who are fearless.

But taking matters into our own hands isn’t enough. How will all of those individual, great ideas get shared and taken to scale beyond our own communities? The new philanthropists, in addition to finding and supporting the innovative (or just new) solutions, have two more challenges on them: 1) making it clear to our government that accountability, which I argue should really mean the act of maximizing the resources that go toward the implementation of solutions, and impact (the act of improving a situation) are not the same thing and 2) creating (!) and supporting infrastructure among philanthropists, government and foundations so that great ideas find scale and once there, that they get implemented faithfully.

Nancy DeFauw

Posted at 5:05 PM, Dec 14, 2006 in Accountability | Permalink | Comment