[discuss] Transparency and Accountability vis-à-vis ICANN and the IANA functions

Jeanette Hofmann jeanette at wzb.eu
Fri Mar 28 18:32:17 UTC 2014

Hi George,

I think Wikipedia's definition of accountability is pretty good but 
perhaps the definition as such doesn't get us anywhere.

Some years back, I was involved in a literature study on accountability. 
Here are few points that I found relevant at the time:

* Accountability has acquired an "iconic function" over the last decade. 
The term has a predominantly positive connotation and thus lends 
legitimacy to organizations and processes that present themselves as 

* Despite formal definitions, accountability obligations constitute 
social relationships between individuals or groups. This sounds trivial 
but it means that the specific details and procedures have to be worked 
out by the two parties who sort of co-produce accountability. Typically, 
accountability procedures are subject to negotiation, improvisation and 
ritualization. They change over time and can easily turn into empty 
routines and thus lose their effectiveness.

* In practice, accountability measures seem to have positive as well as 
negative effects. The growing popularity of the concept of 
accountability has to do with the privatization of previously public 
administrative tasks. Accountability thus replace control and command 
structures. That is at least the idea. How else could one design oversight?

On the other hand, accountability as been described as a "growing 
curse". Problems seem to be the trade-off between an organisation's 
capacity to act (i.e. to effectively regulate) and its duty to justify 
its actions. The latter seems to hamper the former because the 
organization always anticipates that it will be held to account for its 
actions and thus tries to avoid blame.
Another study couldn't find any positive effect of accountability 
measures on the performance of public administrations. To state the 
obvious, accountability frameworks consume a lot of resources. Thus, 
despite its iconic status, the practical effects of accountability 
measures look like a mixed bag.


Am 28.03.2014 14:59, schrieb George Sadowsky:
> All,
> [Note: I am not an expert in this subject, and am presenting what I hope
> will be a reasonable common sense view of it.  While a detailed
> theoretical view of these concepts is possible, and probably has been
> done many times, I am hoping that we can arrive at a relatively simple
> and comprehensible, yet also correct and operational, understanding.]
> The phrase “transparency and accountability” is in frequent use these
> days, typically in the form of a sentence, “ICANN needs to increase its
> transparency and accountability.”
> The two conditions have almost achieved a moral status, where if you
> don’t have enough of “them” you are an inadequate person or
> organization, whereas if you achieve “them” you are superior.
> I believe that such casual and frequent use of the phrase is leading to
> incomplete and sloppy thinking, and I would like to make two points that
> I think are important to consider with respect to the concept of
> accountability.
> FIRST, it has been pointed out to me that when two persons talk about
> accountability, they don’t necessarily mean the same thing.  It’s one of
> those slippery words that can have a variety of meanings, all
> appropriate within their specific contexts.   If we are to address the
> problem of transitioning accountability for the stewardship of the IANA
> function, from NTIA to some other ‘destination,' then we must have a
> common definition of accountability to discuss the pre-transition and
> post-transition states, or we will be talking at cross purposes and it
> will be both non-productive and frustrating.
> As a start, here is wikipedia’s definition of accountability.  The text
> in red below could be a starting point in describing accountability
> (_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accountability)_
>> Accountability
>> In ethics and governance, accountability is answerability,
>> blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of
>> account-giving.[1]   As an aspect of governance, it has been central
>> to discussions related to problems in the public sector, nonprofit and
>> private (corporate) worlds.
>> In leadership roles,[2] accountability is the acknowledgment and
>> assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and
>> policies including the administration, governance, and implementation
>> within the scope of the role or employment position and encompassing
>> the obligation to report, explain and be answerable for resulting
>> consequences.
>> In governance, accountability has expanded beyond the basic definition
>> of "being called to account for one's actions".[3][4]   It is
>> frequently described as an account-giving relationship between
>> individuals, e.g. "A is accountable to B when A is obliged to inform B
>> about A’s (past or future) actions and decisions, to justify them, and
>> to suffer punishment in the case of eventual misconduct".[5]
>> Accountability cannot exist without proper accounting practices; in
>> other words, an absence of accounting means an absence of accountability.
> I suggest this as a starting point; I’m told that there has been quite a
> bit of discussion about this definition, and i would welcome modified or
> additional definitions.
> SECOND, I believe that ‘accountability’ as an unqualified word has
> little meaning, and that the right way to think about it is:
> …. accountability TO someone or group FOR something
> In other words, saying that someone is accountable, or not sufficiently
> accountable, by itself is relatively meaningless.  But if I can also
> state to whom the person is accountable, and precisely for what, then I
> have probably made a meaningful statement that can be comprehended and
> discussed.  Perhaps the more complete statement will allow me to also
> propose a metric by which the degree of adherence to accountability
> targets can be measured.
> What definition of the word ‘accountability’ best fits how we believe
> ICANN’s acceptability should be judged and measured, either for itself
> only, or for its post-transition stewardship of the IANA functions, or both?
> In each case, specifically to WHOM would ICANN be accountable, and if
> the target of accountability is distributed, how would it be
> distributed?  In other words, if ‘A' is ICANN, who is ‘B’ in the above
> definition in red?
> In each case, specifically for WHAT would ICANN be accountable?  How can
> the degree of accountability be measured, or is that not directly
> relevant?  In the context of the definition in red above, what are the
> set of 'actions and decisions' for which ICANN is accountable?
> If we could get general agreement on the responses to the above
> questions, it might be possible to use this approach for an initial
> evaluation of any transition alternatives that are proposed.
> This discussion does not include the issue of actions that are taken
> when accountability is found to be lacking.  That’s an equally important
> question that we also need to take up, but let’s see if we can answer
> this one first.
> I would like it if the above subject would stimulate some discussion.
> Thanks for reading,
> George
> (Much thanks to John Curran, Bill Graham, Bruce Tonkin, Suzanne Woolf
> and Jonathan Zuck, who had the insights that led to some of the above ideas)
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