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Accountability standards based on rules of democracy needed in times of rising political violence, scholar argues

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When a family or group of friends sit down to play a familiar game they've played many times before, they generally don't need to refer to the rules—unless someone breaks them. The values of liberal democracy have been transgressed in numerous forms in the last decade, yet many are unfamiliar with what the "rule book" would say those values are.

A University of Kansas scholar who fears Americans have forgotten the rules of democracy has published a study calling for a renewed dedication to and assigning accountability standards for and scholars.

Christopher Koliba, Edwin O. Stene Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs and Administration at KU, has written a piece that draws from contemporary political and legal philosophies of "small-l liberalism" and democracy to define a set of seven standards focusing on authority, rights, tolerance, truth claims and professional deference.

The standards are especially timely in an age of growing populism, democratic backsliding and polarization, he wrote. The work, published in the journal Public Administration Review and subject of a recent presentation by Koliba at the Kansas City and County Managers Conference, stemmed from research he conducted on the and administration crisis of 2020.

"I was looking for the potential that norms and standards were being violated here and then started to look at the literature on democracy, especially the small-l liberal variety that the U.S. and other systems were founded on," Koliba said.

"That led to revisiting the works of political philosophers about what is liberal democracy in the context of modern society and what it entails. I argue we've taken those values for granted and assume we all know what we're talking about. I feel that is what we're up against."

Koliba examines liberalism not as it is commonly referred to in as being associated with certain political parties, such as the Democratic Party in the U.S. or Labor Party in the United Kingdom.

Instead, he means the version that has shaped democracies with values such as eschewing abuse of power, preeminence of individual rights, honoring tolerance and restraint, and appealing to reason and truth.

Those values have been challenged the last decade as democracies around the world—including the United States, Poland, Hungary and Brazil—have seen rising populism, openness to authoritarianism, retractions of rights and apathy to truth-telling, Koliba said. That has also resulted in increasing threats of violence, incivility at public government meetings, polarization and false accusations.

"Politics has always been a contact sport, but when it comes to poll workers and local government administrators having their lives threatened while carrying out the public's business, we need to have a clear set of democratic principles that we can at least debate and then hold each other accountable to. This should be the beginning of a conversation," Koliba said.

That process should begin with a renewed dedication by public administrators and public administration scholars to a set of seven liberal democratic accountability standards outlined in the study:

  1. Citizen authority standard: Citizens have authorizing and monitoring power over elected officials and democratic institutions.
  2. Individual rights standards: Individuals in liberal democracies are endowed with rights to freedom of expression, assembly and pursuit of "the good life."
  3. Checked authority standard: Liberal democratic institutions and elected officials and public administrators who run them will have their powers checked and balanced.
  4. Tolerance standard: Policy actors will exercise tolerance of differences.
  5. Institutional forbearance standard: Policy actors will willfully restrain coercive actions in order to preserve existing accountability standards and democratic institutions.
  6. Truthfulness standard: Policy actors are obligated to pursue and draw on truth claims as the basis of their practices and actions on behalf of the public.
  7. Professional discretion standard: Professional policy actors will adhere to codes of conduct, ethics and standards of practice associated with the legal, political, bureaucratic and professional institutions of liberal democracies.

The standards can and should be debated, Koliba said, but they are especially timely given growing distrust in the government, deep and persistent polarization, growing expressions of intolerance and apathy toward truthfulness.

Those trends present potential irreparable harm toward democratic institutions, necessitating the need for public officials and scholars to commit to historical standards and principles of liberal democracy.

While there has long been such disagreement, polarization and populism throughout democratic history, especially in the United States, and resulting threats of politically motivated violence make the standards especially salient, Koliba said. For example, populist movements of the past such as the American Revolution, Women's Suffrage and Civil Rights movements were dedicated to expanding rights instead of restricting them.

Given recent exacerbation of those trends as well as democratic backsliding, liberal democratic accountability standards should be factored into public standards of accountability as well as empirical studies and theoretical frameworks, he said.

"It's easy to take democracy for granted. I myself have done it," Koliba said. "I'm thinking deeply about how to embrace these standards in the curriculum I teach.

"Our field is globalized, and there is a debate about universal values in public administration. I think there is a lot of work to be done to elevate democratic governance principles. And in speaking with some of our leaders of city and county government, I believe this sentiment resonates with them as well."

More information: Christopher Koliba, Liberal democratic accountability standards and public administration, Public Administration Review (2024). DOI: 10.1111/puar.13831

Citation: Accountability standards based on rules of democracy needed in times of rising political violence, scholar argues (2024, May 6) retrieved 13 July 2024 from
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