Keeping Public Officials Accountable through Dialogue: Resolving the Accountability Paradox



How can public officials be held accountable, and yet avoid the paradoxes and pathologies of the current mechanisms of accountability? The answer, claims Harmon (1995), is dialogue. But what exactly is dialogue, and how is it created? More importantly, how can dialogue ensure accountability? To address these questions, I begin with a brief description of dialogue and its basic features, distinguishing it from other forms of communication. An example illustrates how dialogue occurs in actual practice. Not only does dialogue demonstrate the intelligent management of contradictory motives and forces, it also supports Harmon’s claim that it can resolve the accountability paradox and avoid the atrophy of personal responsibility and political authority. I suggest that dialogue’s advantage outweighs its cost as a mechanism of accountability under a particular set of conditions: when public officials confront “wicked problems” that defy definition and solution, and when traditional problem–solving methods have failed, thus preventing any one group from imposing its definition of the problem or its solutions on others.