query: accountability sessions

colist-admin at comm-org.utoledo.edu colist-admin at comm-org.utoledo.edu
Mon Jul 22 12:14:13 CDT 2002


[ed:  thanks to Larry for responding to Matt's query.]

From:	Larry Yates <lyates at chej.org>

Matt raises an interesting question about flexibility in carrying out
accountability sessions.

I was recently a guest/resource person of the National Alliance of 
HUD
Tenants during an accountability session with three HUD officials. It
varied from the classic accountability session in a couple of ways. 
First,
many members of the group (100s of tenants were present) had an 
ongoing
working relationship with two of the three HUD officials who were on 
the
hot seat. Second, there was a third category of answers besides 
Yes or No,
which was "waffle" -- illustrated on the flip chart by a crude grid-like
drawing of a waffle. 

The meeting definitely was controlled by NAHT, and they got 
definite
answers from the HUD folks, including "definite waffles." But a 
couple of
the HUD folks had done this before, and knew that while they would 
be held
to their answers, and that there was anger and passion in the crowd 
they
had to respect, they were not going to be eaten alive. Perhaps more
important, the NAHT people knew that they had the respect of HUD, 
which
they have earned through action over the past 11 years, and they 
knew that
if they had to earn it again they could. They didn't have to prove 
that
point at that moment. 

Pretty much everyone in the room understood that this process had
happened before, that there would be businesslike phone calls to 
follow
up, and they could joke as well as be serious with each other. And 
there
was significant dialogue, often beginning with the HUDster saying 
"well, I
guess I have to waffle on this one" and then explaining the 
government
dynamic that prevented a "Yes" answer. No one in NAHT treated 
any "waffle"
explanation as an OK excuse, but it did get added to the group's
information about how HUD works. 

On a slightly different note, I once heard IAF organizer Ernie Cortes
talking about meeting with Henry Cisneros, when Ernie was the 
head
organizer for COPS in San Antonio and Cisneros was the mayor. 
The two men
had known each other for years, I think since childhood, and had all 
kinds
of personal connections. But Ernie insisted on the importance of
maintaining clear roles when they met in public negotiations on 
issue --
even to what they called each other -- I believe Mr. Cortes and Mr. 
Mayor.
He was clearly saying there are limits to how flexible you can be 
when you
are doing the public business of holding officials accountable.

Comments: To start with, I don't think accountability session type
processes are just about maintaining control of the meeting in a 
narrow
sense, though that is a minimum condition for an effective meeting. 
They
do many things, but I think the most important may be reminding 
everyone
involved about the reality of relationships of power, responsibility 
and
privilege -- making a statement something like this:

"We are the people, and we have a right to hold you to account; you 
are a
public servant and you owe our community accountability. You have 
the
delegated power to act on this issue, and we have the right to know 
what
you have done, are doing and will do with that power."

When the target official does not respect the community, it seems 
to me
the only way to get them to respect those rules is to be very firm, 
maybe
even harsh, to keep bringing them back to the issue. The same is 
true when
the community is not used to being respected. A community that is 
just
learning its own power is appropriately suspicious of being diverted 
into
irrelevant conversations, jokes and speechifying, and needs to be 
very
strict in following the accountability session process.

But it seems that accountability sessions still work in situations 
where
in fact the community folks, or some of them, have close personal
relationships with the people being held accountable, and that the
sessions can even be friendly and involve discussions and side trips 
-- as
long as everyone genuinely respects the rules. 

The bottom line is that, whatever else happens, the community 
must
always have the ability and the right to demand serious answers, 
even if
it needs to override all personal and professional relationships, 
dismiss
fond memories, etc. To put it differently, not only must the 
community be
in charge of the process, but its right to hold officials accountable 
must
be explicity acknowledged throughout. 

Larry Yates



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