Accountability as a Collective Action Problem

Our new Summer Resident Stephen Suk outlines why he’s helping the Lab over the next few months.

ImagePhoto by Federico Casello, modified by Stephen Suk.

Last summer only 419,592 votes were cast in the Los Angeles mayoral election – the lowest voter turnout for the city since 1938, and the lowest percentage turnout of registered voters in 100 years. Despite the low turnout, I still have trouble convincing myself that my ballot had much impact on the overall outcome of the elections. What’s one vote amidst four hundred thousand?

I’ll be frank: it might be nothing at all. In the 2012 presidential election, more than 120 million people turned up to vote. My vote might have meant even less, if anything. It’s impossible to tell.

There’s only one truth of the matter: if I don’t vote, there’s absolutely zero chance I’ll have any say in the outcome. What’s more – the same goes for you. But I’m not writing this article to persuade you to vote.

People agree there’s an urgent need for change, and they often disagree about who needs to change, or what, how, or why. But even when we’re at odds with each other, we share this feeling of helplessness in our ability to affect change on our own. We wish for things like world peace, ending global hunger, and eradicating homelessness because we feel like only wishes can get us there.

There’s an almost mythical air about the sense of self-sacrifice we think it takes to affect change in any of these issues. People give up financial freedom and sometimes even family life to champion causes in the name of collective good. And we really hope that they succeed. We do, because we want real change. But we can’t risk everything we’ve got to fight the insurmountable odds against us.

There is only one guarantee: if we don’t fight, we can never win. You don’t need to switch careers, give up all your possessions, or abandon family life. You just need to throw your hat in the ring. If we don’t hold ourselves accountable for the change we want to see in the world, nothing will change because everyone will hope that someone else’s effort is enough. Deep down, each of us knows that it isn’t enough just to hope.

Set an example for others to follow. We can maximize our impact by making problems and solutions more accessible to others. And sometimes all it takes is to show others how easy it can be to affect change, little by little.

As individuals, as governments, businesses, and non­profit organizations, we can expand our own capacity to affect real change by empowering others. Project Vote Smart made it easier for me to become an informed voter just by summarizing ballot measures and candidates’ stances on major issues. And Global Witness and Transparency International helped me understand how corruption and secrecy at an institutional level affect my everyday life.

During my time with Accountability Lab I hope to help empower people with knowledge and skills to enact change. I am also working on creating a collaborative online platform for public accountability, so that insiders from different industries can share insights on the issues they encounter in their field, and why those issues should matter to the public.

It’s not always easy to do something. But if each of us makes the decision to act, we have a chance to bring about real change. What’s one in a few hundred thousand? More than zero.

Accountability changes everything.

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Making power-holders accountable in the developing world

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