How can we create better processes for holding government to account for their promises?

What’s the problem?

There is a range of ways to track how a government fulfils its promises.

Alt text A general election is obviously the best and main way to keep governments honest in a democracy. But it can be hard to figure out what is actually happening with all the policy processes and decisions that are made throughout a government’s term.

The tracking that does exists is often done in an ad hoc way by external parties, voluntarily. There isn’t a simple, reliable - and easily understood process for the general public - to hold government to account for each promise it makes prior to an election and whilst it is in government. This isn’t simply about making sure promises are kept – not every promise should be. It is about creating a more sophisticated understanding ‘why not’ when commitments are not kept.

The challenge is to create a process for tracking promises doesn’t become a perverse incentive for politicians to create vague commitments that are even harder to monitor.

Seven things you need to know

  1. Transparency and accountability matter to the functioning of our democracy. They are what distinguishes a democratic political system from dictatorships and totalitarian regimes.

  2. Media plays an important role in keeping track of government promises. Many run stories on individual promises broken or kept. Some also undertake more comprehensive tracking. For example, the ABC runs “Promise Tracker” on its FactCheck website where it keeps track of the Coalition Government's 2013 election commitments.

  3. Breaking promises isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes governments learn things when they arrive in office that make them reassess their priorities. Adaptation is important for efficiency and responsiveness. But the public needs more nuanced and independent information in order to better understand decisions and trade-offs that have been made.

  4. Having governments explain their decisions and decision processes (whether they choose to keep a promise or not) contributes to the level of trust the community has in members of parliament, political parties and the political system.

  5. This is because citizens need to be able to trust government to deliver fair outcomes for everyone. They don’t necessarily have to agree with every government decision. But if they trust the people making the decision, and the processes used to arrive at that decision are transparent, people are much more likely to understand the reasoning behind a policy and perhaps accept why it has to be so.

  6. Transparency International’s ‘Corruption Perceptions Index 2015’ scores each country based on the perceived level of public sector corruption. It is on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). All country’s results are available here.

  7. In 2015, Australia had a score of 79. This places it 13th. This is still a good result but is down from a ranking of 7th and a score of 85 in 2012. In 2015, New Zealand was ranked 4th and the United Kingdom was ranked 10th.

Want more? Watch our infographic video about accountability here.

Solve challenges to shape Australia's tomorrow