“Front End” vs. “Back End” Accountability

At the Policing Project, we distinguish between two forms of government accountability: front-end and back-end. Front end accountability is familiar throughout government. It has four elements:

  1. There are rules and policies in place before officials act.
  2. These rules and policies are transparent meaning the public is able to find out what they are.
  3. There are opportunities for the public to provide input before the rules and policies go into effect.
  4. And to the extent possible there is an effort to ensure that the rules and policies do more good than harm, often through some technique like cost-benefit analysis.

Front-end accountability is often absent around policing. Instead, much of the focus on policing accountability today is on the back end, after things have gone wrong. The attention is on identifying misconduct rather than specifying in the first place what is appropriate conduct. Familiar forms of back-end accountability include civilian review boards, inspectors general, judicial review, and even body cameras.

In a well-functioning system, front end and back-end accountability work together. Front-end accountability enables the public to participate in decisions about policing—from stop-and-frisk to body-cameras to location tracking devices—and sets out the policies that police departments will use. Back-end accountability helps to ensure that those policies are followed, and ideally, also indicates where revisions on the front end are necessary.

Our mission is to empower the public voice on policing on the front end—for policing agencies and communities to work collaboratively to identify public safety priorities and to decide, together, how the community should be policed. The Policing Project is working with police departments and communities across the country to foster this sort of front-end engagement, all with the goal of promoting sound and effective public safety and community wellbeing.