The Meaning of Accountability

 

The Meaning of Accountability

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011 - 10:38
Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - 11:25
The word “accountability” ranks right up there with “freedom,” “justice,” and “democracy” – words commonly used and thought to be understood by all. But that is wrong. It is a term that is complex and misunderstood, and subject to abuse in political discourse. But more importantly, because there is a lack of clarity, there are many different approaches used by politicians and public administrators to pursue it.

The Kettering Foundation has sponsored research on the concept of “accountability” over the past several years and has come out with two intriguing reports in recent weeks.  Both reports challenge the views held by most in government and politics.  This has significant implications for how public officials approach the issue of accountability, because the creation and maintenance of traditional accountability systems is costly and growing.  For example, recently-proposed legislation would dramatically expand financial data collection and reporting, in the name of increased accountability.Will it be worth the cost?  These reports challenge traditional assumptions.

The first report, Public Accountability:  Performance Measurement, the Extended State, and the Search for Trust, by Melvin Dubnick and H. George Fredrickson, is an academic piece filled with numerous concepts of accountability.  Maybe too many (in my world, we call this “concept overload”).  So I’ll highlight only a few:

“Accountability is both a word and a bundle of concepts.  As a word, accountability is notoriously ambiguous . . . "  And as a concept, it has been around for centuries.  It is basically social in nature; it must involve two or more individuals for it to come into place.

Accountability is typically associated with actions taken ‘after the fact’ . . to fix responsibility for perceived human errors (e.g., the response to Hurricane Katrina).  But Dubnick and Fredrickson note that these after-the-fact approaches to accountability are often premised on before-the-fact expectations and assumptions about the behavior of individuals, groups, and even nations.  These premises often lead to preventative accountability approaches such as internal controls, ethics training, performance reports, financial reports, etc.  The question is: do they work and are they worth the cost.

The authors observe: “According to proponents of accountability-centered reforms, enhanced accountability will (among other things) result in greater transparency and openness in a world threatened by the powerful forces of hierarchy and bureaucratization. . . accountability will bring formal and precise measures of performance to government so the public can know how well their government is meeting public expectations.”  But Dubnick and Fredrickson aren’t so sure how valid this is.

There is “a widely held but unsubstantiated belief in the capacity of accountability mechanisms to bring about the three things we require of government today -- efficient control, democratic legitimacy, and effective performance.”  They conclude that the before-the-fact mechanisms “. . . come to be regarded as material and policy tools sufficient unto themselves to bring about the appropriate or desired degrees of control, legitimacy, and performance.”  This belief is reflected in many current government initiatives, such as President Obama’s Accountable Government Initiative, the agencies’ Performance and Accountability Reports, and even the Government Accountability Office.  While Dubnick and Fredrickson cast doubt on the effectiveness of these various accountability models, their proposed solution – to create a “High-Trust Culture”– doesn’t quite provide a practical model, either.

The second report -- Don’t Count Us Out:  How an Overreliance on Accountability Could Undermine the Public’s Confidence in Schools, Businesses, Government, and More, by Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation – is more provocative, and maybe more disturbing (as its title implies!). It is based on the premise that “institutions think of accountability primarily in informational terms while citizens think of it in more relational terms.”

I am more familiar with the traditional institutional accountability models – those based on regulations or performance standards (such as school testing), those based on processes (such as internal controls), and those based on results (such as lower infant mortality as a result of immunizations).  But the Kettering report notes that “When accountability is externally defined [i.e., by government itself], it tends to disenfranchise those most directly affected by it.” Now, THAT, I found to be a provocative!

The authors' research is based on interviews and focus groups of citizens, not the media, government officials or politicians.  They found “. . . leaders and the public typically come at the issue of accountability from vastly different starting points.  Their assumptions, definitions, and expectations are often worlds apart.”

The authors call into question whether accountability, as defined by leaders and institutions “enhances problem solving and generates more public trust and cooperation.”  They found that government leaders see accountability as measurement that drives improved performance, while citizens see accountability as responsibility by leaders and citizens themselves.  Leaders focus on quantitative measures such as performance and targets, while citizens focus on qualitative measures such as moral, ethical, responsiveness, and compassion.

The Kettering report concludes:  “. . . the language of accountability – with its focus on numbers, metrics, benchmarks, and transparency – is not reassuring.  For many Americans, it seems to have almost the opposite result, conveying that leaders do not understand or accept the ethical, moral, and human dimensions of the problem.”  The authors point to specific examples in the sectors of education, health care, and banking.  They suggest that increasing dialogue among stakeholders may be a potential “game-changer” in some sectors.

I’ve long been an advocate of performance accountability through a variety of means.  One of my favorite reads on the topic is Shelley Metzenbaum’s "Performance Accountability: The Five Building Blocks and Six Essential Practices,” which emphasizes the importance of constructive feedback and the use of constant back-and-forth discussions in improving performance based on metrics.  But now when I read her report in the context of the two Kettering reports, I realize that there’s more to it. . . .and so my quest for understanding “accountability” continues!

Graphic Credit:  Blogging Innovation