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The Meaning of Accountability

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 about 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 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

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Fantastic post, John. This is the key paragraph, in my opinion:

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.

So how do you measure morality, ethics, responsiveness and compassion…and communicate the achievement of targets to the public?

Ilyne Miller

Interesting blog…I agree with this quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” I think we are too obsessed with measures.

Deborah Johnson

There are measures of organizational accountability, but sometimes I feel individual accountability is not given enough credit- things like does someone return phone calls, promptly answer e-mail, can be relied on in intraorganizational projects (for instance, department-to-department information), etc. In a regulatory environment, can the regulatees rely on that person for accurate information? Help with arriving at an outcome, not merely laying down intermediate process? Providing numeric measures of these sort of things may be impossible, but they are shown in the regard that others have for an individual and his or her work. If a customer’s interactions with “the government” are limited to a single point of contact or a single issue, sometimes these are the things that shape his or her end perspective of organizational performance- regardless of any data the organization may be putting out.

Mark Hammer

I have become rather cynical about what I like to refer to as accountabilism: the cult of running around measuring anythng and everything, whether validly or not, under the presumption that more measurement, and more frequent data-gathering and measurement, equals accountability.

For me, accountability, true accountability, in government is rare. The moment you mutter the A-word, everyone sprays themselves three times over with teflon so that nothing sticks to them. I think this connects to the paragraph Andrew highlights.

Accountability IS measurement that drives improved performance, but when you work in a context in which the “investors” (taxpayers) resent being forced to invest, they and the politicians, senior officials, and media, tend to be more interested in blame for poor performance, than in identifying how to achieve improved performance. *Good* accountability should shine a spotlight on what you can work on, rather than what you did wrong. It is that perpetual risk of leveraging accountability to blame that leads to everyone spraying themselves with teflon so that nothing sticks to them.

Accountability should be about objectives achieved and not achieved, but tends to end up being about who did and didn’t appear to hold up their end. personally, I find that the louder people talk about it, the less of it you tend to actually see.

Bob Woods

As the article hints around, there are different levels of accountability that are ALL required.

Customer accountability seeks to ensure a high degree of satisfaction by those receiving products and services. Customer surveys & focus groups are an obvious approach. Obervations of customers in their interactions with staff yet another. Both can yield both quantitative and qualitative measurments, and tracking those changes over time shows direction.

Production accountability tends to be highly quantitative in measuring the effectiveness of processes to deliver products or services. (By and large, my observation is that government does this poorly if at all). This is basic management at the supervisiory level. Quantitative measures focus on production rates and turn-around efficiencies, and qualitative measures focus on outcomes and effectiveness.

Management accountability focuses on resources utilization, often through the hated but useful return-on-investment. It’s measurement is tied to realizing the mission and strategic objectives set for the organization. These measures may often be more qualitative because of the subjective interpretation of the levels of success. But have no doubt that decisions are made, and they are made on the basis of information at hand, be it political, emotional, qualitative, or quantitative.

The duty of professional government employees is to insure that best objective data, covering both qualitative and quantitative mesurements, is available for the ultimate decision makers, be they senior executives, politicians or the public.

David Kuehn

Thank you for the thought provoking post. It may be very helpful to consider accountability as more of a emotional than rational concept. That does not mean government should ignore the importance of documentation in particular in managing public funds.

John Kamensky

Thanks for the various comments and insights! I’ve just returned from the Association for Government Accountants’ annual meeting in Atlanta where over 2,000 members met to talk about their profession and its challenges in today’s environment. Interestingly, AGA sees itself as the “premier association for advancing government accountability” AND it defines what it means by accountability (the first mission statement I’ve seen with a footnote): “A government’s obligation to the people for its action and use of resources.”

Interestingly, their definition could encompass the concerns raised in the Kettering Foundation report, but the various sessions tended to focus on the quantification aspects of accountability — mainly dollars, not performance. In informal conversations with attendees, I came away with the sense that folks were as taken back as I was when I first heard about the disconnect between the perceptions of accountability by government professionals vs. ordinary citizens.

Interestingly, though, the Obama Administration seems to be pursuing both angles — the emphasis of the Chief Performance Officer is on the quantification side, but with an emphasis on finding ways to improve, not just punish. But there’s also an emphasis on the relationship side, with the Open Government initiative emphasizing citizen engagement, and the push for improvements in customer service (which could get into over-quantification but has some promise for improve relationships).

Dick Davies

This is a thought-provoking discussion, however I see bits of, “If I don’t want to be measured, I’ll create a new criteria.” I believe much of the accountability morass comes from our ability to create special categories to excuse poor performance.

John Kamensky

Dick – I agree, it is a bit of a conundrum. You want to be sure you’re holding folks accountable for what they promised, but at the same time, you don’t want to paralyze agencies into measuring performance against a set of criteria if the world has changed (e.g., should HUD have been required to continue to aggressively promote home ownership and increase the share of population who own their own homes after the 2008 housing market crash? Should they start measuring the number of families kept out of loan delinquency?).

This may be less of a challenge if the focus of performance measurement is on improving decision-making, and not just on accountability and meeting targets . . . .