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The Quest for Accountability

It’s on its way to you!! That is, the public demand for you to defend your existence; holding public figures accountable for where the money is going and what it is providing. It’s a two-edged sword: for many public officials this is quite an annoyance. Many are worried that they might look irrelevant or unnecessarily “expensive” if they have to measure and (heaven forbid) report what they are accomplishing and how the budgets are being spent. On the flip side, for the many people working in the public sector, it’s about time that people know what you are doing and how hard you are working on the public’s behalf. Being asked to defend your value might get you the appreciation you have so long deserved.

Either way, this new expectation is going to flush out some stuff, and it’s on its way to you soon.

So, where do we start? Our experience tells us that this isn’t just who is being held accountable, but also what, exactly, are we accountable for? Yet, how often do we hear these complaints: I just wish people would be more accountable!! How can I get them to be more accountable?? There’s no accountability here!! Government needs to be more accountable to the people!! That word accountability is thrown around a lot, but what are we talking about?


Defining Accountability

The Business Dictionary.com definition for accountability is “The obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them and to disclose the results in a transparent manner. It also includes the responsibility for money or other entrusted property.” This means accepting responsibility and reporting real results. I will argue it means something else as well: continuous improvement and learning, real learning, from our experiences.

What happens without accountability in our systems? The simple answer, of course, is that very little will get done. If no one owns the process or the outcomes, then it is unlikely that these will occur on their own. In addition, significant literature on the subject has shown that the best way to get stuff done is to have or even “invent” a crisis (Kotter, HBR, 2013). In other words, there has to be a burning platform to mobilize an organization. Other studies, however, show that instilling accountability can be a much healthier substitute for an internal urgency.

What are some other unintended consequences of a lack of accountability? On the more compassionate side, we realize that some jobs are simply too complex to hold any one person accountable for the outcomes. So, no one “name” is assigned. Then there is the matrixed environment where people have no idea who they report to so there is no one to give an “account” to. Both of these system flaws cause a lack of productivity, but even worse, they can create a culture of entitlement rather than mutual responsibility between the organization and the individual.

On the “harder” side, some managers bully people into being “accountable” for other than performance reasons–perhaps so that they can be sure to have someone to blame just in case things go sour.

Either way, these system flaws are causing people to be risk averse. Because of this conundrum, people are loathe to “own” what has to be done. Not so much because they might get fired, we rarely do that, but by being associated with a “failure,” our credibility is destroyed and we lose face every single day we walk into the office. People get marginalized and often drop out. They still come to work, but they haven’t really been there in years. The Japanese call it a “seat by the window.” Not a good thing, it’s like being banished to Siberia.


The Essentials of Accountability 

  1. First of all, we are accountable for doing what needs to be done and doing it well.
  2. Secondly, we are responsible for knowing what is going on. For paying attention and making sense of our environment.
  3. Thirdly, we are responsible for learning. If we “fail” or have sub-optimized outcomes or unhappy consumers of our outputs, we have to ask: what did we learn so we can be better next time? If we’re going to make mistakes, let’s make new ones. Of course we are accountable for success, but if not success, then we are accountable for learning how to ensure success in the future. That’s called continuous improvement and innovation.


Infuse Accountability Into Your System

Here’s a starting place to get moving in the right direction. Establishing accountability always involves at least knowing what is expected. When people are new and earnest and hoping to do the right thing, they will often aim too high–taking on more responsibility than they actually have. Then, after getting shot down, they will begin to aim too low. Taking less responsibility than is expected of them. It can be a complex process, but using the following table will help. Feel free to change the wording so it will fit inside your culture, but there should always be 7 levels.



Level 7: Team/Individual researches, determines options, chooses option, acts, and does not report to manager

Level 6: Team/Individual researches, determines options, chooses option, acts, reports only failure to manager

Level 5: Team/Individual researches, determines options, chooses option, acts, reports results to manager

Level 4: Team/Individual researches, determines options, chooses option, manager gives final approval

Level 3: Team/Individual researches, determines options, makes recommendation, manager decides

Level 2: Team/Individual researches, suggests options, manager chooses

Level 1: Team/Individual researches, manager decides

This model can be used as a way to clarify people’s level of authority when you give them a project or task. Even more, it is a way to develop people over time. For example, they can be at a level 3 in general then move them to a level four or five after they have mastered the level 3. It can also be used project by project based on how capable the person is on that specific project–they may be more qualified for some and less prepared on others. Where a person or task falls on this model is also negotiable up and down between manager and employee per project. Employees might want a higher level of authority on a specific project to show their ability or they might want a lower level because they are nervous about the political ramifications, etc. of the project and don’t want to be hanging out there by themselves.

It’s also useful because employees and managers frequently have mixed expectations on this and fail to meet each others’ needs. It can take a toll on their relationships over time (trust, etc) and they don’t even know why.


Learning as a Form of Accountability

Greiling and Halachmi (PP&MR, 3/13) make a very strong case for our need to be accountable not just for the work assigned to us, but also for organizational learning. There’s an old folk tale (probably embellished over the years) about GE; supposedly the company declined to award a bonus to the R&D team who successfully created a life-long lasting light bulb, on the basis that it was too expensive and unmarketable. The team complained and argued that it was valuable to learn what was not viable, so the company could move on to other things. The story goes (I hope this part is really true) that, in the end, the GE leadership gave them two bonuses: the team had invented both the light bulb and had also invented the concept that learning was a valuable outcome.

If we only use accountability to find out who is to blame, then who would want it? Admittedly, grown-ups should take responsibility for what they are expected to do. But a system that uses responsibility as a flogging stick isn’t developing grownups, it’s developing risk-averse accountability-dodgers.

Infusing learning as a desirable outcome allows for risk, risk allows for trying new approaches to things, new approaches mean progress and continuous improvement, continuous improvement means high levels of engagement in the ranks and people who are highly engaged don’t mind taking ownership. In fact, they will often beg for more.


Author: Laree Kiely, Ph.D., President, the Kiely Group. Dr Kiely served on the faculty at USC for over 15 years. In addition to currently leading the Kiely Group, she serves as faculty for leadership programs at Duke CE, UCLA, USC, Thunderbird, and Ivey (Toronto). The Kiely Group specializes in Leadership and Organizational Impact. Please send your comments, questions, and stories to us at: [email protected]


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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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