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Seeking Accountability in a M.A.D. World: How to Get Justice Without Seeing Red

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ken Smith and John Kurpierz
October 29, 2020 

One key for residents to receive superior services at an affordable cost is to demand accountability. But when residents seek accountability, they’re often left ignored and angry. Toward that end, a useful question is, “Will your next action be effective, or just emotionally satisfying?”

Asking questions, slowing down and planning out the steps to seek accountability are critical for success to both residents and representatives. Using this slow, reflective and strategic approach, as recommended by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, has been dubbed, “System 2 thinking.” This approach helps accountability-seekers avoid having their emotions hijacked towards unproductive ends while seeking justice. It also can assist those who’ve been hurt to use the buddy system to seek context and technical help.

Our insights come from School Finance, where we encounter the gamut of frustrated community members, from employees to adults to kids. The pain from any vulnerable child being hurt or neglected is felt deeply and broadly. The consequences are not just imposed on the family; they are a setback for the entire community.

Internal finance experts design control systems to, “Prevent, detect and correct,” the risks of harm, yet we rarely invest enough time on the external accountability pieces when those systems fail. A major reason for flubbing the accountability pieces is that almost none of us are trained in the competing dimensions of accountability. Jonathan Koppell, dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University, calls it the, “Pathologies of Multiple Accountabilities,” and gives it a catchy diagnostic, M.A.D., for Multiple Accountabilities Disorder.

For example, demands for responsiveness and transparency are both important accountability demands, but are also directly at odds with each other since one requires speed and the other requires being thorough. Similarly, ensuring consequences for actions and doing what your community, leaders or supervisors command you to do, can be counter-indicated. Koppell’s solution to M.A.D. is to be more precise about what sort of accountability is being sought; encourage dialogue about how that accountability will be the best for that particular situation; and understanding the tradeoffs that are made as a result.

While we can’t avoid the M.A.D. problem, we can and should work with citizens and leaders to increase transparency, correct root causes and facilitate the consequences for those who violated the public’s trust. The worst settings develop when the leaders fail to take accountability for their actions, and we identify these accountability-avoiders by their behaviors. We call these behaviors the 10 D’s (distract, delay, defer, denigrate, etc.) and we’ve seen evidence that they are effective at emotionally derailing most accountability seekers.

The suite of tools we find effective in the face of Accountability Avoiders are the 3 P’s: being Polite, being Persistent, and being Professional. These tools often feel very unsatisfying to victims and take a longer time than quick action. However, the 3 P’s create the ethical accountability infrastructure for more responsive, responsible and well-governed institutions.

The 3 P’s work by countering the most-effective techniques of accountability-avoiders (the 10 D’s). Lay people and even public administration experts that don’t have acculturation in accountability-seeking skills can be easily distracted or hijacked by the 10 D’s; They can be ineffectively goaded into emotionally-satisfying rather than strategically-effective actions. The 3 P’s help prevent this hijacking by forcing the accountability-seeker to be methodical (Professional), calm (Polite), and focused on the problem to the exclusion of distraction attempts (Persistent).

Further, a major advantage of the 3 P’s is that they are quite simple to understand. Every time you take an action to seek accountability, you can merely ask, “Am I being polite? Am I being professional? Am I being persistent?” When you can answer “yes” to all 3 questions, it means you will be immunized to a whole toolbox of accountability-avoiding tactics used to stymie citizens. There is surprising power in being able to sit through nearly a dozen accountability-avoidance tactics, ignore them all, and ask the same accountability-seeking question that you did at the start of the meeting. Accountability-avoiding organizations eventually get eroded down by patient citizen action.

It is understandable and even good to get angry at injustice in our governments and societies. But anger is a motivating force, not a strategic choice (e.g. motive and emotive and emotion are from the same root word). Many accountability-avoiders depend on getting people angry enough that they become ineffectual and then continue avoiding accountability. If you act quickly and rashly because of your anger, you are often playing into their hands and vulnerable to the tricks they use to avoid accountability. They are depending on you to get so (reasonably!) mad that you make mistakes in seeking accountability. So the next time you see a need for accountability in an organization, get angry…and then get polite, persistent, and professional about fixing it.


Ken Smith, PhD is a former Accounting Professor and elected School Board official. He co-founded of the Oregon Public Performance Improvement Association, worked as a forensic accountant in a CPA firm and was the lead investigator of the “Independent Academic Assessment” of the Governmental Accounting Standards Board. He currently resides in Salem, Oregon and can be reached at [email protected]

John R. Kurpierz, MPA is a PhD candidate at the Schulich School of Business at York University. His published works include assessments of the History of Accounting and Accountability for School Districts, Greenwashing as form of Fraud and teaching Forensic Acculturation to Citizens. He formerly was the Research Associate for the Institute for Better Governance and prepared their guidance on Internal Auditing for Elected Officials. He can be reached at [email protected]

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