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Shaping the Ghost of Accountability

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

By Louis J. DeAnda
April 10, 2015

What is accountability?

In public administration, accountability is both the concept and practice of responsibility for outcomes. It is similar to the concept of responsibility. However, accountability often includes being answerable for the actions of others, even if no direct involvement in the actions or outcomes took place. Put simply, accountability is shared responsibility including, oversight by people in positions of supervision, management or team leadership.

I’m often surprised by the number of new supervisors and managers who do not fully understand the concept of accountability in their positions, how it will be applied to them in the public sector or even why it is necessary. On an almost weekly basis we read and watch media stories highlighting accountability failures in public sector agencies. In many cases, public employees have engaged in serial scandalous behavior or there has been cost overruns that soar far beyond contract estimates.

Accountability is the element of public service that links performance to public trust and agency legitimacy. According to Schatz, enough of these negative outcomes can actually cost an agency its legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Accountability is essential in public service, but for too many administrators the concept is almost ghostlike – appearing only after someone has been caught in a wrong or results do not reflect expectations. Then it fades away again to wait for the next scandal or glaring performance failure.

The irony is that accountability is not and should not be reserved solely for negative outcomes. That’s right folks – accountability can be a very positive thing when it is linked to positive outcomes that exceed expectations!  This positive framework will set the stage for program and project managers to encourage innovation and improvisation among team members. If it is built into projects, programs and general operations  and leveraged through metrics, accountability can become an instrument for agency progress.

Fix the problem – not the blame!

Although the concept is simple, the application of accountability can be difficult and particularly so if an agency or organization is not used to the practice. For example, how could accountability have been used in the Boston Marathon bombing or the Deepwater Horizon disaster?

From a public administration perspective, the application should not involve politics but operational policy as noted by Halachmi and Greiling and Marvel. Accountability can be a hugely effective instrument for organizational progress and operational improvement if it is used effectively and not as a blunt instrument to attribute blame. In most cases, accountability, as a process, can identify both failure and superior performance patterns. Remember, the objective of accountability is not to publicly execute some managers, but to improve operational and institutional performance.

Developing accountability

Accountability can and should be built into any program or project. It is easy to do. Simply add an accountability statement into the program or project and it becomes a formal element of that program or project. During the planning stage, the planning team should both emphasize the accountability element and frame it positively. Otherwise the senior agency official authorizing the program or project should question the operations team on how accountability has been built into the metrics and interim performance objectives.

Here are areas where accountability can be formally introduced and developed within a public agency:

  • Training – accountability should be taught and reinforced as a key operational and management concept during initial and in-service training. It should be a concept that runs through every course.
  • Operations – accountability should be formally added to policies on performance and operations management. Every new supervisor or manager must be briefed on his accountability profile.
  • Projects and programs – accountability should be formally established in a statement and attached to metrics and interim performance objectives.
  • Audits and inspections – accountability should be formally attached to policies for standards and practices. 

Summary

Accountability does not have to be so misunderstood. Some agencies have it and use it (here’s a hint – those are the agencies you very rarely hear or read about in relation to failures). Those agencies that don’t incorporate accountability standards are more likely to find themselves in the news on a regular basis. The good news is that accountability as a concept and practice is easy to implement. Start training accountability, attaching accountability statements to the next project or program, frame them positively and use the outcomes to identify excellence in performance or improvement in practices where needed.


AuthorLouis J. DeAnda is a doctoral candidate at Walden University’s School of Public Policy and has 28 years of federal operational, training and management experience in criminal investigation and counter-terrorism, both domestically and overseas. He currently owns and operates a strategic security consultancy in south Florida and may be contacted on the Linked-In professional network.

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