The Cult of Accountability
Accountability is a big word with many meanings but for simplicity sake I will define it as: 1) the obligation to render accounts of how well one is doing in delivering on promises and meeting agreed expectations; 2) the responsibility to take the necessary measures to improve performance and to correct error and to report on those measures; and 3) the obligation to accept the consequences of misconduct or performance failure.
Accountability is essential to democracy and to building and maintaining the trust necessary for government to perform. In fact, as trust erodes, as seems broadly the case over the last decades, demands for accountability increase. The relentless call for enhanced accountability has, however, changed the game. The vital value of accountability is being lost and transformed instead into a “cult of accountability” centred on blame and punishment and this “cult” simply further undermines trust.
While no one disagrees that breaches of the law and ethics must be dealt with unequivocally, consistent with the duty to act fairly, and that persistent performance failure must be addressed directly, the cult of accountability is a search for culprits and consequences for every error. It is also a rejection of the reality that accountability is sometimes complex and shared, that most errors, as most successes, have many masters and error is inevitable. But the cult demands somebody to blame and somebody to punish. So today when we say “who was accountable” for an error, we are asking who got punished and was it enough.
What happens in organizations driven by this relentless escalation of accountability? First, they become afraid, afraid to innovate, afraid to take risks and, ultimately, afraid to act. In a culture such as government which is responsible for managing the public trust and public funds, risk aversion is the norm. In this environment, risk aversion turns to fear and paralysis. Second, the organization becomes obsessed with communications control. No programs work perfectly, all results have some degree of ambiguity, issues are seen differently depending on the interests at stake, error happens. So, in a culture of blame and punishment, controlling the flow of information becomes an obsession. Organizational performance obviously suffers badly and trust further erodes.
As Onora O’Neill said in another context “Plants don’t flourish when we pull them up too often to check how the roots are growing”. In a mature organization, leaders take responsibility for success and failure and for learning from mistakes, and they inspire a culture of responsibility. The cult of accountability, by its relentless focus on blame and punishment, infantilizes us all. And everybody loses.