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Opinion: 'Too little accountability creates monsters. Too much blame creates fools'

The blame game prevents learning because fearful and defensive people do not disclose all the facts, writes Martin Fellenz.

Martin Fellenz Associate Professor in Organisational Behaviour

PUBLIC CALLS FOR accountability abound, and reviews, reports, inquiries and tribunals are a mainstay of Irish society where patients on trolleys, misspent public funds, and increasing numbers of homeless families and children make headlines.

Yet such calls with a focus on identifying guilty parties, spurred by outrage and playing to an emotional audience, reduce accountability to a blame game and deprive all of us of the benefits proper accountability systems and practices can achieve. They prevent learning because fearful and defensive people do not disclose all the facts. Our services and systems will not get better this way.

The knee-jerk yet understandable question “who did this?” must be accompanied by “how did this happen?”, “how can we make it right?” and “how can we avoid this in future?”

Of course wrongdoing must be identified and followed with appropriate individual and collective consequences, including punitive ones where malfeasance is involved. But rectifying and learning creates much more long-term value than punishment and deterrence alone ever will.

Checking authority and privilege

To achieve this we need to be clear about the nature of accountability and how it can be used to help deliver intended outcomes. Accountability is the obligation of those in power to explain and justify judgements, decisions, actions and inactions to their stakeholders.

Thus, accountability is an important tool to check the authority and privilege of those we elect or appoint to represent, make decisions for, or provide exclusive services to others.

It cannot be an afterthought, but must be central part of the design of the job or position because we must balance authority and privilege with appropriate amounts of accountability and responsibility.

With too little accountability, we create monsters – people whose behaviour is not controllable and who can use their exalted position for self-serving purposes. With too much accountability we create fools – people who do not have the wherewithal to achieve what they and others expect of them. Creating monsters or fools serves no one.

Externally imposed, top-down accountability isn’t working

The quicker and more deliberately accountability moves from evaluation to understanding to learning, the more value it creates. Effective accountability systems and practices have three time orientations: the past (to understand and learn), the future (to design effective systems and approaches), and the present (to guide effective and appropriate behaviour). All of them require serious attention in our private and public organisations.

The most important services we rely on – health and social care, housing, courts and policing, education, utilities – are the result of processes that require coordination and contribution from many individuals, often working for different organisations. Important outcomes increasingly depend on long and complex activity chains. Internal accountability is too often aligned to formal reporting lines that do not cross organisational boundaries, and external accountability comes into this picture usually only after things have gone wrong.

What is needed are comprehensive accountability regimes that include everyone involved. An important part of this is mutual accountability that is enacted along task interdependencies, not simply based on formal reporting lines. Yet such an approach requires profound cultural and behavioural changes which necessarily disrupt established practices and run counter to ingrained habits and personal preferences. Are we ready to pay such a high collective and individual price?

The alternatives are either externally imposed, top-down and often suboptimal one-size-fits-all solutions, or the status quo – and that is patently not working.

We cannot rely on traditional approaches to accountability to change the way important responsibilities are discharged in our society. If we remain content to use accountability to simply assign blame we ignore what would actually help create the outcomes we desire now and into the future.

Martin Fellenz is Associate Professor in Organisational Behaviour at the Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, and works with many Irish and international private and public organisations on accountability, governance and organisational change. 

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About the author:

Martin Fellenz  / Associate Professor in Organisational Behaviour

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