“The secret to happiness is to put the burden of proof on unhappiness.”
When public administration students insist upon a working definition of accountability, textbooks rarely satisfy. They are puzzled when accountability is equated with responsibility, liability, or answerability. Whatever interpretation is assumed gets probed and debated for the rest of the course. The burden of proof is on the professor and is intrinsic to grasping the meaning.
In business, employees are responsible for the results of assignments performed and for accepting the consequences of their actions. Public servants know instinctively from experience that accountability is much more. Their obligation is to report evidence of results achieved in return for the responsibility, authority, resources, and trust conferred.
Accountability is institutional, as well as individual. The chart above depicts the range of institutional governance, where autonomy increases from left to right. Accountability standards remain constant across the spectrum, but the means vary with independence. The rule of thumb is that ministerial departments are subject to oversight regimes that span government, whereas arm’s-length bodies rely upon governance internal to the institution.
Modern notions of accountability favour results over process, continuous learning and improvement, and dynamic responses to complex uncertainties. Three principles underpin good practice:
1. Responsibility – trusting and staying true to mandate in decisions;
2. Responsiveness – addressing the need or rationale for the program; and
3. Competency – doing the best possible job, given the circumstances, resources, and constraints.
The accountability challenge
Accountability is like Buckley’s Cough Syrupit tastes awful, but it’s good for what ails you. It is a decidedly Western ideal, born of scientific and bureaucratic management traditions. Its conjoined twin is Transparency. Together, they anchor public service performance under the rubric of Results Based Management, itself an invention of the international ‘best practices’ consulting crowd.
Some say that accountability is a construct so alien to human nature that certain cultures have no counterpart word or phrase in their language. Pacific Islanders, for example, choose fealty to a village chief as good governance. In the Samoan public service, few challenge incumbent CEOs for their jobs when up for renewal out of respect for a chief or elder.
It is also important to understand what accountability is not. The secret to accountability is to put the burden of proof on unaccountabilityinnocent until proven guilty, trust before mistrust, outcomes over compliance. Author Scott Turow opined, “The prosecutor, who is supposed to carry the burden of proof, really is the author.” In other words, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
The quest for proof
Government carries the burden of intense pressure to make better choices, deliver results, and demonstrate accountability. Middle managers struggle to exercise strategic foresight in complex times. Some eschew evidence-based approaches to policy and programs. Others know that strategic foresight leans on historical evidence to shape plausible, emerging futures.
Governments have been collecting and generating vast amounts of data for decades. Data ownership and infrastructure silos impede information sharing and stewardship. Analytics can help produce better services that cost less and deliver more while protecting Big Data as a strategic asset.
Practice sometimes confounds theory in public management. Evidence breathes experience, insight, and analysis into policy gaps. Academics, think-tanks, and consultants glorify the evidence with their expertise, but none are entirely free of bias. The whole story gets told when perspectives are shared.
When research is farmed out, advice can fall beneath our wisdom like a stone. The lament is: “They do not really appreciate the issues facing government.” Middle managers, who thrive on deciphering the prevailing ambiguity, are called upon for their intuition and judgement to make things work.
Producing evidence is a fragile process that is essential to good governance. The challenge is to manage a rational, evidentiary process against the odds. The trend toward policy-based evidence rather than evidence-based policy offers scant comfort to politicians when held to account.
Canada is comparatively proficient in understanding and implementing accountability frameworks in government. However, public institutions may be relying too much upon central oversight bodies to monitor performance instead of measuring the outcomes of design and delivery themselves.
The call for innovation returns inevitably to the virtues of let the managers manage. Accountability, in balance with autonomy, can leverage central agency support for change. Advocates of the results agenda are usually less convinced by arguments for innovation than by the prospects of greater control.
JOHN WILKINS IS EXECUTIVE IN RESIDENCE: PUBLIC MANAGEMENT AT YORK UNIVERSITY (JWILKINS@SCHULICH.YORKU.CA). HE WAS A CAREER PUBLIC SERVANT AND DIPLOMAT.