By Steve Kelman

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Accountability, transparency and their unintended consequences

Everybody is in favor of accountability. Certainly in a democratic society, people in government should be required to explain their actions. Even in real life -- where “accountability” is just a euphemism for “punishment,” as in, “Where is the accountability?" -- people who perform badly are expected to suffer the consequences.

And everybody also is in favor of transparency. What principle of democracy could be more basic than openness? And transparency, of course, makes accountability easier.

Well, a recent discussion during an executive education program for senior federal career managers, which I’ve been teaching, illustrated that it’s not quite so simple as all that.

Contrary to what everyone believes -- that is, every everyone except people who actually have experience managing organizations, as well as scholars who study management -- there may be tradeoffs between accountability/transparency on the one hand, and performance improvement on the other.

One participant noted that in order to improve how his organization was managed, he needed people working for him to be willing to provide information about problems -- to be willing to state they were "red," as the participant put it. However, to make that possible, he as a leader needed to create a safe zone in which subordinates could discuss problems without fear of exposure or punishment. As it turns out, these principles that everybody likes -- accountability and transparency -- actually create the incentive to hide information, and thus makes it harder to work to solve problems before they blow up.

This tradeoff has actually been studied by academics. Work by my colleague, Amy Edmondson, at Harvard Business School indicates that hospitals that do not punish people for medical errors actually improve their medical-error performance over time more than those that do. A non-punitive environment encourages people to reveal errors and allows learning about how the organization's processes should be restructured to reduce them.

However, in the punishment-oriented world of politics and the media, this approach is highly counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. We need an honest discussion of how best to balance these different considerations.

It is an issue federal CIO Vivek Kundra needs to worry about in terms of how he manages TechStat reviews of IT projects -- which, unfortunately in my view, are being labeled as "accountability" sessions.

On the one hand, persistently incompetent or seriously unethical behavior should, of course, have consequences. On the other hand, problems are often systemic and organizational, not the result of individual incompetence or evil, and the response needed is process re-engineering, not individual punishment.

One approach is for leaders to try to carefully separate performance measurement for purposes of organizational improvement through learning from individual performance appraisal for accountability purposes. The Army does that with its "after-action reviews." Another idea is to create a "non-transparency" window of several months -- conceptually analogous to the "pre-decisional" exclusion under the Freedom of Information Act -- for information about problems that subordinates provide. This window would allow the information to go up the chain and for management to develop early measures in response.

Given that "accountability" and "transparency" are like Mom and Apple Pie, few people want to acknowledge these tradeoffs. This is yet another barrier to improving the performance of government.

Readers, what do you think about that? Submit a comment below. 

Posted by Steve Kelman on Oct 20, 2010 at 7:26 PM

Reader Comments

Mon, Nov 1, 2010 Bloody But Unbowed

Truthteller & Interested Party seem to favor a Fed workplace where no one shoulders any accountability unless they are criminals or are found to violate ethics regulations. Can't we do better than that? Of course, one does not terminate for every mistake, but if they accumulate within someone's scope, there comes a time when the swinging door opens. Why not? We govt customers and citizens expect some level of getting things done, of success, not an endless chain of "learning" by the professionals in procurement, program offices, and agency operations. Members of Congress and likely quite a few thinking taxpayers would be astounded by the idea of removing transparency and accountability rather than boosting those attributes in government and contractor offices. I just read the original post, and, counter-intuitive is somewhat of an ultra-polite and ultra-lite mislabeling. Are we trying to strengthen acquisition and government mission accomplishment or just strike up the chords of Kumbaya?

Thu, Oct 28, 2010 Steve Kelman

I agree with Vern. If we provide room for people to learn from mistakes, we do need to take learning seriously.

Wed, Oct 27, 2010 Vern Edwards

What's new about this? In his 1982 book, "Out of the Crisis," W. Edwards Deming, the quality expert, posited his famous 14 Points for Management. Point No. 8 was "Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company." He tells this story: "A department had failed miserably for months to produce enough items for the market. The general manager appointed a task force (one man) to discover what was wrong. What he found was inspectors overpowered with fear. They had taken the idea into their heads that if the customer found an item to be faulty, the inspector that passed the item would lose his job. As a consequence, the inspectors held up almost the total output." Okay, so transparency and accountability can create fear, which can make an organization less able to learn and improve, and thus less effective. Got it. But it is no good making this point and emphasizing the importance of organizational learning if learning never happens and the organization continues to perform poorly, all the while refusing to hold people accountable because it will make them afraid. At some point the public is going to demand that things get better or that somebody get fired. The performance of the Federal government has been suboptimal for a very long time. If one is going to argue that transparency and accountability produce fear, which in turn inhibits learning, well, okay. But one had better learn something, and damned soon, and performance had better improve. In that regard, see Deming's 13 other points, especially 6, "Institute training," 10, "Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force," 11b, "Eliminate numerical goals for people in management," and 13, "Encourage education and self-improvement for everyone." See also his Seven Deadly Diseases, one of which is Evaluation by performance, merit rating, or annual review of performance." Here are some quotes from Dr. Deming: "There is no substitute for knowledge." "The most important things cannot be measured." "The problem is at the top. Management is the problem." "Knowledge is theory. We should be thankful if action of management is based on theory. Knowledge has temporal spread. Information is not knowledge."

Wed, Oct 27, 2010 Taxpayer

We need to apply accountability measures for bad performance short of criminal conduct and bad ethics, for goodness sake. If that is the bar it is rather too low. Citizens surely expect US Government managers to do something other than stay out of trouble. Dare I say it, they should succeed in their jobs and their missions. Daylight, not shields, is proven to help that. We should be a tad skeptical of the earlier post-er who asserts the ranks are littered with those who have suffered real consequences for their mistakes. Suffering consequences for failure is barely evident in senior exec and political ranks, as claimed by the (Big??) Cheese Person. It is also likely rare in the mid-grades. Any reader: quickly scan all the program management people you have ever known -- how many suffered for failed programs? Low number, isn't it? Many taxpayers-voters (not Tea Partiers, who don't want the programs in the first place) believe the consequences should be discipline, including firing when appropriate. Not all the time, of course, but a lot of the time -- the mistakes and consequences are mammoth, yet accountability barely exists. Look at IT systems alone.... Transparency is, btw, adequate to document acceptable grounds for termination in so many cases of egregious mismanagement, and its cousin--doing nothing. Ya think Congress would accept less transparency? Many Americans would not want the US Government civil service to just be one big learning experience for its members. Having more effective employees is not an end in itself. The end-goal of the US Government is: missions accomplished. Contractors should be held to the same strict accountability for failure that US Government employees should be held to.

Wed, Oct 27, 2010 Interested Party

Steve, you may be willing to let Gorgonzala to leave the nasty cheese on top, But I have to speak out on this one. I don't know what agency you work in, but the world I live in there are career-altering results for failure by Gov. workers. Maybe they're not very public, but I've certainly seen a fair number of people who are just sidelined and ostracized rendering their career DOA as certainly as firing would. Surely as I speak, mis-management and unehtical actions should be identified and punished, but simply making a mistake does NOT raise to the level of mis-management. There is a difference and intolerance of errors is sapping the strength of Government.

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