‘Accountability’. Tough and businesslike, the word features in almost every political or business speech these days. It's the stuff of modern management, something that no organisation can do without, like goals and values. But, like synergy, it’s one of the mythical beasts of management – constantly evoked and assumed, but hard to pin down and even harder to identify in the flesh.
How can that be, when conventional performance management is built on the concept of making people accountable for what they do? Police, teachers, nurses and most ordinary workers in the private sector are subject to a whole bureaucracy of accountability, backed up at the centre by a superordinate regulatory regime, ensuring that they make their numbers or standards or show the reason why.
But accountability is a charade.
Yes, of course people subject to such a regime are obliged to account for what they do. But all too often, as Vanguard chairman John Seddon points out, they are accountable not to purpose or the customer, but to arbitrary and abstract targets set by the centre. This is accountability as managers in the Soviet Union would have understood it: 'The accountability bureaucracy serves the hierarchy, not the work,' writes Seddon. 'While the bureaucracy is telling politicians that services are improving, in truth the only thing that is improving is the ability of the bureaucracy to produce the numbers politicians want to see.'
Far from being a virtue, this kind of mechanistic accountability is the reverse, encouraging people to obey the form while absolving them of responsibility for attending to the substance of work. It's the 'I was only obeying orders' excuse disguised as management jargon. Yet the stealthy substitution of accountability for responsibility comes at a heavy price. The removal of responsibility is the route to the tick-box, by-the-numbers services that is now prevalent throughout the public sector: education as exam passes, medicine without care, policing as arrests and detections rather than peaceful communities.
Making people accountable is beside the point when they are being forced to do the wrong thing. In fact it's worse than that. Upwards accountability of this kind prevents learning and stamps on innovation – sometimes actually prohibiting it, as in the daft but surprisingly common situation where improving service delivery involves flouting statutory regulations.
Meanwhile, by the time it reaches the top, accountability ceases to have any practical purchase at all.
Who, after all, is accountable for the shambles of the Rural Payments Agency, whose new IT system for implementing Europe’s Single Farm Payment has so far cost a staggering £850m, including temps to clear backlogs and EU fines, instead of the £32m originally estimated? Who’s accountable for the billions wasted on the national programme for IT in the NHS? Who’s accountable for the disastrously failed ‘reforms’ of HMRC and DWP, or the fact that emergency readmissions to hospital have gone up by three-quarters in the last year? Who will take the can for the disaster-in-waiting that is the Universal Credit, dependent on another giant top-down IT system, or for continuing to mandate shared-service projects when there is no evidence that they work? Who is accountable for putting in place systems that oblige staff to do the wrong thing by people they should be responsible to, making service worse and more expensive?
Just as bogus accountability removes responsibility for doing the right thing from where it should be – with those with those who deliver the service – it also dissolves relationships and replaces them with transactions. Responsibility to a customer or client necessarily requires a relationship. If there is no relationship, there is no knowledge either, so customers have to be fitted into standardised categories where they become transactions to be processed as accounting numbers.
‘What we’ve done in administration in the public sector over the last 15 to 20 years is turn public agencies into deliverers of transactionalised services,’ reflects Vanguard's Richard Davis. ‘When we do that the issues that come to the fore are standardisation and efficiency, and the more we standardise the less we understand what matters to people and the more we miss the plot.
'One of the things that’s beginning to interest us is a move from looking at services as commodities, as they’ve become, to relationships, which is what they used to be. In many services, certainly the police and health, a lot of things go wrong because we don’t know people and have no relationship with them. It sounds terribly expensive until you understand the harm that’s being done because we don’t understand, and the cost that’s being incurred as a result of doing the wrong things’.
The costs are both personal and systemic, as in the project examples above. Because the relationship with service users is fractured and impersonal, the system has no way of understanding what the real need is. So it provides services that don’t solve problems, creating knock-on failure demand as people come back again and again, and driving costs up.
Relationships are to responsibility what transactions are to accountability. It's lunacy for 'reform' to proceed in lurches as one set of management ideas and prejudices enshrined in law turns out to be wrong and is then succeeded by a completely different one. We're about to do the same thing yet again with Andrew Lansley's NHS reorganisation. We need to return responsibility for improving services to those who deliver them, allowing them to experiment and innovate for users and clients, not the hierarchy – and, incidentally, releasing armies of specifiers, inspectors and regulators for more gainful employment.
Today's accountability is junk management. Like other kinds of junk it belongs in the bin.