Accountability is core to good governance, democracy and trust.
It enables lessons to be learnt and for mistakes not to be repeated.
It requires leaders to take responsibility and where necessary accept the consequences for failure.
This issue is both topical and important.
There are two clear caveats to what follows:
- press coverage of disasters and failures in any sector needs to be ‘responsible’ and balanced, especially when it may take some time for all the facts to become clear. Leaders should not be ‘hounded’ out of their jobs without due cause by the media, politicians, bosses, the public or anyone
- neither should ‘trump-esque’ style, alt-right, false charges and accusations without any evidence ever be allowed to triumph
That said, I am firmly of the view that one of the most important requirements of leadership, especially in the public sector, business and charities, is to be prepared to take responsibility when something goes horribly wrong, and to be accountable for the behaviours and performance of your organisation.
Even if a leader has not been personally involved in operational decisions that have led to catastrophic failure, she/he must be accountable given that she/he is responsible for: setting policy; ensuring that competent people are in operational positions; and for monitoring performance. Of course, everyone in any organisation must be accountable but leaders cannot and should not delegate ultimate accountability. As the cliché would have it – ‘the buck stops right here on the most senior leader’s desk’.
This principle applies to a Prime Minister, a President of the USA, a council leader, a chief executive and/or chair of a business or a charity, and to everyone in leadership positions. Regrettably there are too many examples of leaders whose instinct is to ‘cling on’ and refuse to take their responsibility for highly damaging activities and events. This is simply wrong and a failure of leadership.
Let me be clear: not every problem or failure in any public sector, business or charitable organisation should lead to the resignation or removal of the most senior person, or indeed to any personnel. Proportionality must apply. However, there will be occasions when resignations are appropriate. And sometime when dismissal is also appropriate. There are times when an individual should stay in place an correct the wrong doing and errors.
Too often when any individual should consider resigning, the individual concerned and possibly those around her or him (and sometimes throughout the organisation) will either never consider such a response or, if they do consider it, will argue that: they were not personally responsible; if necessary, some more junior colleague or external party should take the blame; that they have to stay in post to sort out the mess; or that, in the scheme of things, the failure was not so serious and they, the leader, must now focus on other matters.
There is no merit in a culture that always wants ‘a head on a plate’ as if this will always right a wrong. The tabloid media must not be the determinant of the fate of individuals nor organisations for the sake of an eye catching headline.
Leaders should search their own consciences and values base when deciding how to respond to major incidents that have caused damage – that is right and proper. However, if they don’t act appropriately, I am clear that others much challenge and hold them to account. Acting appropriately applies to the post-failure period as well as the lead up to it. This can require leaders to show empathy and emotional intelligence when responding to situations especially human tragedies.
Leaders must lead by example. If they are perceived to be ducking their responsibilities and accountability, there is less chance that others within their organisations will act properly. This can lead to corrupt practices and rotten cultures. It is another example of a failure of leadership.
When leaders resign or are dismissed this does not exonerate them nor mean that they should be held to account whether be an internal or external or even, in some circumstances criminal investigations. There have been too many examples of senior personnel resigning or even retiring with full pensions and then being deemed to beyond disciplinary procedures. This can never be right.
Political leaders are in a special position. They must account to parliament or their council or board; and above all they must account to the public. This means being prepared to admit that something has gone wrong and explain (as best they can) why this has happened and what they are doing as a consequence of the event. Their action may or may not involve them resigning but it must include a transparent and open sharing of what happened, who took what decisions and why, and where accountability lies.
They must seek to be as transparent as possible and available to the media and to stakeholders, but it has to be recognised there may be occasions when it is important not to prejudice a criminal or other investigation. That said the rule should be to be as transparent as possible and when there is good reason for some constraint to explain why.
The same should apply to executive leaders in the public sector (though they should not be ‘scapegoated’ by politicians to save the latter’s’ skins), businesses (large and small), charities, and voluntary and community groups. No sector and no organisation can ever be exempt.
When a public body contracts services to others through outsourcing or any other arrangement, the one thing they cannot outsource is their accountability, though they will wish to hold a contractor to account. If a company or charity fails to deliver the specified contract, both it and the contracting body are accountable, with the latter ultimately being accountable to the public.
Accountability is core to effective governance. It must apply always, to all people and to all issues. It requires leaders and others to be transparent and clear about what they have done and why.
This means that accountability requires leaders to be willing to answer questions and to be scrutinised, openly, by stakeholders including service users, staff, communities that may have been affected, and the media. And in this respect, the public sector must be even more transparent than other sectors. Political accountability is vital, and without such, our democratic system itself is threatened and undermined.
Accountability, transparency and scrutiny must apply to all decisions, outcomes and behaviours in all organisations. These fundamental concepts and practices should not simply apply when there is a major failure. They must apply every day and for every action. External inspections and audits, user, citizen and staff feedback and comments, appraisals, performance reporting and regular monitoring – these all form part of an accountability framework. At root, however, accountability is about much more than process: it is fundamentally a mindset and set of behaviours.
Leaders need to understand this. They should ensure that accountability is core to their behaviours and relationships. They must be ready and willing to be held to account and to be questioned. And they must be able and willing to answer for their personal and their organisation’s achievements and shortcomings.
And as for ‘so-called’ leaders that hide, that refuse to talk to the media, and push others into the spotlight to answer for them? In my view, they forfeit the right to be called leaders and should resign or be removed from office.
Over the last few months and years, there have been too many cases (some very high profile) of leaders across all sectors failing the basic accountability test. Inevitably, this generates a lack of confidence, mistrust and cynicism.
The actions taken and accountability processes and outcomes should command public and stakeholder confidence especially that of those adversely affected by an incident or issue.
In the public sector, above all others, this is very damaging for democracy and our trust in government at all levels. Effective accountability can strengthen such trust, as it can in every sector. Leaders have a duty of care in this regard. Let them more consistently honour this duty.