The subject of accountability is in the news regularly. At the moment we have the elected Sheffield PCC seemingly facing it out against the world in hanging on to his job. Contrast that with Heads of major banks who have resigned over the financial scandals and Ministers who resign their portfolios to try and clear their names. It raises two questions: what can a person be reasonably accountable for and, secondly, what are the consequences of accountability?
Some of the most public examples of shortcomings in office are in Government. Most years a Minister will find their position becomes untenable and they duly tender their resignation to the Prime Minister. This is seemingly an ‘honour’ thing. It saves the embarrassment of the Prime Minister having to defend them to the press, of sacking them, and preserves the possibility of a return to the Cabinet after a suitable period in the back benches. There are no hard and fast rules surrounding this. For example, the more senior the Minister, the less likelihood of them falling on their sword. While personal misdemeanours always result in the guilty party resigning, failure within their department is another thing entirely. This is the area which causes the greatest angst. Compare this with the financial services industry where very few people have lost their jobs over the misselling and risk management scandals of the Recession. While there have been casualties in the industry, the ones who have suffered have tended to be in departments which had nothing to do with the wrongdoing.
Imagine you run a department with thousands of people spread over a large geographical area. Every day, as in all organisations, there will be mistakes – it doesn’t matter if you are the Ministry of Health, Barclays Bank, Virgin Trains or the Royal Navy – there will be mistakes. Some of your first duties as the head of the organisation are to Health and Safety, timely and accurate reporting, and financial management. Some things have to be top of your agenda every single day. However, good managers trust and delegate too. If you are tied up every day in a busy schedule of meetings to grow the business and ensure its strategic direction how do you ensure that you are aware of all the potential situations which could go wrong? Worse still – imagine you have been appointed into running an organisation with a culture of burying problems deeply with lays of Yes Minister-style line managers.
We are in danger of pressurising new, fresh blood into either the same culture of secrecy or of becoming so afraid to make any decisions they spend their days hunting and hunting for potential ticking time bombs. It seems to me that adding performance indicators at all levels in the organisation is another essential for the first 100 days in office. Targets and KPIs have been given a bad name in the public sector in particular. The connotation has been that they are set high to make people work harder and longer and they almost always measure the wrong things (according to those who have been doing the job for years). For me this is a clear and wilful misinterpretation driven either by years of bad management or deep-seated cynicism. I’m no raving capitalism apologist by any means but I can’t see how any organisation can run without them. Of course they can be used by the irresponsible manager to blame and bully but equally they highlight anomalies and set meaningful benchmarks. For me a good example of a KPI is the one which says that the oil pressure in your car needs to always be between x and y or the tyre pressure ought to be z. There is no incentive or raise the numbers but you certainly want to know if they are not being achieved. Setting KPIs for a “thing” is relatively straightforward – you can write them down as specifications in the handbook. Doing it for people is another thing entirely. In doing so you must also remember it is a KPI not a PI. The things you are measuring need to be the things which matter otherwise you will end up with hundreds of KPIs which just confuse. In social services it seems to me that a KPI should throw up the number of new cases being opened by category and that these would be reviewed as part of some executive meeting.
The other factor is that sometimes KPIs can be failed but the only solution is to spend some money. This is where the problems start. Imagine you are the departmental manager with an objective to pack 300 widgets per day. You’ve got two of your people absent and no-one wants to hear about your problems – they certainly don’t have a budget for it. Too often the act of desperation is to fudge the numbers and once you start doing this you find it so easy to carry on doing so. After a while “everyone is doing it” and therefore you are the fool if you don’t follow suit.
In my mind this is how the problem starts: as soon as you get this drift between reality and what is being reported things can happen which are undetected until far too late. So where does the accountability lie? In reality, as soon as you try and follow the thread you find that there is no documentation or paperwork. It was very convenient for a lot of middle managers not to have to answer questions about their department’s performance due to poor KPI results but they never put into writing anything which would make them complicit when judgement day comes. There may even be financial incentives earned because of a good number on a piece of paper. The poor first line manager has no one else to point the finger at. The others who were doing exactly the same thing without detection change their practices overnight and thank their lucky stars.
And the person at the top? They sometimes occupy the loneliest seat in the organisation. Their line managers all want to be the blue-eyed boys looking for the next promotion and bonus. They want to be seen as “on top of their portfolio” and it is convenient for the Boss to believe they are. Even if the exec decides to go to the shop floor it is very difficult to get at the truth. Workers will not want to get their direct line manager in trouble and may even not have the perspective to realise that what they are doing is wrong.
For the person held accountable by the public there is a real dilemma. In many cases they will be at the peak of their career with years of success and reputation behind them and an inconvenient gap until retirement. If they accept responsibility they can sometimes get a financial settlement to compensate them in the private sector but this is rarely the case in the public sector. Ultimately they will often be baffled as to how the situation arose! I find it hard to believe that any of the many job casualties of Social Services had anything but best intentions towards the thousands of human casualties. I suspect they felt helpless victims of workload and budgets which overwhelmed their situation.
And here is the issue. Sometimes the numbers just are the numbers. The KPIs are being failed, not through laziness or human incompetence but because of fundamental changes in the surrounding circumstances. Sometimes the KPIs will be the wrong ones (consider the wrangles about school league tables). It is the job of those people at the front line to do their best to fix the problem but then to flag up that something is wrong. It is the duty of those at the top to create a culture where this is encouraged. They need to create a culture of accountability which is finessed to ensure that there is only accountability when there is the ability to influence the outcome. They in turn need the courage of their convictions to defend their team and demand the budget to get the job done. Alternatively their Masters in Government need to tackle the root causes of the changed circumstances.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that, in my opinion, accountability should mean resignation if:
1. The individual did not attempt to create the lines of communication which would enable them to discover problems
2. The individual did not set the right levels of KPI, accountability and ability to influence at each level.
3. The individual knew about the problem but didn’t have the bottle to speak up about it.
These criteria can be used to work out which people, at which levels have truly failed and deserve to face the consequences. It would help if the same rules were applied in the private sector without the masking by golden handshakes, pension boosts and share options to sweeten the pill. It would also help if the press and the baying masses didn’t whip up a hypocritical frenzy demanding heads to roll without understanding the circumstances. It makes a good story but these are still human beings trying to live their lives and it can’t be right for one more person to have their life ruined just to make the man on the Clapham omnibus happy.