The importance of accountability trade-offs

Accountability is essential to the democratic system, but it is only one of a number of qualities necessary to an effective system of government. Traditional systems of accountability can be expensive to maintain and are sometimes complicated to work within.

Accountability is essential to the democratic system, but it is only one of a number of qualities necessary to an effective system of government. Traditional systems of accountability can be expensive to maintain and are sometimes complicated to work within.

Rules-based accountability systems and standard operating procedures evolved as a means of reducing the incidence of corruption, nepotism and waste.

They narrow the scope for personal discretion and allow parliaments to locate the source of decisions and trace responsibility to the officeholders who need to be held to account.

However, the accountability systems that prevent fraud, waste and abuse may also reduce the scope for independent action. Rules and procedures can slow decision-making and constrain the choices available to decision-makers when they are confronted by new or unusual circumstances.

Transparency increases the probability that poor decisions will be exposed. This can help to prevent foreseeable and preventable errors, but it can also encourage risk avoidance and conservative decision-making.

The performance costs of control systems are well-documented. Excessive controls can disrupt consistent administration and produce inequities.

Excessive controls multiply requirements for review of proposed decisions, increase red tape, and delay action. So much energy can be spent attempting to control administrative activities, in fact, that little time or money is left to do the job at hand.

Excessive controls, therefore, may dull administration’s responsiveness to its public. Agencies with high levels of accountability often display low levels of innovation and flexibility. Innovation usually involves risk.

But in the public sector, where there is a high level of scrutiny of how things are done, the disadvantages of taking a risk greatly outweigh the possible benefits of success.

Departures from standard procedures are discouraged because mistakes are highly visible and success is difficult to measure.

The day-to-day incentives created by traditional accountability arrangements favour adherence to process over innovation, and routine over experiment.

These arrangements encourage officials to become highly adept at producing uniform products and operating within routinised processes.

That isn’t always a bad thing; as often suggested and pointed out; society doesn’t want too much experimentation with benefit payments, the operation of traffic lights, school curricula or court procedures.

It would be unfair to say that accountability and performance management arrangements are the sole determinant of the level of innovation within an agency, or that it is not possible to innovate in an agency that is strictly performance managed.

Much depends on the clarity of expectations, where the points of control are applied, how performance is measured and the underlying culture and values.

The culture of an organisation is shaped by its formal accountability structures, but it is also influenced by the quality of relationships and leadership.

Courageous leaders and talented staff can innovate even within a rigid accountability framework, but an overly rigid and prescriptive framework can make this more difficult.

In social policy areas, including employment and the indigenous sphere, various trials and pilots have been conducted to determine the way forward; however, in view of current demands for greater innovation and even more new ideas, it is important to ensure that there is a supportive environment for innovation.

Citizens in market democracies demand more from their governments than standard, one-size-fits-all solutions. Successful governments also need to create customised services that respond to the wide variety of circumstances and the highly differentiated needs of citizens living in complex, diversified urban societies.

In meeting these needs, a flexible and adaptable public service needs to be free to innovate, and to sometimes try things without always being sure of their likely effects, or how well they will work.

On occasion, the best policy option will involve uncertainty or even some deliberate trial and error. Accountability systems that punish public servants for unforeseen or unpreventable errors will constrain policy innovation and organisational learning, and limit the public service’s capacity to deal with new and emerging problems.

Accountability and performance management frameworks shape organisations and influence the behaviour of people who work within them. They have an effect on the appetite for risk and the willingness of employees to adapt and innovate.

Some public services need to be provided in an equitable and consistent way, but in delivering others, governments desire experiment and innovation over uniformity.

An effective accountability and performance management framework needs to take into account the different trade-offs required to deliver the public services that society requires.

The author is a Development Policy Analyst.