Rethinking the Accountability Culture – Partnership Matters

“Accountability” has become a four-letter word in the Federal Government; when it is uttered, people shudder, and when it is assessed, people prepare to be mentally beaten. Accountability doesn’t have to be this way, but the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) reports that it often is.

From the Government Accountability Office to the Human Capital Assessment and Accountability Framework to the Accountable Government Initiative to Executive Order 13576: Delivering an Efficient, Effective, and Accountable Government, government employees face an onslaught of reminders of what they should be doing and how they should be doing it.

On the surface, accountability guidance does not appear to be problematic. After all, don’t we want our government officials and employees to be accountable stewards of taxpayer dollars? Don’t we want to know who is performing well and who is not?

Of course we do – but we also want programs and people to be successful. And often when an organization is focused on “accountability” – this becomes the end goal, instead of the actual achievement of results. The culture and requirements of the federal space transform accountability into compliance; with more emphasis placed on checking boxes than on making sure the boxes that are checked are actually yielding results.

Be on the lookout for the following signs of an “accountability-as-end-state” mindset:

  • A focus on defending every action that is taken (regardless of results achieved)
  • An emphasis on what went wrong and whom to blame, rather than on how to capitalize on strengths and opportunities
  • Highlighting only evidence that suggests intended results have been achieved, even if they haven’t been, in order to avoid backlash
  • An intense hierarchical focus in the organization in which an employee only feels he/she can do explicitly what the supervisor says, regardless of what is truly needed to be successful (an overly-developed sense of compliance)

The list could continue on, and it becomes obvious that the concept of accountability can be frighteningly negative. So what is the shift that is needed?

Ostensibly, what is missing from an overt focus on “accountability” is an understanding that partnership truly drives success. It is not an earth-shattering revelation that a partnership focused on results is effective. After all, improved performance is defined as the desired end state for the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act and most federal guidance pertaining to organizational and individual accountability. The problem is really a maturity issue for organizations; as an organization becomes more mature, leaders use performance information more strategically and invite all employees in to be partners in working toward organizational success (rather than vessels of blame for failures). So how do we get from here to there? 

Following are some simple ways for ensuring your organization focuses on partnership and results rather than accountability for failure:

  • Accept that not all goals can be achieved, regardless of level of planning or favorability of climate. Organizations and individuals that achieve every goal are mythical creatures – and we cannot hold ourselves accountable to fantasy. We can, however, be accountable to each other to ensure we work together to overcome shortfalls.
  • Store organizational and individual performance management information in a common knowledge repository or automated system easily accessible by all stakeholders. If goal information cannot be easily accessed or found, it’s hard to be a partner for achieving the goals.
  • Identify all key stakeholders and the kind of support that you will need from them and they will need from you. Invite stakeholders to be partners in working toward success. Document how everyone will contribute to successful outcomes. If a stakeholder does not contribute as expected, seek first to understand why and correct any issues before laying any blame on the stakeholder for laziness or lack of commitment.
  • When conducting performance management training, do not forget about non-supervisors who will be doing a bulk of the work towards achieving results. 
  • Institutionalize a system of reminders and support tools that allow consistent and frequent monitoring of results and discussions about performance. Discussions should focus more on what needs to be done to achieve results rather than what has gone wrong.
  • Create a line of site between business unit and employee goals with organizational goals – not for accountability’s sake only – but also for the sharing of important information. Employees should be able to directly see how their performance and the performance of their business unit support the organization’s mission.
  • Plan for risks and work as a team toward risk mitigation. Record all risk related information in the automated performance management database.
  • Create tools that support individual and team introspection and reflection, and provide the time for employees to use them. These tools should be “off-the-record” and allow for a “non-accountable,” honest reflection of where to focus to ensure success.
  • Develop tools (possibly associated with the automated system) for institutionalizing performance feedback and the sharing of information across all levels of the hierarchy. Make sure performance feedback is recorded for teams and organizations, not just individuals.
  • Use performance information for positive planning purposes, not solely for holding poor performing individuals and organizations accountable.
  • Celebrate as a team when successes are achieved. Include key stakeholders and partners in the celebration.
  • The owners of organizational and individual performance management need to accept the fact that not everyone (including themselves) will “get it” or follow every step 100%. At all steps, participants will need reminders and support mechanisms to ensure they are on the right track. Strategic reminders are not akin to “nagging” – rather they are the foundation for sustaining a systemic organizational partnership.

Dr. Paul Eder is a Senior Consultant with The Center for Organizational Excellence, Inc.  (COE – http://www.center4oe.com). The opinions in this piece are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of COE or innovategov.org.

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