Thoughts on Accountability

Accountability is a favorite word to invoke when the lack of it has become so apparent…”1

The concept of “accountability” seems rampant in what passes for public discourse.  Often the word is used as code for who gets the blame when something bad happens.  When we speak of accountability we venture into the realms of sociology, psychology, ethics and even law.  So I have sprinkled a little of each of these without pretensions of expertise in any.  This blog is shaped not as an essay but as a collection of thoughts and a summary of their implications.

  • The terms “willful violations” and “reckless behavior” are normative terms that are socially constructed.  Often they are used in a regulatory or legal sense directed toward determining blame and punishment.
  • When speaking of accountability it is important to clearly distinguish between “giving account” and “blame”.  If the goal of an organization is to create an environment, i.e. a culture, in which people report what occurs so that the organization may collectively learn, then a certain type strategy is suggested.  If the purpose however is to blame and punish, then a different strategy is in order.
  • The term “accountability” cannot be understood except in context of a given society, regardless of how large or small.  The term “Accountability” is colloquially used in an operative sense (i.e. an operational definition) rather than as a concept in social relations (i.e. a conceptual definition).  The first organizational “error” when addressing accountability results from seeking an operational definition (measuring the presence or absence) before the organization comes to grips with a conceptual definition (agreeing on what it means.)
  • Blame and punishment are closely tied to the concept of error as well as concepts of social power, position and broader cultural values.  For example, there is interesting research that blame in response to safety issues is prevalent in societies with espoused values of independence and self reliance; blame is not as prevalent in societies that value group collectivism.
  • Of course there is the need to protect society from those who would seek individual gain at the expense or to the harm of the larger group.  Thus we have requirements and laws.  One interesting article, a chapter actually, is from Justice, Liability & Blame: Community Views and the Criminal Law, Paul H. Robinson, University of Pennsylvania Law School, Colin S. Diver Distinguished Professor of Law.  It is a treatment of various perspectives on how to determine blame.  A key point of the chapter is that presumption of innocence must prevail and that juries do distinguish between the intent to cause harm and harm that is incurred in the absence of malevolence.
  • At the Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety culture workshop this February, Val Barnes (their principal advisor on organizational psychology) summarized results of a study reported late in 2009.  (See Workplace safety: a Meta-analysis of the Roles of Person and Situation Factors” Christian MS, Bradley JC, Wallace JC, Burke MJ. J Appl Psychol. 2009 Sep; 94(5):1103-27.)  This study indicates that the preponderance of factors that influence safety outcomes are organizational, not individual.  Given this and other similar studies, accountability is most valuable when understood as supporting organizational learning.  Individual volitional actions have little contribution to actual safety outcomes.  The preponderance of contemporary literature indicates that blame and punishment have little if any value in actual improvement of safety.  As further example see works of Sidney Dekker, particularly Just Culture; Balancing Safety and Accountability.
  • The “Gold Standard” for accountability in highly reliable organizations is grounded in Dr. James Reason’s work on Just Culture. 2 Organizations are often advised to pursue a Just Culture by first developing an Accountability Policy.  In general, policies may be used aspirationally to help shape the culture of an organization, or more directly as control mechanisms.  While accountability policy practices vary considerably the trend is toward aspirational policies.  For example, Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information, and the organization’s code is “do no evil”.  What “do no evil” means is captured in more detail in Google’s Code of Conduct
  • Over reliance on rule based approaches to accountability may be counterproductive.  A Harvard Kennedy School working paper on corporate social responsibility phrased the situation as this: “Our goal must be to use our considerable (and ever expanding) theoretical and practical knowledge creatively to improve the skills and confidence with which employees and others address their ethical dilemmas empowering them to move beyond the confines of ‘legal’ to the realm of ‘ethical.’  “The Columbia Accident Investigation Report touched upon the same theme, “NASA’s culture of bureaucratic accountability emphasized chain of command, procedure, following the rules, and go­ing by the book.  While rules and procedures were essential for coordination, they had an unintended but negative effect.  Allegiance to hierarchy and procedure had replaced defer­ence to NASA engineers’ technical expertise.“3
  • Sidney Dekker and James Reason have similar approaches to accountability.  They both argue that in social systems (aka organizations) the ideal is to create a culture where safety is a shared goal that transcends other goals in situations of intense goal competition.  (The Competing Values Framework is one approach to examining how competing values or goals are processed to choose courses of action.)
  • Reason identifies some tools (culpability tree, substitution test) to use in reaching a decision if a determination of blame may be appropriate – and that distinction is important – it is not a determination of blame, rather a determination if a decision that further inquiry is warranted because of potential risk to the larger society.  Dekker adds an additional dimension to the discussion with his three questions for a just culture.  For here, I will only touch on the first two questions.  Question 1, “who gets to decide about the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior?”  Question 2, “what and where should be the role of subject domain expertise in helping decide whether behavior is acceptable or unacceptable?”

To summarize my thoughts on accountability:

  • First, it is important that accountability be clearly separated from the idea of blame.
  • Accountability should be established as an aspirational goal for a culture where we “take each other into account”.  We should take a lead from our colleagues in medicine who follow the dictum of “do no harm”.  Our purpose is to discover and create new knowledge, science and technology for the betterment of humanity doing no harm in the process.
  • The policy should be clearly aspirational – who do we wish to be as a social group, what values should bind us together as a community seeking the betterment of our world?  (culpability or any issue of blame determination should be in other management documents at an implementation level, not in an Accountability Policy)
  • It’s worth noting that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has chosen not to use language of safety conscious work environment nor of just culture.  Rather they speak of an “open, collaborative environment.”  The language chosen should be language acceptable to a given community and the language should be crafted to tap into higher value aspirations, rather than being language of requirements.
  • The construction of the Policy is an ideal beginning for shaping the desired culture, or safety culture if you will.  A process should be developed for broad scale engagement in crafting the Policy.  For example, the NRC workshop followed a couple of years work attempting to craft a draft Policy statement.  The workshop then took output of that work as a beginning point, engaged a cross section of the NRC regulated communities, from medicine to fuel cycle to reactors, who then attempted to craft a definition of nuclear safety culture and traits of nuclear safety culture that might receive consensus acceptance of all regulated communities.  Yes it takes time, and is not easy, but it can have drastically different results in acceptance of the policy and adherence to the goal.
  • After formulation of an accountability policy, then a further effort could be made to develop the operational components of social justice; determining how to proceed if actions of individuals depart from accepted norms.  Dekker’s three question plus Reason’s tools are prime sources for developing those social justice processes.

So how we defined and cultivate accountability is not a simple question, but how one answers the question will shape the culture of an organization and determine whether you actually change course positively toward a different future, or reinforce a culture of skepticism and a dichotomy between safety and performance.

So how does your organization see accountability – blame or learning?  How do you know?

1 Rosabeth Moss Kanter
2 James Reason Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents, Ashgate Publishing; December 1, 1997)
3 Columbia Accident Investigation Board August 2003 Report Volume 1

6 Responses to Thoughts on Accountability

  1. Shane Bush says:

    I have a particular interest in ‘Accountability’ and really enjoyed your entry. I think your opening sentence reflects what I have found to be a major stumbling block for organizations trying to balance accountability, culpability and responsibility. I have found that to many of us are using the word ‘Accountability’ as a catch all phrase. When I hear someone say ‘I am going to hold you accountable’ – I quite often find in follow up questions what they meant was ‘I am going to hold you culpable’. I have found that people want an opportunity to be ‘Accountable’ (fix their wrongs, correct their mistakes, repair the damage, etc.) but they fear or interpret the use of the word accountability as culpability. In other words people are not fearful of a ‘Just’ culture (balance of accountability and culpability when appropriate) but fearful of an ‘Unjust’ culture where ‘Culpability’ is applied when in reality the situation (errors, mistakes, unintended outcomes) calls for ‘Accountability’. I beleive that accountability can be both a positive and negative experience (admiting to errors, mistakes) but doesn’t involve culpability (blameworthy).

  2. wecarnes says:

    Thank you Shane,

    I appreciate your insights and I’m glad you joined the conversation.


  3. Skip Searfoss says:

    I spent many years working under the watchful eyes of Naval Reactors and Admiral Rickover. The Admiral’s views on accountability and responsibility were well understood. The following is the gospel according to H.G. Rickover.

    Responsibility is a Unique Concept. It can only reside and inhere in a single individual. You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you. You may disclaim it, but you cannot divest yourself of it. Even if you do not recognize it or admit its presence, you cannot escape it. If responsibility is rightly yours, no evasion, or ignorance, or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else. Unless you can point your finger at the man who is responsible when something goes wrong, then you have never had anyone really responsible.

    • wecarnes says:

      Thanks for your insights Skip.

      INPO published their first Organizational Effectiveness Digest in March of this year; the inagural issue was on Accountability. Mike Blevins, chief operating officer of Luminant, was quoted as follows:

      “Accountability means being able to account. In order to do that we have to know the desired result, know the achieved result, and have the desire and ability to report that to others. With that information, the organization can take action to make things happen the way it wants them to and to correct the course of
      action if needed to achieve a desired result. Important to this concept is the desire to be accountable. I believe the following,:

      Accountability is a state of being.
      If we are accountable, we can’t lose.
      If we have to be held accountable, we have already lost!”

  4. Tom Thome says:

    The “Thoughts” and Responses are presented well and I agree with what was written with one exception. That exception is the reason why I like to say, “Accountability is a four letter word.” The problem is that it is always discussed from the negative perspective – being accountable when things go wrong. Hopefully we all work in organizations where things go right most of the time. If we took the positive approach the opening conversation would be less threatening. “You’re having a great year, Joe. Your KPI on this critical metric indicates you have achieved 99.7% error-free performance. That’s an improvement of 0.2% from last year which is a 40% reduction in error rate. What changes have you made to the process you use to perform this work that have enabled you to make such exceptional improvement? How can the rest of the team learn from these process improvements? As we know, the error you made on the XYZ Project last week was costly. Was the error due to a flaw in your process or in the larger scheme? Let’s review your analysis of what went wrong. Until we know the answer, what error reduction tools can you utilize to minimize the chances of recurrence?

    Most people in many organizations are starved for feedback. In my mind “feedback” is the same as “accountability”. If given frequently, when things go right and when things go wrong, it creates the basis of trust that is critical to the making a “just culture” a reality.

  5. Richard Cole says:

    I liked your entry. I’m curious if you have any newer insights after a couple of years of work in SCWE by the NRC and efforts in the DOE. Is there anything new you could share? Mike Blevins recently shared his thoughts on accountability with a group I was working with, and it doesn’t seem to have varied much. In fact, we incorporated a similar quote in our material.

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