Friday, 13 January 2017

'Accountability' is for accountants (only)

Two definitions of accountability - the quick switch...

Our era has been described as The Audit Society, because corporate life is increasingly dominated by accountancy-derived concepts and technologies.

Accountability is one of these concepts - as its name implies. Discourse on the desirability of ‘increased accountability’ has become ubiquitous in political, managerial and even journalistic discourse. Accountability is assumed to be an intrinsically desirable goal, and nobody ever claims that one can have ‘too much’ accountability - the pressure is always for more.

Yet accountability is a slippery rhetorical term with two largely distinct meanings: a sharply-defined technical managerial meaning, and a looser, more general or ‘popular’ meaning. This opens the way for accountability to be used a rhetorically manipulative fashion - by shifting back and forth between technical and general meanings.

In general discourse, accountable means something similar to ‘responsible’, and carries connotations of ‘being answerable-to’. Conversely, to be unaccountable may be used synonymously with ‘irresponsible’ and ‘out of control’. Since responsible behavior is universally approved, then calls to increase ‘accountability’ sound self-evidently desirable.

The technical meaning of accountability in managerial discourse refers narrowly to the duty to present auditable accounts. Originally, this referred to financial documentation that was adequate in terms of completeness and self-consistency - such that it is amenable to the process of cross-checking which constitutes the basis of audit.

The current managerial use of accountability is a direct extension of this financial usage - an accountable organization is one that has the duty to present auditable accounts of its activities - in other words an accountable organization is one that will provide comprehensive and self-consistent documentation of whatever it does.

Only insofar as it is legitimate to assume that the provision of auditable documentation is synonymous with responsible behaviour is there any overlap between the technical and general concepts of accountability.

But the rhetoric of accountability operates on the basis of a ‘quick switch’ between the two. Any individual or organizational problem which can be connected to irresponsible behavior can be termed unaccountable in the general sense - and then the discourse can be switched over to a technical level in which the solution to unaccountable behavior is to set-up regular audit cycles that require comprehensive and self-consistent documentation of that behavior.

Behavior may be rendered technically ‘accountable’ even when the real world behavioral problems that led to the introduction of audit are unchanged or exacerbated.

Now that this model of accountability has become habitual, it is able to generate problems of technically ‘unaccountable’ behavior, even when there is no evidence that actual behaviour has been irresponsible.

There is a profound circularity about this reasoning. Accountability involves an assumed model of how organizations ought to operate, and how individual judgment should be regulated within these organizations.

The drive for 'increased accountability' may therefore operate as an excuse to justify managerial takeover.

Behavior is labelled as unaccountable (hence unacceptable) simply because it is not subject to managerial control, and this is taken (by managers and politicians who wish to control this behavior) to imply a need to introduce audit systems. Audit systems may then be set-up to advance the interests of those who have introduced them.

For instance, many University academics retain significant autonomy in their work, exercising independent judgment over such matters as hour-by-hour time-allocation, teaching style and content, and the subject matter of personal research. Such autonomy has - over many years and in many cultures - proved to be the only way to generate and maintain high academic standards.

However, this autonomy poses a serious threat to political control, since there is no formal mechanism by which academic behaviors can be managed. The concept of accountability provides the answer. If typical academic behaviour can be labelled as technically ‘unaccountable’, and if ‘unaccountable’ is regarded as unacceptable by definition, then there is a perfect rationale for introducing a formal system of monitoring and control.

Someone might be a brilliant and popular University teacher, a first-rate researcher of international reputation, a diligent administrator, and employed by a prestigious university - but technically such a person is ‘unaccountable’ when there are no formal institutional mechanisms for monitoring, documenting and regulating behavior.

Autonomy is re-packaged as irresponsibility while subordination of employees by top-down and hierarchical control mechanisms is restated in terms of ‘increased accountability’.


Edited from an book chapter of mine from 2002, entitled Audit, Accountability, Quality and All That.