LIKE ELECTRICITY, accountability is something we always expect to be present but don’t think about or appreciate much until it is suddenly gone. Along with good governance and transparency, public cries for greater accountability spike in volume after every failure, scandal, bankruptcy, or horrific mistake made by the companies and institutions operating all around us. Unfortunately, because calls for greater accountability seem to emerge only once everyone notices that it is “Missing in Action,” we end up with a guilt-by-association relationship between accountability and blame. No wonder, then, that friendly banter about the joy of accountability does not typically dominate cocktail party conversation.
Certainly in the domain of board governance, accountability frequently earns honorable mention as a key tenet. Those of us who use the Policy Governance® system1 specifically emphasize the need for boards to be accountable to a legal and/or moral ownership, and for the CEO to be accountable to the board. Indeed, the accountability chain is defined as running “from staff, to chief executive, to board, to owners.” As the proverb says, however, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the same applies to organizational accountability chains. What is needed, then, is a more complete understanding of what accountability is, and what variables cause it to be strengthened or weakened, so that we can diagnose and prevent problems before they occur. If we understand accountability better and know the conditions that nurture it, we can devise ways to optimize its existence in organizations.
Dictionary definitions of accountability include “being responsible to someone or for some action; answerable,” and “subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable,” and an “obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” With being accountable so frequently equated with being responsible, one might be forgiven for thinking they are the same. John Carver, however, has distinguished between accountability and responsibility by saying that accountability is aggregated responsibility, so that while one person might be directly responsible for a task or outcome, another person might be considered accountable for a whole series of aggregated responsibilities.
If accountability is like the mother of one or more responsibility children, then it would be helpful to more fully understand the concept of responsibility. Of course, some dictionaries then define responsibility as accountability, while one says “the state of being the person who caused something to happen; a duty or task that you are required or expected to do; something that you should do because it is morally right, legally required, etc.”
Another way of thinking about responsibility is to consider a communications channel that exists between two people, with one person (A) who is sending a message, and another person (B) who is receiving the message. In between A and B there is a path, or medium, inside which the message is sent, and as long as nothing obstructs or distorts the content of the message as it moves from sender to receiver, communication (one-way, at least) will have occurred.
Similarly, we can use this idea to illustrate the concept of responsibility, since responsibility is really just the product of a communication between two people or parties where one party is expressing an expectation of some action or outcome from the other party (see Figure 1).
For responsibility to be present between two persons or parties there must be some implicit or explicit agreement that Party B should do what Party A wants. Furthermore, Party A should have some authority in this moment, and Party B should be empowered to actually do the task. Without (a) agreement and (b) empowerment, there can be no responsibility (see Figure 2).
Now, if accountability is aggregated responsibility, then perhaps it looks like Figure 3.
Certainly, responsible parties can also be in an authoritative position for others, and multiple combinations of connections between people are possible. In fact, most organizations with more than a few staff members would feature multiple connection points between people having authority and responsibility, with each person participating in any number of responsibility and accountability channels (see Figure 4).
If accountability can be said to comprise a flow of expectations and results among multiple people, perhaps the comparison to electricity is useful in a closer examination of how accountability works. Those who study electricity quickly learn Ohm’s Law, which states that electric current (flow of electrical charge, measured in amps) is proportional to voltage (electric pressure, measured in volts) and inversely proportional to resistance (the opposition to passage of electric current through a conductor, measured in ohms). Ohm’s Law is typically represented by the formula, E = I × R, where E represents voltage, I represents current, and R represents resistance.
If accountability can be likened to a current of expectations expressed and fulfilled, continually flowing through organizations, I propose a conceptual formula—not unlike Ohm’s Law—that seeks to enhance our understanding of accountability. The three concepts in this formula are:
with the equation being:
I will explain what I mean by each of these variables, starting with the Resistance Factor. In electricity, there is always some degree of resistance in the conductor; Wikipedia states, “the electrical resistance of an electrical conductor is the opposition to the passage of an electric current through that conductor.” Similarly, a kind of resistance is also at play when gauging a person’s ability to perform. This resistance to optimum performance is dependent on two main factors: a person’s will to actually do what is required, and his or her capacity to do the task. Capacity includes skills, financial and/or human resources, tools, time, and anything that is needed to complete the task or project. In some cases, people have great access to resources but limited will. In other cases, they might have a great deal of will but scarce resources. This Performance Probability can be depicted using a matrix (see Figure 5).
If the product of a person’s will and capacity is a Performance Probability, the Resistance Factor is expressed as the inverse, or 1 / Will × Capacity. In other words, the higher the Performance Probability, the lower the Resistance Factor. All tasks to be completed will have at least some Resistance Factor attached to them because any one person’s time, energy, and access to resources is limited, and the maximum probability for getting something done is 100 percent, or a factor of 1.
To explain the Authoritative Integrity variable, I will introduce the concept of voltage. Voltage is defined as the force that propels the current against the resistance, or the potential energy that makes electrical current flow in a circuit. For instance, we see this “potential energy” in a body of water that is held back by a dam before a sudden drop in elevation.
When it comes to organizations, a comparable concept to voltage is Authoritative Integrity, a legitimately based source of power that generates action. Checking for Authoritative Integrity is like checking to see if one’s organization is fully “plugged in”—ultimately to the moral or legal ownership—and that there are no “shorts” or gaps in the connections between authoritative and empowered parties, providing “continuity in the circuit.” Consider, for example, a will expressed by an organization’s ownership, which, using the Policy Governance system, is translated into an element of board policy, which is then reasonably interpreted by a CEO, with elements of that interpretation subsequently achieved by managers and staff. Authoritative Integrity provides the force or pressure in the system to make things happen (see Figure 6).
Conversely, one can see the diminishment of Authoritative Integrity whenever policies, procedures, plans, and actions bear little or no resemblance to the values expressed by the ownership and the policies set by the board of directors. A manager who turns a blind eye while workers break the rules would be diminishing the Authoritative Integrity available to the system, and subsequently true accountability would also be reduced.
To optimize the degree of Authoritative Integrity available to the system, it helps to borrow principles or concepts from Policy Governance. If, for example, each instruction from an Authoritative Party (one who has legitimately sourced power to delegate) to an Empowered Party (one who has the will and capacity to accept the delegation) were to (1) specify an outcome; (2) provide parameters of prudence, ethics, and legality; (3) allow the Empowered Party room to make “any reasonable interpretation” of both (1) and (2); and (4) check to ensure that the outcome matches the expectation, then alignment throughout the organization should occur, while still maintaining flexibility and creativity.
Now we can see how each variable in this equation affects the others. When the Resistance Factor is somewhat high (e.g., in the case of low willingness or scarce resources or both), accountability can still be achieved if Authoritative Integrity is high. If Authoritative Integrity is low, then accountability is likely to be low. When the Resistance Factor is low, higher accountability is enabled. Ultimately, to maximize accountability, the components of Performance Probability (will and capacity) must be taken into account, along with a check to ensure that Authoritative Integrity is high.
1. Policy Governance® is an internationally registered service mark of John Carver. Registration is only to ensure accurate description of the model rather than for financial gain. The model is available free to all with no royalties or license fees for its use. The authoritative website for Policy Governance is www.carvergovernance.com.
Susan Mogensen is a governance consultant who specializes in the Policy Governance® approach. She is also a member of the Xylem Group global partnership that is exploring approaches to accountability, some of whose thinking she is sharing here. She can be contacted at 613-833-3644 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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