Has Accountability Gone Wrong?

"The Folly of Accountablism" (HBR, February 2007) asserts that accountability has devolved into the "practice of eating sacrificial victims in an attempt to magically ward off evil". While those words were written in reference to corporate governance they could just as easily have been written about many attempts I've seen to crack down on "those" nonprofits.

Weinberger describes the four hallmarks of "accountabilism": 1) It turns complex systems into complicated systems and squashes innovation and adaptability in the process. It does this by holding out the promise that if we just dig down to the "next level of detail" we'll find the root of the problem. Ah, analysis paralysis; 2) Accountabilism assumes that anything short of perfection is a bad result - after all, we might ask in this forum, why didn't that nonprofit get test scores up by 15% like they said? 3) It assumes that if "we know we're being watched we won't do anything wrong"; and 4) It assumes that individuals are to blame for the problem: someone isn't working hard enough, someone isn't managing tight enough; someone isn't making the dollar stretch far enough. The individuals in the system, to the exclusion of the system itself, become the focus. Interestingly, I've seen the reverse logic as well from nonprofits: it must be the "logic model" that's faulty, incomplete - it certainly couldn't be that the staff are underperforming.

It makes you stop and think about whether we've moved out of the dark ages of accountability. Past accountabilism. Or, have we just whitewashed accountability, with its punitive biases, with a program improvement paint job? I think, and I say that very cautiously, I think we have. But then again, maybe I'm just fortunate to be working with glass-half-full individuals. You know, those of us who want to see and make things work more than we want to place blame.

Nancy DeFauw

Posted at 6:00 AM, Mar 19, 2007 in Accountability | Permalink | Comment