More Layers Of Accountability: Less Accountability

Handsome businessman standing with a clipboard with blank paper on his chest and his arms securely tied to his sides by a rope conceptual of being bound by the restrictive regulations of bureaucracy

The kneejerk bureaucratic or authoritarian response to public failure is to add layers of supervision, direct control and oversight. Catallaxy raises this question about forensic experts in the US, but it speaks to all public sector activity.

Indeed, dig a little deeper in conversation about service delivery, and with a very large percentage of people you can get a response like: “Why can’t we just make them  do it?” Who they  are is irrelevant. And what the it  is doesn’t matter. The core response is to argue for stern, paternal compulsion.

Bureaucrats and politicians are reassured by the public nature of this type of action. Something has been done. Levers have been pulled. New crankshafts have been connected between supervisory body and performing body, so the doers can’t do anything wrong.*

Until they do.

Having watched organisations accrete layers of accountability devices over decades, one thing has become clear. There is a point where more oversight leads to less accountability. And that is most clear in the public sector.

Oversight can take many forms, and in the public sector on occasion it takes all of them. Legislation, strict process rules, KPI reporting, process reviews, ad hoc performance reviews, project evaluation, formal agency oversight and appeal processes, strategy/results reporting and many more.

The just-make-them-do-it  mindset always results in process rules and reporting against some sort of target. The oversight measures how well you adhere to process rules, and cannot fault you if you follow them. When  you rely on process rules with layers of hierarchical performance review, what you get is tick-boxing. The outcome becomes to follow the process, not deliver the outcome. The real ‘customer’ is the strategic planner in the Department Head Office. John Seddon has written on this extensively. That’s the essence of bureaucracy.

By compelling process, public sector  organisations don’t give trust to their workers. They give them no discretion.  Risk averse bureaucratic personalities thus confine themselves to process. It’s entirely understandable and no-one’s fault. It’s a broken system.

And the more oversight is added, the more personal responsibility for delivering outcome is diffused. If there is a multi-level hierarchy of oversight, when something goes wrong it is everybody’s fault. And nobody’s fault.

Nothing new here. The solution is simple in theory and impossible in  bureaucratic and political practice. Free up public sector managers to manage how they see fit. Stop forcing them to follow uniform procedures to deliver uniform failure. Give them a result to deliver and let them do it. If they fail, they are personally responsible so long as they have full control over their budgets and staffing arrangements. And support that responsibility with transparency to the public and open comparison between different performers.

And that’s the problem. The Public Sector has both a ‘good bloke’ culture and a secretive culture. No-one wants to hold anyone personally accountable. No-one wants how they operate to be public knowledge.

I know it’s a broad claim, but for the most part  people in the public sector tend to be more collegiate and non-confrontational than in the private sector. They’re good blokes. But experience  shows a confrontational, less-agreeable project manager or boss  is exactly what you need to get things on time and budget.

This cultural issue drives difficulties in managing poor performers, and difficulties in improving public sector productivity. All magnified by a CPSU or PSA that has way too much say on management practice, and accumulated work conditions that are frankly ridiculous.

It doesn’t help that so many people are uncomfortable with non-uniform public sector service delivery. Out of a desire for equality, the system crushes the energy, innovation and responsibility of individual public sector managers.

It also doesn’t help that politicians and the general community seem to have the implicit belief that society – and the public sector – can only operate under the stern, directive hand of someone in charge. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, people seem to have a hardwired view that a disciplinarian parent-child relationship is the basic model for how organisations and societies should operate.

Someone sets rules, you follow them, they watch you, you get in trouble if you don’t follow the rules. Rule-following is success. Initiative is dangerous. It ain’t good for kids, it ain’t good for organisations.

This suggests a different post on how uncomfortable some political viewpoints are with the idea of emergent order and self-organising networks, and how they view the entire world through the metaphoric lens of dictator and conspiracy (World government or News Ltd fixation, anyone?). But leave that for later.

It’s unfortunate that almost every step to apply accountability for real results through oversight within the public sector is more likely to result in the opposite.

Manager discretion and the damage of excessive process and oversight mechanisms are the real challenge for public sector delivery reform. Not restructures, not incentive pay or contract fiddles, not tweaks in the relationship with Treasury. It’s time insightful public sector managers – and there are plenty of them – started to speak up about that.



* Apologies for the passive voice. I was channelling a bureaucratic mind.

  1. Glen Bell

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