Over the past decade or so accountability has become a bit of a fetish in public and corporate administration. Sometimes it seems like every parrot in the pet store is talking responsibility and accountability. If there’s a responsibility being devolved somewhere then there’s usually a tool just around the corner to map out the accountability framework. This is as it should be, whenever we do a thing on behalf of others it is necessary to ensure that we do that thing as well as possible and to standards that make doing the thing worthwhile.
The trouble is that the recent fixation with responsibility and accountability has meant that these are not deployed as shared concepts. They are used as means by which individuals are located within a matrix of functions, operations, and tasks: drilling down within the vast ledger of action and inaction. Collective responsibility is increasingly managed by means of personal accountability. When things go well, benefit accrues collectively (to the corporation, to the institution) and the sun shines upon us all but when it goes wrong accountability shifts pretty swiftly into liability, personal liability.
The image of Harry Truman with his “the buck stop here” sign on the Presidential desk looks like the ultimate acceptance of personal accountability, as if Harry Truman was personally responsible and accountable for the actions of the United States government. This is the President who dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki so that’s no small matter. But Truman wasn’t just taking on the account for the deployment of nuclear weapons, he was sharing it.
Truman’s sign was an umbrella of overarching, shared responsibility, that we act in concert with others and whatever happens, good or bad, we are all responsible for that outcome. The sign was acknowledgement that even the President is a proxy for others, acting on behalf of those others and those others who authorized him must share in responsibility, and may be collectively called to account for his actions.
Occasionally this model still pops up, as with Truman, in the context of electoral politics. Ministers resign, governments fall and so on. Public accountability is always about the sacrificial lamb. Mostly though, public and corporate administration occurs behind a translucent privacy screen of regulation and compliance and until something goes publicly pear shaped accountability tends to be the politics of the black mark, the indestructibility of scratchings on the permanent record: accountability is focused on the individual.
I can’t help but think that accountability is a kind of counter measure for public and corporate administration, like the huge drums of compressed air submarines launch to confuse torpedoes about the real target. The torpedo goes off following the noisy thing and ignores the relatively quiet submarine making like a hole in the water.
This denial of shared accountability is the tenor of the times I suppose; it is easier to manage accountability with individuals in the sights. Individuals can be sacked, demoted, redeployed, disciplined, or characterized as the bad egg, the rotten apple. Collectively we can’t be managed in such a brutal fashion. I think this is because accountability anticipates the breach of trust it is designed to measure. We are responsible for success, individuals are accountable for failure.
This is unjust.