In both the private and public sector, one of the key tenets to performance management is ensuring accountability to achieve success. Without clear accountability, organizations lack the commitment necessary to adapt processes, re-align strategies, and reassign resources to meet expectations. Unfortunately, many public sector organizations rely on informal and ambiguous accountability channels to ensure success. This is often manifested as decision making by committee, or an inability to determine who is responsible.

This issue was witnessed in the recent IRS scandal, where accountability, performance management, and decision making processes were all lacking.  A clear accountability framework is needed within the public sector community so that executives, lawmakers, and managers can better understand who should be accountable and why.

The Information Management Resource Centre that is part of the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat defines accountability as:

“Accountability is the obligation to demonstrate and take responsibility for performance in light of commitments and expected outcomes.”

With this definition as a starting point, five primary principles are required to implement accountability:

  1. Expectations are predefined and understood. It is unreasonable to expect someone to be accountable for success if the conditions or expectations of success are not defined or understood prior to starting an endeavor. That would be on par with starting a game without defining the rules or how the game is won or lost.
  2. Decisions are made in a reasonable way. Anyone can make a decision, but unless decision making is done rationally and is informed by evidence, it is equivalent to throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. Accountability relies on the ability to explain why decisions were made.
  3. Feedback and criticism is embraced. It’s difficult to imagine a process that is so perfect that it does not warrant critique, or a change that is not met with some level of resistance. Accountability requires that managers view criticism as a different perspective of their performance that creates an opportunity to improve. This doesn’t mean that all criticism or feedback is acted upon, but it should be considered. Further, the decision to use or not use criticism should be defensible.
  4. Responsibility is accepted. As stated in the definition, accountability is the obligation to take responsibility. This is not limited to meeting performance expectations, but also for the process in achieving outcomes. Those accountable should understand policies, best practices, laws and regulations, as well as mandates and ensure that their processes are compliant.
  5. Continuous improvement is institutionalized. A learning organization is the cornerstone to high performance and effective performance management. Organizations must continuously adapt to environmental changes to ensure processes are efficient and effective. Doing the same thing because “it’s always been done that way” is a guaranteed way to introduce inefficiencies into the process. Technological changes as well as changes in community needs always outdate processes. Organizations must continuously review their processes to eliminate wastefulness and ensure that what is being done is needed.

These principles are required to implement and sustain accountability within any organization, including those in the public sector, but they are not definitive, rather, a starting point for conversation. Think about the conditions that are needed for accountability and provide feedback.

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