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Accountability: Friend or Foe?


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The Origins of Current Accountability Culture

The introduction of the 'reforms which came to be known as New Public Management (NPM)' (McTavish 2003) had drastic and far-reaching implications and consequently shaped the common presumptions and perceptions around accountability. These reforms were characterised by 'marketisation, privatisation, managerialism, performance measurement and accountability' (Hoggert 1994).

Lynn (2003) suggests that persistent political will, that promised a system that could bring about the 'discipline, efficiency and accountability that could ameliorate' the 'bloated, wasteful, over-bureaucratic and underperforming public sector' (Larbi 1999) lay at the heart of this movement.

O'Hear (1991) however contests that this act was the ‘fruit of many years work by hard-right elements to construct a system, especially an education system, which is divisive, elitist and inegalitarian’. Dave (2013) contends that one of its chief purposes was ultimate accountability and 'to increase control and surveillance over employees' with the threat of closure very real if a sector or school is seen as unsustainable.

Regardless of your political stance on the reforms, Nikos (2009) attests that they were underpinned by three central theories:

Public Choice Theory - 'the man is a rational being seeking to satisfy his personal best interest' - homo economicus (Boston 1996)

Transactional Cost Economics - 'the need to do more with less of public resources, especially budget allocations' (Ferlie 1996)

Principal Agent Theory - the implicit design of policy 'to create, within the public sector, autonomous or semi-autonomous organisations' (Yamamoto 2003)

Current Leadership Predicaments in Public Services

Undoubtedly the implications of the New Public Management reforms have been extensive and expansive. The cost of 'improved outcomes' has been vast for leaders, employees and services as 'the administration of public services is now benchmarked against private business' (Tolofari 2005) in an arena where the consumer should have choice; the reason to exist should be determined by how well organisations perform and that there should be measures of performance and accountability.

Morris (1994) insists that ‘performance is the raison d’être of these reforms' and, in an educational context, that role of the modern-day principal is to manage performance under an ethos, both personally and institutionally, of 'perform or disappear' (Manning 2000).

Leadership within New Public Management Framework

Innovative and enlightened leaders appreciate that accountability, when applied aptly and auspiciously, is 'the engine of change' (Cotter 2000) but recognise that the implementation and monitoring methodologies have huge implications on staff morale.

As a result, the best leaders make a clear differentiation between contractual accountability and responsive accountability.

Contractual Accountability

Contractual Accountability describes accountability based on 'fulfilling the expectations of particular audiences in terms of standards, outcomes and results' (Halstead 1994). This form of accountability 'concerned with standards and results based on a limited number of measurable outcomes' (Glatter 2003) forces leaders and educationalists to operate in a 'climate of performativity' (McGuinness 2012).



Performativity describes an environment that values ‘performance indicators over process indicators’ (Gleeson 2009) in an arena obsessed with ‘efficiency and effectiveness, with standards and tests, with general accountability procedures and even comparative rankings of sectors, institutions and schools in terms of quality’ (Segrue 2006).

Leaders understand that working in such environments creates, at best, a culture where innovation, creativity and transformation become stagnant, trust within teams disintegrates, morale plummets as staff are judged against unrealistic expectations and job satisfaction and wellbeing decline as a result of job-related stress and anxiety. These cultures perpetuate the status quo, as the cost of innovating and getting it wrong are ultimately your livelihood.

At worst, cultures driven by contractional accountability create 'win at all' cost institutions where the need for results drives employees to extreme measures to meet performance indicators. Mis-selling customers in call centres, being creative with the bookkeeping and partaking in downright underhand, unscrupulous and dishonest behaviour and activities become the norm both between staff and between institutions. Elliot (2001) eloquently pens this phenomenon cynically suggesting 'that ‘colonization through audit fosters “pathologies of creative compliance” in the form of gamesmanship around indicator culture’.

With contractual accountability so detrimental to institutions, the staff base and the institutions they serve, how can leaders harness the power of accountability as a change agent while minimising its negative effects? The answer lies with responsive accountability.

Responsive Accountability

Enlightened leaders refute contractual accountability and the standards, outcomes and results that accompany it, recognising that it ‘does little to inspire a culture that correlates strongly with increased professionalism, staff productivity or staff satisfaction’ (Achilles 2010) in favour of responsive accountability.

Responsive accountability refers to ‘the willingness of team members to remind one another when they are not living up to the performance standards of the team’ (Lencioni 2005). This creates a positive culture that values ‘processes over outcomes’ (Kerr 2013), promotes collaboration and innovative pilot schemes while welcoming conflict within agreed conflict norms within a high trust environment.

This form of accountability ‘allows leaders and followers to be united in the pursuit of higher-level goals that are common to both; both want to become the best; both want to shape the institution in a new direction’ (Sergiovanni 1991) and when practiced successfully ‘purposes and individuals that might have started out being separate become fused’ (Gunter 2001).

With this style of accountability holding the potential to ‘raise the level of conduct and ethical aspiration of both the leader and the led’ (Ruddell 2008) while simultaneously ‘helping to align the attitudes, values and beliefs of the followers with those of the organisation and guide them to better than expected performance’ (Charbonneau 2005), its importance in a leader’s repertoire cannot be underestimated.

Within this framework, underperformance or failures are not met with catastrophic consequences, reprimands or dismissals. Failures are instead met with a 'win or learn' attitude allowing for self-evaluation and self-reflection on the process and an informed decision about the next step.

With Fullan (2010) rightly pointing out that 'less than 5% of professionals are laggards', underperformance is treated as a lack of understanding as opposed to a lack of motivation and consequently remedied by ‘flooding the (underperforming) staff member or team with technical assistance and support’ (OECD 2010). The result of this type of accountability is ultimately transparency, collaboration and trust between individual employees, leaders and institutions.

The challenge for leaders is ‘to create the conditions where professional knowledge and skills are enhanced, where effective leadership exists, at all levels, and where the entire organisation is working independently in the collective pursuit of better outcomes’ (Harris 2013) in an institution ‘where teams are built both laterally and vertically and premised upon shared leadership and reciprocal accountability’ (Hargreaves 2009).

The Implementation of Responsive Accountability

The implementation of responsive accountability within any leadership structure, be that a sports team, an educational institution or a Fortune 500 company, occurs through 'three interrelated strategies' (Stewart 1998):

Modelling - Employees watch what leaders do to ensure 'that their words and deeds are in harmony' (NCSL 2004) and to ensure this isn't a capricious strategy in the pursuit of increased workload, or worse yet another initiative to further progress the career of an ambitious prospect hungry to climb the corporate ladder.

Monitoring - Leaders and employees monitor each other’s performance openly and transparently against process performance indicators and only use outcome data for self-reflection and evaluation in a bid to improve and optimise systems, processes and practices with ‘intention of making this process educative and developmental for both parties’ as well as to ‘audit the strengths and learning needs of staff’ (Bottery 2006).

Dialogue - Teams within high trust environments embrace, and more importantly make time for, the discussion of ideas, the dissemination of current best practices and welcome tough conversations in the pursuit of better solutions and improved processes which will ultimately lead to better outcomes.

Leaders need to embrace such a culture, leaving ego, job title and salary at the meeting room door and embrace the growth that comes from a team working synergistically without agendas, politics and repercussions for challenging decisions or theories.


Leaders who model responsive accountability ultimately ‘create conditions for reflection and dialogue; productive cognitive, intellectual conflict; the subversion of traditional values; critique, questioning and analysis’ (Male 2012), thus creating 'collective responsibility and moral purpose' (Fullan 2006). They, albeit inadvertently, create professional learning communities thus improving not only the personal capacity of the staff but also the sustainability of the institutional improvement process.

The data are clear: the best leaders refute contractual accountability and create a culture where responsive accountability is king. This approach allows leaders and staff to focus ‘processes over outcomes’ (Kerr 2013) in an environment where weak performance is remedied by ‘technical assistance and support’ (OECD 2010) and subsequently where capacity development, system improvement and the challenging of the status quo are inevitable.

To conclude, accountability can act as both friend and foe; the implementation modality predicates which. Covey (1989) perfectly sums up this complex yet hugely instrumental concept stating:

'Accountability breeds response-ability'

Journalling Points

  1. Is your current institution operated on contractual or responsive accountability?

  2. How can you use your role to promote a culture of responsive accountability?

  3. What personal changes do you need to make to ensure you can implement this type of accountability?


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