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What is accountability?

In this video Dr Gary Schwarz examines where accountability begins, and the fundamental components which underpin accountability in the public sector.
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Accountability can be defined as the expectations that one may be called to justify one’s beliefs, feelings and actions to others. At its essence, accountability means answerability for one’s actions or inaction. Public managers responsible for a certain agency, for example, must explain their current cost structure and quality levels and justify that the organisational processes chosen are better than alternative arrangements. Research shows that the more legitimate an authority is considered to be, the more positively people respond to accountability demands. Accountability cannot exist without proper accounting practices. An absence of accounting means an absence of accountability. Transparency and liability are the two foundations underpinning accountability.
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Full transparency, for example the publication of all financial reports, budgets and appropriations in a timely manner, and ahead of elections, can assure that the public can hold government liable at elections. Although the idea of holding public servants accountable is attractive, a closer look unravels several issues. Holding somebody accountable may lead to unintended decision biases. People may suffer from conformity bias and adopt the same position as the audience and fail to take contradicting evidence into account, something that is also known as cognitive dissonance theory. Researchers found that when individuals know the views of the person to whom they feel accountable, they will adjust their own views to please this person.
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If you do not know this person’s views, they will engage in a more complex information processing. Accountable people may also tend to favour more easily defendable options. In the US, there is a saying that “you never get fired by purchasing IBM”. If you hire a local IT provider, on the other hand, and there are problems, you may be more easily blamed. In addition, in negotiation exercises, accountable negotiators often fail to make mutually beneficial concessions, as they stick to their initial instructions no matter what happens. That shows that too much accountability can actually be counterproductive.

Holding someone accountable is an attractive idea, but in practice it uncovers several pitfalls.

In this video Dr Gary Schwarz examines where accountability begins, and the fundamental components which underpin accountability in the public sector.

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