accountability-in-the-public-sectorWhen we were young, my sisters and I would roll our eyes as we were forced to hear my father recite one of his favorite aphorisms: accidents don’t just happen; they are caused. These lectures were generally preceded by incidents we described as accidents. As a man of the private sector and the military, my father has always been a big believer in accountability.

Accountability is an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions. I define it here because it is a concept that appears to be largely absent from the public sector business vocabulary. In the public sector, accidents aren’t caused – they happen all by themselves. Massive project failures, poor productivity, abysmal customer service, significant financial losses, malingering, malfeasance, security and privacy breaches – these all just magically occur as if Loki is playing his tricks on the organization. No one takes ownership or responsibility.

Here’s a stark truth: if you are a municipal executive or manager, every problem on your watch is your responsibility. Period. It doesn’t matter that you weren’t directly managing the problem or failure in question – you own it all and it is a reflection of your executive skills. While this perception may not be part of the organizational culture in many municipal agencies, the public takes an alternate view. They view your organization’s failures as yet another example of government incompetence. As we learned from W.Edwards Deming, such failures are almost always failures of management whether they occur in the public or private sectors. The same problems that plague the public sector are also rampant in private sector management.

As an executive or manager, do you take responsibility for every aspect of your organization’s operations? If not, your governing body may find someone who will.

Is accountability a core component of your management toolkit?

Management isn’t a passive pursuit. If it were, the seemingly endless, unproductive meetings that litter the landscape of your business day would produce actual results. Indeed, every meeting should produce some specific outcome. Attending meetings isn’t management.

Accountability starts at the top

If the concept of accountability is alien to your government enterprise, it can be difficult to incorporate into an organizational stew that has been simmering for decades. A colleague recently described an incident in her agency where the employees asked “Why should we be accountable for productivity now, when we never have been in the past?” She failed to create accountability in her organization because the executive to whom she reported wouldn’t support such a provocative notion. He was more concerned about ruffling the delicate feathers of CSEA members rather than exercising his fiduciary responsibilities to the citizens who paid his salary.

Establishing new concepts, frameworks, policies and procedures in bureaucratic organizations is successful if a solid foundation is built from the ground up, but accountability must start with the chief executive. Critical examination of one’s own shortcomings is an essential component of successful management. In other words, “the boss” must accept all organizational failures as personal failures. “I failed to manage that well. I have to do better in the future.” That statement must be followed up with specific actions that will prevent the problem from occurring again.


Failure to meet goals, objectives and expectations must be met with consequences. “The reality is that, without consequence management, you are not leading, you are creating chaos.” (S. Chris Edmonds).

Accountability is an excellent tool, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Accountability works in tandem with clear goals and objectives, consequences and a cycle of continuous improvement.

Following are five tips for introducing the concept of accountability in your organization.

  1. Manage actively rather than passively.
  2. Communicate expectations by clearly defining measurable goals and objectives.
  3. Supervise the process – management is 10% telling people what to do and 90% making sure they do it.
  4. Manage Consequences – there must be consequences for failure to achieve goals and objectives.
  5. “Why?” should be the most frequently used word in your vocabulary.

Introduce accountability to your public sector organization and you will certainly see improvements over time. It is one component of good management.


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