Accountability vs. performance

There's a big difference between complying with directives and actually improving performance, observes Steve Kelman.

There are few words more praised in discussions about government than the word “accountability.”  Everybody is for it, nobody thinks we have enough of it. Public discussions about using performance measurement in government are commonly expressed as efforts to increase accountability; for example, the school testing movement is typically referred to as “school accountability .”

I think we need to be clear, however, about a tension between the “accountability” that everyone rushes to support and the underlying effort to improve government performance, which is supposedly one – and presumably the most important – purpose of the exercise in the first place. A recent report by Matthew Weigelt on fcw.com, discussing a panel discussion on the topic of stretch goals at George Washington University, illustrates one aspect of the tension.

Fundamentally, the tension comes from the fact that the idea of accountability – where one is trying to perform well in order to please external actors – has a fundamentally punitive meaning. The popular phrase, “Where’s the accountability” is actually just a (slightly) nice way to say,  “Who are we going to fire or send to jail?”

So agency managers naturally react in several ways when, say, performance measurement is associated with “accountability.”

First, they try to keep it as far away from themselves as they can – isolating “performance measurement” into a staff function consisting of writing reports for the Office of Management and Budget or the Government Accountability Office, not a line activity used by actual managers in charge of delivering the organization’s performance.

Second, feeling no ownership of the measures, they have no compunction to game the system, staving off the external accountability without actually improving performance. A number of years ago, for example, the IBM Center for the Business of Government published a report by William & Mary professor Richard Gilmour on how federal agencies succeeded in moving their old PART scores on performance management from “red” to “green.” The report was extraordinarily depressing because it outlined a series of ways this occurred – none of which included actually improving the program’s performance.

Weigelt’s article discusses a third tension in the accountability perspective. There is overwhelming research evidence that setting concrete goals improves an individual’s performance compared to just telling the individual to “do their best.”  The evidence is also strong that, within reason, challenging “stretch goals” motivate better than less-challenging ones. But as the article noted:  “Fears of congressional appropriators or an inspector general knocking at the door can persuade some federal managers to stay in their comfort zone, to set goals they’re sure they can reach.” He went on to quote Patricia McGinnis, a professor at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at the George Washington University: “They think somebody in Congress or somebody in [the Government Accountability Office] or somebody who has an oversight responsibility is going to punish them if they don’t meet a stretch goal.”

The problem, though, is that when people set easy goals because of fear of accountability, an opportunity for greater performance improvement through setting a stretch goal is lost.

Frankly, there is too much of a hallelujah chorus around the word “accountability” and not enough appreciation for a delicate balancing act needed around this concept, so as to avoid a situation where calls for accountability actually worsen government performance, rather than improving it.

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