We dream of a world where the word “accountability” evokes positivity, productivity, and collaboration for results. We’re certainly trending in the right direction as more public sector organizations place greater emphasis on accountability for results.

For example, public health departments can become nationally accredited by demonstrating accountability for delivering essential public health services; more governments and organizations around the world are implementing Results-Based Accountability™ and similar frameworks; and United Way Worldwide has launched the Global Results Framework.

This is all good news, but there’s room for improvement. Many organizations experience difficulty in getting people on board with accountability due to the negative emotions and experiences it conjures.

The emotions of accountability

In our work, we find that even just the word “accountability” can evoke anxiety. This anxiety can manifest as frustrating roadblocks, a lack of leadership buy-in, and staff pushback.

Some words and emotions that frequently come up when we talk about accountability include:

Positive

  • Transparency
  • Responsibility
  • Trustworthiness
  • Clarity
  • Ownership
  • Meaningful data
  • Motivation

Negative

  • Liability
  • Scapegoat
  • Fear
  • Apprehension
  • Anxiety
  • Blame
  • Punishment

These are just a few of many responses, but they are more or less the same every time we ask.

As time goes by, we have seen the positive spectrum of emotions expand, and we suspect this has something to do with the growing popularity of “data-driven decision making,” in the public and social sectors.

Most people support accountability in theory. However, when it feels like your job is on the line, nobody seems to want to be accountable for poor performance. This fear is why we see people gaming the system in all kinds of contexts. It’s a big reason why people cheat.

To avoid this, we must clearly communicate what we mean by accountability and involve the input of everyone, including leadership, boards, managers, staff, and partners.

What is public sector accountability?

Definitions of accountability usually vary depending on the industry doing the defining. In general, accountability is taking responsibility for a particular action or goal.

We see public sector accountability as “the appropriate people taking responsibility for working towards appropriately defined results. By appropriate we mean accurately determining who should be responsible for what. Accountability requires a process of continuous improvement, data-driven decision making, transparency for results, and continuous communication with partners, stakeholders, and the public.”

Accountability is not the same at every level (program level vs. organizational-level vs. population-level).

Generally speaking, accountability for a program or organization should be assigned to the managers who run the programs, organizations, agencies, or service-systems.

Accountability for population-level results, however, (e.g., healthy residents or kids that graduate from high school on time) “cannot be assigned to any one individual, organization or level of government. The whole community, public and private sectors, must share responsibility for population results”. This is because the work of population-level wellbeing is complicated and depends on many different people, groups, and industries (Mark Friedman, director, Fiscal Policy Studies Institute).

Accountability isn’t just taking responsibility – it involves a set of actions, attitudes, aspirations, and expectations that establish how an organization or agency should run and to what end. For example, accountability comes with “the expectation that the investment of resources will produce results – typically, improvements in wellbeing for communities and customers.” (The Accountability Blueprint. https://1r65612jvqxn8fcup46pve6b-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/ClearImpact_Accountability-Blueprint_eBook_V2-2.pdf)

Accountability shouldn’t be punishment-focused – i.e., punishing an individual or group for poor performance or failing to meet targets. Hitting targets is a good thing, but targets can sometimes be arbitrary. What matters is working to improve the data as much as possible. The work of accountability should be about continuous improvement and collaboratively working to “turn the curve” on measures of performance and impact.

Tips on being accountable:

Establish an accountability framework:

An “accountability framework” is the combination of structures and processes by which accountability is managed.

Engaging in continuous improvement without a clear accountability framework is like building an engine without a blueprint: you may have lots of parts, but you will not know what goes where and how all the parts work together to form your well-functioning engine.

Examples of accountability structures or tools include:

  1. The Results-Based Accountability framework
  2. The Collective Impact Framework
  3. Performance improvement software
  4. Accountability scoring

Create metrics:

To know whether your goals are being achieved, you should use data. Metrics should be different depending on what level of accountability you are working with (population-level vs. performance-level).

At Clear Impact, when we talk about measuring population-level accountability, we talk about indicators.

When measuring performance, we talk about performance measures.

Always provide context:

You should never use data alone to judge performance; numbers don’t tell the whole story.

If a fire department’s response times were terrible, you wouldn’t cut the budget for the fire department, would you? You would investigate causes so that you could create appropriate improvement strategies.

The same should go for other public sector work. A program’s funding should never be decided based on the numbers alone. “Poor” performance may be excellent performance if managers encounter severe limiting factors out of their control.

Include the right partners:

As we’ve shown, different levels of accountability involve different people.

For both levels of accountability, you should identify existing and new partners who have a role to play in improving the data.

Whether you are addressing changes within an organization or on a broader community level, partners are critical to ensuring success. Think of the key partners that can help you to solve the most vexing factors to make lasting improvements. Think outside the box when brainstorming partners – who may have been left out in past efforts? (Turn the Curve Thinking – Clear Impact. https://clearimpact.com/results-based-accountability/turn-the-curve-thinking/)

Make sure you are transparent in explaining your accountability framework with your partners. Transparency can help you engage them in the process and ensure everyone is on the same page.

Use performance management software:

Performance management software can foster accountability by helping you:

  • Visualize your progress and achievements
  • Engage in more effective communication
  • Encourage action and innovation
  • Link programmatic performance to community-level strategy
  • Waste less time trying to locate data & spot and correct poor performance

Clear Impact Scorecard is one example that can be helpful.

Conclusion

When you fulfill the recommended “prerequisites,” (appropriately assigning responsibility, using data-driven decision making, setting up a data management software) the work of accountability can become inspiring and energizing for all involved. Partners can fully and honestly engage in continuous improvement without fear of punishment. Improving the conditions of wellbeing for children, adults, and families becomes more than a possibility, but rather a likelihood.

United Way of Central Iowa provides one example of how fulfilling the recommended prerequisites can lead to measurable results. Check out a case study here to see how they helped improve graduation rates using an accountability framework and performance management software.

Contact us to learn more about how we can help you set up your accountability framework and performance management system.