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The Right Type of Accountability

I’m an advocate of accountability, especially in church matters and our spiritual lives. I think it makes for wiser decision making and greater likelihood that we will carry out our goals. Accountability can come in many forms, from very formalized, such as an accountability group that meets regularly in which you question one another’s spiritual life, or simply telling friends and family what it is that you’ve determined to accomplish. The value of these types of accountability varies, of course.

The Washington Post has an article on accountability, which quotes experts to tell us a number of things about accountability that may seem like common sense, but in government at least we don’t seem to follow them. Perhaps having a few PhDs say these things will help!

This article quotes Jennifer Lerner, now moving to the Kennedy School of Government, as saying that the wrong type of accountability can produce the opposite effect to what was intended, and notes,

What she and numerous other experts have found is that particular types of accountability are needed for particular situations. Get the nuances wrong, and accountability backfires on you.

In particular candidates in either party may be drawn to the left (Democrats) or the right (Republicans) by the voters who will get them nominated, and then feel accountable to those voters once elected. Thus they may do things that please that constituency, to whom they are accountable, rather than what they actually believe is right.

Accountability may also make the decision maker favor things that are easier to explain, even when those things are not necessarily better. The article cites medical decisions, in which a physician may choose the course of action that would be easiest to explain in a lawsuit, for example, over what he or she truly believes is the best choice. From my own experience with the medical profession I suspect this would result in favoring a traditional, well-established course of action over something newer but potentially more effective.

Of course it should be no surprise that accountability that kicks in before and during the decision is more effective than accountability that kicks in afterwards. We needed a good deal of research to figure that one out! But it is something we don’t always notice. Once a decision has been made, we’re more likely to spend our time justifying what we have done than in reflecting on what we may have done wrong. Questioning often simply hardens our stance on that matter as we get defensive.

To relate this directly to church, consider the conflict between a forward looking ministry team and a hard-headed finance committee. We have the faith versus sight debate in full swing, with the ministry folks assuring the finance folks that they are following God’s leading and that God will provide for their need, and the finance folks pointing to the budget. Where is wisdom? I think each being accountable to the other is a good thing. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.

But that kind of decision is not limited to the church. In a business you would have a similar conflict between the creative folks and financial officer. Is this product worth investing in? Do we have the money to produce it? All the while the creative people are pointing out how sales will quickly bring in the necessary support. Or something like that . . .

Accountability is good, but needs to be combined with the courage of our convictions and the humility to reconsider of favored ideas.

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One Comment

  1. Great posting, and follow-up to the Washington Post article. Glad that it was close to the top of my search results on the subject. For the past two years, I have worked for The Performance Institute, a Washington D.C. based think tank that promotes principles of performance, transparency, competition, and accountability in government. And my mother teaches Ethics in Government at Binghamton University in New York. Mr. Neufeld’s last sentence is right on target.

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