Howard Risher is a consultant and writer on federal pay and performance issues. He was the managing consultant for the studies leading to the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and is the author of 'Planning Wage and Salary Programs.'
Statements about the need for “accountability” seem to come daily; demands for accountability are made repeatedly by politicians and political groups. Incumbents claim they have it; candidates for office claim incumbents don’t. Harry Truman had that famous desk sign, “The Buck Stops Here” (which I read was made in a reformatory).
Actually it seems that the word is only used when something goes wrong or someone is accused of a transgression or a tragic public failure. When accusations surface, the charge is most commonly misconduct involving dishonesty or immoral behavior; the alleged wrongdoer is never accused of poor performance.
It’s an issue in business as well but there it has a subtle but important difference. The Harvard Business Review posted a blog where it was reported, “[B]y far and away the single-most shirked responsibility of executives is holding people accountable. No matter how tough a game they may talk about performance, when it comes to holding people’s feet to the fire, leaders step back from the heat.” In a global survey of upper-level managers, 46 percent were rated “too little” on the item, “Holds people accountable—firm when they don’t deliver.”
It’s the word “deliver” that’s the difference. Accountability in business is about unacceptable performance.
Another key difference is that accountability in business is linked almost by definition with consequences, both good and bad. One writer describes what “needs to be in place for accountability to exist” as:
1. Clear goals must be established (Quantifiable project objectives should be defined, documented and communicated.)
2. Adequate resources and authority must be granted (Sufficient resources - e.g., financial, technical and human - control and influence must be made available.)
3. Specific consequences must be predetermined (Outcomes for success and failure are established, documented and communicated.)
That outline is consistent with what many writers have said about accountability in business.
In the current VA crisis, none of the three requirements is apparently in place. The goal—14 days for a new patient to see a physician—was apparently set to satisfy a political agenda, and had no basis in reality. And of course there have been claims that VA hospitals do not have adequate resources. Finally it’s been alleged that the false reporting was prompted by concerns that executives feared losing their bonus.
However, that has not been proven. Apparently the consequences for misreporting were not predetermined. Based on what has been disclosed to date, it would be unfair to hold VA executives accountable for missing “wish list” political goals but at the same time someone has to be accountable for the misreporting. Other employees who knew about it should be accountable for not blowing the whistle.
The outline of what’s needed is almost verbatim of what is required for effective performance management. It’s textbook for executives and managers.
Needless to say, that is an ongoing problem across government. One of the most recent VA revelations, reported in the New York Times, is that “every senior executive was rated ‘fully successful’ or better over four years.”
In one of the saddest statements, “Veterans Affairs officials sought to play down the data, saying that only 15 senior executives across the entire federal government had received either of the two lowest ratings in the most recent year . . .” There may not be a more convincing statement that the SES performance system is broken.
The VA problem is not limited to misreported patient scheduling. When that problem first emerged, someone should have made senior leaders aware of it. That would not have solved the problem but it would likely have triggered actions to address what was happening. The fact that it was covered up or ignored is a broader problem that is not related to the bonuses.
A handful of employees will always be willing to violate policies to avoid adverse consequences. Here, however, it is clear that the culture supported this behavior. The behavior also can be interpreted as evidence of what a writer recently described as “chronic mistrust”. Employee distrust of management has been reported by former employees and by other writers. At its worst, a lack of trust can poison working relationships.
There is also the perennial public distrust of government. The VA headlines must have exacerbated that problem. That will make it even more difficult to secure the openness and transparency to disclose and address problems.
As an educated guess, federal employees do not feel empowered or motivated to tackle problems or try new ideas. The annual employee survey confirms less than 40 percent believe their performance will be recognized or rewarded. That’s also true for ‘innovation and creativity’. That is not an environment where individual initiative is encouraged. It’s likely that VA employees believe it’s safer to ignore problems.
At the risk of sounding naïve, government needs to invest in more effective performance management practices. The track record has been abysmal, but there are success stories. Effective performance management is possible in government. That is consistent with my experience and also supported by the widely respected Rand Corporation. It’s also consistent with the management in hundreds of hospitals.
In a 2010 Rand report, Toward a Culture of Consequences, the authors argue for “performance-based accountability systems (PBAs), which link incentives to measured performance as a means of improving services to the public, They studied PBAs in five sectors: child care, education, health care, public health emergency preparedness, and transportation. Their conclusion is that “PBAs can be an effective strategy for improving service delivery.”
The Rand conclusion agrees with the three elements “for accountability to exist” and with the universal practice in other sectors. It starts with defining performance goals. For success, goals need to be negotiated or defined by job incumbents; they cannot be mandated and definitely not to satisfy a political agenda (although that no doubt is naive). Goals make it possible to track and discuss progress, and the dialogue is a key to a healthy organization. Leadership is critical. The model adopted at lower levels should be based on the same principles.
True accountability cannot exist in government as long as there are no consequences. Bonuses that are not linked to performance weaken any sense of accountability. Threats of firing should be the last recourse.