The accountability trap

Accountability is the great buzz word of the new millennium. The powers that be would have you believe that the biggest problem in government is a lack of accountability. They would have you believe that as soon as we have better methods of holding people accountable we will strip government of its bloat. There is an overall problem with this. By claiming to strive for more accountability it begins with two important and negative assumptions. The first being that most people are doing their jobs poorly, the second and more importantly it assumes people are doing it on purpose.

This is the proverbial “Have you stopped beating your wife?” type of thinking. We may all agree that situations need to be improved but accountability seeks assign blame directly to individuals who may have little to do with the actual cause of the problem. You hear this often in the rhetoric around improving education. The problem, as many would have you believe is one of poor performing teachers. We therefore must establish systems that allow us to identify and remove poor performing teachers. If however this is not the problem, if the problem has more to do with neighborhoods, parents, funding, or any of the other equally probably causes of educational failures then the systems created are not only invalid they are harmful as they will result in the removal of teachers who are performing admirably.

The breathless pursuit of accountability also results in another unhealthy phenomenon; deceptive manipulation of the accountability triggers or to put it another way passing the buck. The whole idea of accountability is to raise the stakes of individual decisions. In theory this will curb irresponsibility, in practice it results in people avoiding making any decisions. It is a failure to understand human nature in regards to risk assessment. Under most circumstances the penalties of making the wrong decision far exceed the benefits of making the right decision. The result is no one is seeking to fix problems for fear of making a mistake that result in excessive penalization.

The recent events surrounding the release of the highly questionable teacher assessment scores here in New York is an obvious example of accountability run amok. Logically however, all the events surrounding the case make sense. If you go with the premise that there are bad teachers that are destroying children’s opportunity for a quality education then it makes perfect sense that this information should become a part of the public record for scrutiny. It should also be obvious that if there is little evidence to support the initial premise then the unwarranted vilification of innocent teachers will do greater damage to the educational system.

The less obvious incidents of berserker accountability though are cases like the NYPD tapes scandal. For those unfamiliar an officer by the name of Schoolcraft began taping his interactions with fellow officers and superior officers. The tapes revealed that the precinct was illegally issuing quotas for the amount of citations the officers were supposed to issue. The purpose of the quotas was to maintain the proper copstat numbers. Worse still some felt it necessary to alter charges and even ignore serious crimes to maintain these statistic that year over year need to show a more effective police force. To avoid being held “accountable” the police violated laws, and harassed Schoolcraft out of law enforcement.

The problem as I see it is increasing accountability is just a euphemism for ratcheting up punishment. This is an important corollary as it exposes the flaw in most of the solutions. The clearest analogy is the utter failure that we call our war on drugs. Increasing the penalties for minor drug offenses has failed to curb drug use in America. The only thing it has done is criminalize more people. By the same token the death penalty the ultimate form of accountability has failed to stem the tide of murders.

What I find most insidious about this perverse accountability fetish is the almost inherent authoritarianism that results. It suppresses the amount of people involved in the decision making process. Now I won’t go so far as to break Godwin’s law and say it allows people to claim they were just following orders. I will however say it makes institutions more susceptible to a closed minded group think that makes cases like the Schoolcraft’s precinct more likely.

This isn’t to say accountability has no place in policy methods. That would be the equivalent of claiming people opposed to Rockefeller drug laws want to disband prisons. No, if we want to improve the way government functions we must start with the notion that the people in government want to be better at their job. If we use this as our starting point then we will begin crafting systems that encourage new ideas and independent thought. Let’s try for example encouraging teachers to come up with afterschool programs that add value to learning. Pay the teachers to do this and provide bonus if they can a) document it increase learning in substantial ways, and again b) if they are able to develop methods of incorporating the after school curriculum into their in school curriculum. The goal should be to have people seek responsibilities rather than run from accountability.

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