Here’s the third of my articles for TESS.
Before going on to read this article I’d like you to pause a moment and ask you to come up with a personal example of accountability.
Without claiming to be a mind reader I’d be prepared to bet that you selected something that will happen when something goes wrong! – if you don’t believe me try it with some colleagues. From such a premise it can be argued that almost all of us involved in education are adversely affected by an overly negative perception relating to our view of accountability
Accountability, therefore, is seen by most of us to be inextricably linked to personal liability – it’s almost as if we are supposed to provide the insurance scheme in relation to our work, i.e. “I will be held to account of things go wrong”. I’ll call this “Accountability as Consequence”
The purpose of this enquiry is to explore an alternative perception of accountability and how this could have a dramatically positive influence upon our practice, the culture of our working environment, and our own well-being.
However, before setting out that alternative model it might help to list some of the outcomes of “accountability as consequence” which focuses upon the negative consequences of personal liability upon educational managers? For example:
1. Accountability appears to be external and imposed with little space for personal autonomy.
2. Managers feel under significant external pressure over which they have little control.
3. The abiding practice generated within such a culture is one of “cover your back”.
4. Managers feel isolated and vulnerable to external criticism.
5. Managers complain of high levels of stress.
Managers typically handle this pressure by imposing controlling systems. These systems are characterised by a:
1. Reluctance to empower others;
2. Narrow focus upon only those areas which we can be held liable;
3. Reluctance to trust the judgement of others;
4. Reluctance to take risks;
5. Reluctance to engage in partnership agreements which they cannot control
6. Fear of negative publicity.
All of the above go towards reinforcing the culture that reflects all of the negative outcomes set out in points 1-5 but for all people in the organization. This could be described as the negative “cascade effect” of “accountability as consequence” with the pressure being transferred to all the members of the organization.
The effect of the above will vary from place-to-place and person-to-person but there can be little doubt that it has a negative impact upon the manager; those whom they manage; and the quality of the service they provide.
So what might be the alternative to such a pervasive understanding of what accountability means?
The model I would wish to propose is underpinned by a notion of
”accountability as personal commitment” In this model accountability is underpinned by personal commitment – as opposed to fear of consequence.
The difference in this model is that people have to be seen as being driven by a deep personal vocation to deliver the best possible standards of service, which will extend far above what might be seen as a “line of consequence”, where blame can be apportioned.
The alternative to the “line of consequence” is a “line of aspiration”. If the manager sets out to keep himself or herself above the “line of consequence” their attention is focused upon avoiding the trigger points which would happen if they dropped below the line of consequence in any of their key performance indicators.
The problem with this model is that it concentrates on standards which exist well below potential levels of performance – with the abiding message being – “don’t draw attention to yourself.”
In the alternative model the focus is upon the “line of aspiration” which is driven by the person and extends far beyond what might have been trigger points for the “line of consequence”. The underlying characteristics of such a culture are founded upon an assumption that people have personal integrity and commitment to perform at the highest possible standards.
I would argue that the outcomes of such a culture would be the creation of a more liberating and empowering workplace, reflecting high levels of mutual trust and consequent personal job satisfaction. The creation of such a culture has the potential to raise the quality of educational provision to levels far beyond the norm as currently limited by the existing perception of accountability.