Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

Dubnick’s Age of Accountability

Posted by David Kassel on November 16, 2007

 Melvin J. Dubnick argues in the October 2007 issue of PA Times that “we live in the Age of Accountability.”  Dubnick, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, who is well known for his writing and research on accountability issues, argues that through greater accountability, we believe:

our streets will be cleaner and safer, our children better educated, our health care more cost effective, our social services more efficient, our city services less costly, and even our highway traffic more tolerable and less dangerous.”

 Yet, there is something wrong in all this, Dubnick contends, adding:   

 What I find interesting and most disturbing in all this is that we have come to the Age of Accountability relying so much on blind commitment to untested assumptions…Our decision to rely on powerful beliefs rather than knowledge is all the more frustrating because it is endangering the very foundations of modern governance that we are intent on improving.

What are these untested assumptions and powerful beliefs?

Well, first of all, Dubnick maintains there is a good form of accountability and a bad form of it; and he argues that the bad form is becoming more and more pervasive in political, administrative, and corporate spheres. 

Dubnick describes the good form of accountability as “an embedded and internalized commitment to account giving.”  He calls this the “accountability of governance,” and says it is to be found:

…in the way a third grade teacher relates to his students, or the obligation a firefighter feels to those who might be trapped in a burning building.  It is internalized to the extent that the account giver regards the commitment to accountability to come from within and not be a reaction to some outside pressure.

The bad form of accountability is “imposed on those same relationships rather than embedded in them.”  Dubnick calls this the “accountability of managerialism,” and it:

…tells that third grade teacher that his relationship with his students must be defined in terms of higher test scores.  It assesses the firefighters’ performance on the basis of measureables such as emergency response times.  And in both instances the account giver does not take personal owership of those standards—they are never internalized, but remain associated with the outside source.

The harm done by the accountability of managerialism is that it transforms ethical behavior to “restraints and compliance with articulated codes and rules.”  In addition:

Performance, which once encompassed competencies and craftsmanship, is now reduced to measurable outcomes.

One thing I like about Dubnick’s argument is that it is critical of a number of long-held schools of thought such as the “reinventing government” movement, which has helped inundate us with performance measurement.  Yet, he also appears to criticize the traditionalists for their reliance on compliance with codes and rules.

It’s true, we measure too many things nowdays, and seem to know the value of nothing.  Teaching to the test has become one of the hallmarks of our contemporary education system, and it is not necessarily producing more educated or more well-rounded students.

At the same time, I’m not quite sure where Dubnick is going with his argument.  While it’s true that an internal, ethical commitment to one’s students or to people trapped in a burning building is a great thing to have, clearly not everyone has it.  Some form of externally imposed accountability does appear to be necessary to make our societal institutions work.

 In fact, in Dubnick’s 1987 paper—Accountability in the Public Sector: Lessons from the Challenger Tragedy, which he co-wrote with Barbara Romzek, he posited four forms of accountability—bureaucratic, legal, professional, and political.  In that paper, Dubnick and Romzek didn’t argue that any of those forms were inherently good or bad, only that some were more appropriate for certain sets of circumstances than others.

Dubnick concludes his PA Times article with a plea for “developing a better theoretical understanding of accountability and its role in governance and administration.”  That understanding, he says, should come from practitioners as well as academics.

Sound advice, because I think most practitioners will be the first to tell you that government is only as good as the people doing the governing.  There are no magic bullets or perfect reforms that merit throwing out all past practices.  As Dubnick notes:

…under current protocols for assessing the various accountability-based reform efforts, we are locked into a game of self-fulfilling false prohesies.




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