September 12

The Art and Science of Avoiding Accountability

Axel Kravatzky

Effective delegation of responsibility is a key condition to enable accountability. We examine four common delegation mistakes that undermine good governance.

Governance of any type of organization involves the system by which an organization is directed, overseen, and held accountable for achieving its defined organizational purpose. That means that boards, or, more generally, the governing bodies of organizations need to demonstrate accountability for the organization’s performance and behaviour.

Both in public discussion as well as within the confines of organizations there is no shortage of calls for increased and effective accountability. And yet, there seems to be an endless stream of examples where this is not happening. The result is that there is wave after wave of calls for more accountability and outcries for something to be done. Unfortunately, it is much easier to determine that something has gone wrong, and not so easy to know exactly how it has gone wrong or how to avoid the skilful traps set by those that seek to gain from the lack of accountability.

Those that have mastered the art and science of accountability avoidance commonly employ four mechanisms to undermine the very possibility of accountability or effective delegation of responsibility.  The examples here are largely focused on the relationships between boards and those to whom they delegate, but variations of the same mechanisms work in Ministries and the entities to whom they delegate responsibilities; or managers within companies who delegate to their subordinates.


The first mechanism is to avoid clearly negotiated, specified, or agreed results that are meant to be achieved. When boards are being lead to believe that they are all powerful and they end up dictating results to be achieved, or where Ministers purposefully exploit the common phrase in legislation that compels the organization to follow the ‘general instructions’ of the relevant Minister, or they just lazily or incompetently avoid specifying the quantity, quality, time and resources within which a result is to be achieved – the possibility for effective accountability has already been successfully avoided. If those delegating did not fall into the trap sufficiently themselves, then those to whom responsibility is delegated can resort to saying, ‘don’t worry about all the details and formality, just tell me the results you want’. On paper this seems a mistake as easy to avoid as it is common in practice.  


The second mechanism involves creating situations in which there is a mismatch between results expected and resources to be employed. For example, a board of a public entity may agree to larger organizational structure in order to generate goodwill, but it is thereby generating persistent vacancies. An alternative that works equally well in private and public organizations is to create inflated budgets, and then have the budget randomly and unilaterally slashed. In either case, accountability is avoided because commensurate resources were not negotiated and agreed.


The third mechanism is to either fake incompetence or to play to the ego of board members or Ministers. In either case the result sought is to be told how to execute. Accountability is easily avoided in this way, because ‘you told me to do it this way’.


The fourth mechanism is to direct attention only ‘on what matters most’ – results. Boards themselves excel in this accountability avoidance mechanism by omitting discussion of or reporting on the process by which they govern and what judgments they made in light of what information. An effective accountability process will necessarily involve the question of reasonableness under the circumstances. As long as they can get away with just asserting that this is what was spent, and this is what was achieved, maybe with some newspaper clippings about the company and pictures from philanthropic activities, they are safe because they cannot effectively be held to account. This mechanism is robustly protected in Trinidad & Tobago in the case of State-Owned Enterprises, because public disclosure requirements pertaining to the governance process itself approach zero according to the State Enterprises Performance Monitoring Manual.

Each of these mechanisms of avoidance can be effected with not much more than good common sense. Unfortunately, the pressures, competence, and temptations of office holders are such that reactions to poor performance resulting from one governance failure, can lead to activation of one or more accountability avoidance mechanisms and the vicious cycle of poor governance is further compounded. It takes competence and effort to break this cycle. But it is worthwhile, because accountability at all levels of an organization is a key aspect of governance. It engenders trust and legitimacy, which leads to improved organizational performance, stewardship and ethical behaviour.

This article is part of the "Purpose with Profit" Column and an earlier version was published in the business section of the Newsday (Trinidad & Tobago), in September 2021.

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