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Opinion

Responsibility and accountability

A GREAT BRITISH VIEW - Asif Ahmad - The Philippine Star

Just 12 months into my first job in London, I was flattered by an approach of a head hunter acting for a rival US bank. At the interview, I was tormented mercilessly by the general manager who wanted me to articulate the difference between responsibility and accountability. He then asked which was more important. I clearly failed to impress with my vague answer that they were inseparable and I hedged my bet by saying both were equally important. I am less haunted now by the rejection as the bank went bust a few years later. But to this day, I am still conflicted on what is the right answer. As an individual, a leader and as a provider of public service, we face this dilemma every day.

In a personal capacity, it is perhaps valid to assert that accountability and responsibility are interchangeable. I have to take responsibility for what I do and I am accountable to myself for the outcome. As soon as I take into consideration the impact on family, friends and the community, accountability widens. In the work place and in the public domain, a person is responsible for action or performing a task. One can take responsibility or be assigned it or give responsibility to someone else. Who is answerable, held to account or liable is complicated only when people want to avoid the consequences of something going wrong. Many claim to be the father of success but are quick to orphan failure. Accountability cannot be delegated as easily as responsibility.

When a problem arises, the temptation is to deny personal responsibility. Even if the direct fault may lie with the jobholder, there are times when they can credibly accept responsibility but pass on the blame to others in an accountable position. They can point to a boss who designed the process which failed. Contingency planning is a leadership responsibility.

Active citizens today want to extract more political accountability and responsibility from leaders in central and local government and agencies. The executive arm of government sets out its policies and goals. The buck stops at the top and nothing shakes the fact that the executive is accountable for how responsibility is discharged in their name. The machinery of government, through departments of state and other institutions is organized by the leadership team which is responsible for implementation. Federal or devolved systems do not alter the fundamental dynamics. The use of Public Private Partnership and other external delivery partners requires clarity as to who is held to account. These are just alternative mechanisms for those in authority to delegate responsibility and the chain of accountability still leads to the top. In return, leaders can claim credit for success as long as they also accept consequences of failure. 

In most countries, especially democracies, there are rules, conventions and institutions that check how ministerial authority is used responsibly. Elected leaders need to define responsibilities to those they direct and they have the constraints of accountability. The overall aims, guidance to fellow members in government and public messages come together to set the criteria by which a leader is held to account. The conduct of public officials who carry out the vision and implement the plans is under the umbrella of accountability at the top. It is not credible to distance execution of policy from the originator of the plan.

In the UK, a Cabinet ranking minister is given responsibility by the Prime Minister who remains accountable for the policies and results of the administration as a whole. On behalf of the public, Parliamentary Committees conduct enquiries and hearings to seek assurances on probity, legality and value for money from responsible Ministers.  Each government institution is headed by a public administrator who is also known as the Accounting Officer. They carry personal responsibility for financial transactions, prudent use of resources and delivery of the required standards of service. If a member of the executive wishes to override the concerns or advice of a civil servant on a specific expenditure, this has to be given in writing. This rare move shifts responsibility to an accountable Minister.

In all walks of life, responsibility empowers people. As a customer, we appreciate it when a front line operative uses discretion to solve a problem or offers compensation for a shortcoming in service.  This is possible when people at the top accept accountability and avoid finding scapegoats when outcomes are scrutinized. Without clarity on accountability, there is dysfunction and encouragement of irresponsible conduct.

Many decades since my fateful interview, I admit that I still struggle with the answer on the difference and relative importance of accountability and responsibility. What I do know is that it is the right question to ask of ourselves and of people in positions of authority.

(Asif Ahmad is the British Ambassador to the Philippines.)

RESPONSIBILITY

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