Accountability and Trust

I am going to say a few words in favor of accountability here.  Nearly everyone I know who is a fan of “accountability” will be disappointed by what I have to say and some will feel betrayed.  I don’t think they should.  Stay with me and let’s see.

It will not surprise you that accountability once meant, and sometimes still means, “able to give a [satisfactory] account.”  A lot of social structure goes into that simple statement.  I may ask anyone who is accountable to me to give me an account of her[1] behavior.  I may also ask, if I wish, that people who are not accountable to me give me such an account.  The rejections on the quiet side include, “Why would I do that?”  On the more boisterous side, “Who the hell do you think you are?”

So even from the beginning, accountability means “accountable—owing an account—to someone in particular”.[2]  Imagine that I am a manager’s boss and I stop by her desk and ask why productivity is down.  I’m her boss; she owes me an account.  She is accountable to me.  She says, “There are new people in shipping and it’s taking them some time to get up to speed.  We’ll be back to normal by next week.”

Being able to give a satisfactory account to the people to whom you owe it is a good thing.  On the other hand, I asked a pretty good question.  What sort of question do you think President Truman had in mind when he said, “The buck stops here.”[3]  Haccountability 1ad he been asked why he dropped a second atomic bomb only three days after the first, he could have given an answer.  It was a question he answered often, in fact, and he answered it by giving the reasons he thought it was a good idea.  I raise that particular question in order to wonder who President Truman was accountable to in that instance.  The Congress?  Any reporter with a microphone?  The American people?  General MacArthur?

And it is questions like that that make me wonder.  Would we say that a committee handling sensitive information was “accountable” to anyone who wanted access to that information?  Let’s say it was personnel information, which is often highly protected.  I ask for the information to be given to me and when I am refused, I say that the personnel committee (agency, bureau, office) is “unaccountable.”

That is the way I would say it because it sounds most credible that way.  I would not say “unaccountable to me” because someone might ask if I had the right to demand an account.  I would not say that they were accountable to the government that protected personnel information and which declared that leaking it is a crime.  It is their accountability to me that I want to highlight and not the fact that very often a manager is accountable to different people for different reasons all at the same time.  “Accountability has now become “able to give an account, to whom, about what, by when.”

It gets worse.

Demanding that an account be given is like a tax.  It costs to give an account when it is accountability 2asked for.  I might want my employee to use her resources to do the job rather than to give an account of how well she is doing the job.  If there is reason to question how well she’s doing, then I should ask and she should give me her account.  If there is no reason to ask, I am just taking resources that would be better used elsewhere and diverting them to deal with my own curiosity.

And it gets worse.

The more I supervise, the less able I think my subordinates are.  Here’s a study by Lloyd H. Strickland, which, if I may be candid this far into the essay, is what started me thinking about accountability.[4]  Strickland ran an experiment in which supervisors did or did not have information about one particular aspect of their subordinates.  Since Strickland controlled all the information, he was able to have highly interventionist bosses and clearly laissez faire bosses.  Some bosses, in other words, hovered over their workers and cajoled and corrected and exhorted them.  Other bosses, who were also responsible for the output of their workers, were denied any information about how things were going.

What Strickland was actually studying was the traits the bosses attributed to the workers and to do that, he had to be sure that exactly the same amount of work got done in each setting.  You see immediately that one kind of boss could not argue that his style of management produced “superior results,” because the results were all alike.  All you could do was to account for the work done on the basis of the character of the workers.

Here’s what Strickland found.  The bossy bosses concluded that their workers were lazy louts who needed constant harassment or they would not work.  The laissez faire bosses—bosses who were denied any access at all to their workers—concluded that their workers were honest, hardworking types who did good work on their own.

It is  all artificial, of course.  This is all happening in a social psychology lab at the University of North Carolina.  But notice that each set of bosses chose the explanation that satisfied their own needs as bosses.  If I can’t affect my workers, the least stressful thing for me to do is assume that they will work just fine on their own.  If I can affect my workers, the least stressful  thing for me to do is to assume that what I am doing– all the surveillance and all the exhortation– must be having some effect.  They would not, in other words, have done that work had I not been in their faces all the time.  Would these kids have gotten on the bus safely?  Just asking.

Let’s stop just briefly to remind ourselves that these “differences” are completely illusory. accountability 3There were no differences at all—the experiment required that—between the workers who labored under surveillance and criticism and those who were protected from surveillance and criticism.  But the differences in the supervisors were substantial.

Let us now move to the “complete surveillance society,” which is where we are headed.  Following the implications of Strickland’s work, we would expect the trust that supervisors have in their subordinates will go down.  If police are required to wear cameras that record their every move, we would expect the trust the chief of police has in them would go down.  If a child is under  surveillance by a parent, we would expect the trust the parent has in the child to go down.

We have moved a long way, notice, from “accountability” as the ability to give an account should one be required.  In these examples, “accountability” and “surveillance” are very nearly synonyms.  And the trust which was once thought to lubricate social relations and “make society possible,” as sociologists like to say, has been replaced by knowledge—knowledge in principle, of course.[5]

When I say, “I don’t need to trust you.  I can know for sure what your work is like,” we pass over the changes in me that are produced by my access to your work.  My role in making your work grows ever larger and your role grows ever smaller.  I am trustworthy by definition because I am relying on myself, but you are less trustworthy because I am no longer relying on who you are, but only on what I can verify.  The manager is affected, in other words, by the surveillance.  Your view is distorted.

accountability 4Stop a minute and think.  Does anyone really think that if I strapped a “fidelity cam” on my wife that I would become more and more convinced that she is worthy of my trust?  Really?

So here is where the accountability X total surveillance movement has brought us.  Everyone is under scrutiny.  A record is being kept of every keystroke I make as I type this sentence.  The more “information” there is—information is what all the surveillance produces—the less need there is for trust.  Also, the more surveillance there is, the more you can expand and affirm your role in my productivity by making sure you know what I am doing and by offering “helpful hints.”  The more you do that, the better you feel about yourself and the worse you feel about me.

You see the cyclical nature, right?  What is going to get us off this merry-go-round?

[1] There are so many prominent women CEOs these days.  Let’s just stay with feminine pronouns.

[2] Simpler and more communal societies have an  accountability to broad groups.  I have heard it called “echelon authority.”  In such societies, “an adult,” any adult, might ask a school age child, “Why aren’t you in school?” and expect to receive an answer.  We don’t do it that way.
[3] According to the Truman Library, the saying “the buck stops here” derives from the slang expression “pass the buck” which means passing the responsibility on to someone else. The latter expression is said to have originated with the game of poker, in which a marker or counter, frequently in frontier days a knife with a buckhorn handle, was used to indicate the person whose turn it was to deal. If the player did not wish to deal he could pass the responsibility by passing the “buck,” as the counter came to be called, to the next player.
[4] L. Strickland, “Surveillance and Trust, ,”Journal of Personality, 1958, Vol 26, no. 2, pp. 200—215.
[5] Even if everyone is under unrelenting surveillance, someone is going to have to look at the visual record and establish the meaning of what was recorded.  We tend, carelessly, to call the visual record “data,” but “data” is the end product of a Latin verb meaning “to give.”  Data are, in the old empiricist tradition, “what is given.”  But everyone knows that meaning is not “given.”  Meaning is constructed.  Who is going to do all that?  At what cost?  Will the records be kept forever?  Will they be hacked?  Will they be meaningful?

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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