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By John Guy on June 7, 2014 in Civic Blog

Are you “accountable?”  Secretary_Donovan,_Solis,_Sebelius_&_Shinseki_during_the_panel

I doubt it.  Me?   Probably not.  Yet others should be accountable.  Right?

“Accountable” appears in letters to the editor, newspaper columns and opinions, and coffee pot conversations.  What does it mean?   Here is one definition:  “adjective, (pertaining to a person, organization, or institution) required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible.”

In public discourse about civic affairs, “accountable” carries an additional meaning, which is:  the head of any agency or department in which something goes wrong should resign or be fired.  He or she, and/or designated subordinates, should be prosecuted for civil or criminal wrongs.  Someone needs to pay.  We need redress.  And so, Eric Shinseki is sent packing from the Veterans Administration for unreported and unacceptable delays in patient service, and Kathleen Sibelius says good bye as Secretary of Health and Human Services after The Affordable Care Act’s federal health care exchange operates poorly.  This is the way of the public, civic world.   The public wants them gone although neither caused the problems for which they are blamed.

In discourse about politics, “accountable” has different meanings.  In this universe, it means that an official should not be re-elected unless he votes “my way.”  From an elector’s point of view, the definition is “get rid of this person because he disagrees with me. He is not ‘accountable’ to the people.”  In the bitter world of competitive elections, in which each side seeks negatives about the other, presidents are blamed for everything.

If rebels attack an embassy in Benghazi, it is the president’s fault.  If a new program such as health care is imperfectly delivered, certainly he is to blame.  If a low level IRS employee, likely acting in good faith, does not approve a category of tax exemptions, most certainly the cause is a political plot by the president.  At lower levels, the mayor of Indianapolis most certainly is the reason streets are not repaired quickly, though the cause is a terrible winter.  Since a human being must be “accountable,” why not the mayor.

Possibly, the most intangible and abstract use of the word is in public education where critics and reformers want teachers individually, and schools and districts collectively, to be “accountable,” but no one knows for what or to whom.  Are teachers responsible for test scores?  If so, which tests, and what result?  Dismiss every teacher when test scores fall below, well, what?  Pay some teachers more than others, but based on what?  Publish a list of “non performing” teachers, but on what criteria?  Is the physical education teacher measured equally with those who teach calculus, Chinese, or music?   Who deals with all this?   School boards?   Administrators?   Parents?  And a most interesting question:  to whom are teachers “accountable.”  As far as I can see, the only group not listed as a possible arbiter of “accountability” is students.

In the world of public corporations, chief executive officers appear to use the word in one framework only, as “we are ‘accountable’ to our shareholders,” a euphemism for “profit is out most important goal.”  While corporate ethicists insist that executives are accountable to customers and employees as well, the word never appears in annual report commentaries about quality of products and services, or employee relations.  Then, the obvious distortion:  a CEO writes that he is “accountable” to shareholders, but instead he responds to boards of directors whose members operate in the most murky, non transparent world of invisible meetings and networks of interlocking corporate relationships more complicated than Rubik’s Cube. 

“Accountability” has political/social meaning only in the short run.  It has no meaning in the long run.  Historians do not use this word when presenting the major facts and trends of history, because rarely does an individual make a difference.  Speaker Boehner made this point during comments about dismissing the head of The Veterans Administration.  He said that firing General Shinseki does not necessarily improve service and results.   However, in the day-to-day morass of public feelings and political interaction, our body politic places blame thereby throwing numerous bodies on the scrap heap.  Nevertheless, for those of us who pontificate, perspective, humility and appreciation of human frailty should lead to accountability abstinence.  We should stop using the word.

John Guy is a certified financial planner, is author of “Middle Man, A Broker’s Tale,” and president of Indianapolis-based Wealth Planning & Management LLC. He regularly writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal and contributes to the Civic Blog.


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