The NAO recently published a report about the importance of accountability to Parliament – what we call in our book being a Responsible Fox.
The report rightly points out that accountability is “an inextricable part of good public management and democratic government”, and argue that accountability requires clear objectives, well-defined roles, good performance data, and a way of holding people to account. The NAO report also highlights what can happen when responsibility is unclear: projects can stall, or costs can over-run.
We agree. In our book, The Public Sector Fox, we show how, as a public sector manager yourself, you can take responsibility for work that will help you and your organisation to achieve its objective.
One area we looked at is the cliche that managers should always take responsibilty. It is an appealingly heroic notion. The person at the top should take the flak if something bad happens on their watch. Similarly, when something goes right - so the management cliche goes - you should lavish praise on somebody in your team rather than take any yourself.
Both these cliches err on the side of the angels but are too simplistic. We are all human beings; if you take undeserved censure for a failure or hand out undeserved praise for a success this may have repercussions. You may feel resentul - we are all humans - and the people who work for you may feel confused.
To pitter patter through this responsibilty minefield, ask yourself two questions when something goes well or badly:
- Who is actually responsible? Who do you think was actually most response for the success or failure? Be honest. If it was you, admit it to yourself.
- Who do people (your colleagues/the public) think is responsible? Is it the same answer as the above?
This leads to four potential scenarios:
1. People think you are responsible for a mistake, and they're right. It is your fault.
2. People think you are responsible for a mistake, but they're wrong. You are not to blame
3. People think someone else was responsible for the mistake, but in fact it was your error.
4. People think someone else was responsible for the mistake and they're right. It wasn't you.
There are many ways to deal with these different scenarios - we discuss them in the book - but the key point is that you should do this analysis before falling back on the old management cliches and creating the wrong culture for you and your team.