Vulgar Accountability

Bringing measures of performance to bear on matters of accountability is clearly a good idea. So, asks H. George Frederickson, how can we make modern applications of accountability viable?
February 13, 2008
George Frederickson
By H. George Frederickson  |  Contributor
H. George Frederickson was a GOVERNING contributor. He is the Edwin O. Stene Distinguished Professor of Public Administration at the University of Kansas.

The subject of accountability has indisputably come to the fore in the field of public administration. In many quarters, accountability has come to mean little more than performance measurement, and that description is tightly linked to that current favorite of consultants, "results driven management." Results driven management brings together performance measurement and target setting in the name of accountability.

In the good hope that words and ideas matter, let me suggest an alternative. I propose "vulgar accountability." As the Oxford English Dictionary would have it, vulgar is "commonly current or prevalent, generally or widely disseminated, as a matter of knowledge, assertion, or opinion." Vulgar accountability, then, is the accountability of the ordinary, generally understood, or widely accepted.

It is the burden of my argument that public administration conceives of accountability that places exaggerated expectations on managers, that assumes an unlikely blossoming of rationality, and that is too often unrealistic about the capacity of agencies to manage wicked problems. At its core, bringing measures of performance to bear on matters of accountability is clearly a good idea. So how can we make modern applications of accountability viable? The answer is vulgar accountability.

What are the qualities and characteristics of vulgar accountability?

First, in the arcane language of performance measurement, there are important distinctions between agency outputs and outcomes. For example, the difference between measuring how many women of a certain age receive mammograms and how many women of a certain age have breast cancer is one of output vs. outcome. Accountability purists insist that the sole focus of performance measurement should be on outcomes -- the percentage of women of a certain age with breast cancer. Even though there is a demonstrable relationship between having mammograms and detecting breast cancer, can agencies charged with funding mammogram programs reasonably be held accountable for the percentage of women of a certain age with breast cancer? Given what we know about this connection, the answer is vulgar accountability, holding agencies accountable for their output.

Second, performance outputs are the lingua franca of public agencies -- it is what they do. Certainly, agencies should be held accountable for producing the greatest possible output with the resources available, and it is reasonable to hope that agency outputs will favorably influence social and economic circumstances. Public administrators catch criminals; put out fires and even try to prevent them; teach children; supply safe water; fight battles; distribute Social Security checks; and carry out a thousand other activities -- all outputs. That is what public agencies do, and they should be held accountable.

Third, all the evidence shows that when there are attempts to hold agencies accountable for social or economic outcomes that are beyond their control, they will fudge the data, game the system and in other ways resist being held unreasonably accountable. Accountability purists insist that holding agencies accountable only for their outputs is "setting the bar too low." But it is vulgar accountability that actually works.

Fourth, attaching targets to performance measurement in the name of accountability can, and usually does, lead to mischief.

Fifth, vulgar accountability is honest about trade-offs. Does the emphasis on reading and mathematics in the testing regimes called for in the No Child Left Behind Act diminish the resources available for teaching the humanities, the social sciences or physical education? Did the "faster and cheaper" mantra at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration contribute to the Columbia accident? In vulgar accountability, the answer is yes to these and other obvious questions about trade-offs.

To sum up, vulgar accountability stands in praise of the measurement of agency outputs and reasonable attempts to link outputs to social and economic outcomes. Vulgar accountability avoids the application of targets to performance measurement, following the wisdom of Edwards Deming who argued, in his total quality management approach, that if managers work on constantly improving processes, improved performance takes care of itself. Finally, vulgar accountability insists on honesty about trade-offs.

The 17th-century British philosopher and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had it right when he wrote that "every reform, however necessary, will, by weak minds, be carried to an excess, which itself will need reforming." Accountability has been a needed reform, but it is being carried to an excess which now requires reform. Vulgar accountability is that reform. Vulgar accountability may not seem as high a goal as pure accountability, but remember, it was Voltaire who wisely observed that "the best is the enemy of the good." How wonderfully vulgar.