Being accountable for end results is not a new concept in the business world. However in the not for profit and especially humanitarian sectors accountability is a current buzzword. This is partly because of the recent global economic crisis that has seen donations to some agencies drop by 30 per cent, and partly due to a new breed of donors such as the Gates Foundation demanding increased results focus in order to maintain agreed funding.

It’s not true to say that non-profits are disinterested, unreliable or incompetent in terms of accountability. Often the ‘humanitarian imperative’ or ‘social or personal imperative’ weigh more heavily on their decision-making and operational practices. It’s hard to measure the cost of a life or the security and well being of an individual against a bottom line or agreed budget. However the reality is that more and more agencies and donors are demanding more and more accountability, whether it is food distribution in Afghanistan, refugees processing and immigration in the Middle East or polio eradication in Nigeria and Pakistan, and nonprofits have to comply.

I’ve had the privilege of working with several large international organisations over the past years on accountability initiatives. Mechanisms are set up, frameworks are designed, indicators are identified and performance management systems introduced. It’s all very commendable, and many of the structures are comparable with those you would find in the corporate sectors. Yet still desired deliverables are not quite met.

My observation is that the challenge of accountability is not about the mechanisms. You can create all the spreadsheets, forms and systems you want but if you ignore the human element you will not get far. These observations come from the humanitarian sector, but I believe they are equally valid for managers in all sectors and professions.

Six Critical Factors

Many factors contribute to achieving accountability for agreed end results. Below are those that I believe to be the most critical in achieving success.

  1. Leadership example and sponsorship. Without clear and demonstrated high level leadership, accountability frameworks have little chance of success. Leaders need to lead, kick off, support, promote and model the behaviours and standards required of others in the organisation.
  2. Manager buy-in.Despite a public launch managers themselves often do not see the need, importance or value in the mechanisms introduced. Technically promoted managers rarely value the ‘management’ side of their responsibilities, and see them as a bureaucratic burden. They resist accountability initiatives often perceiving them as an insult to past work and accomplishments. Uncommitted managers show little compliance, and they do not promote positive messages about the need nor the efforts required for increased accountability.
  3. Skillswith tools of the accountability framework. More than a few managers I meet are incapable of turning on their computers without the help of their assistants. This naturally jeopardizes organizational efforts to implement self-service finance, admin. and HR systems. It also opens access of confidential information to staff members who shouldn’t have it, and limits the managers immediate access to data and results. IT literacy to access and utilize tools and software that capture critical data and information is a prerequisite to accountability.
  4. Management style and cognitive bias. Most people now recognize that individuals have different styles of managing. This itself doesn’t necessarily create problems. For some managers there is never enough data, and this can lead to analysis paralysis as they focus on what is immediately beneath their noses and loose sight of the bigger picture. Others are ‘What-iffers’ who constantly question the mission and task. They can get side-tracked and ‘creep’ away from previously agree priorities as more immediate and interesting challenges present themselves. When managers are consciously aware of their style and the cognitive biases, they instigate mechanisms in an effort to avoid them.
  5. Relationship with staff. A critical component for accountability is the ability to communicate requirements to staff and to motivate team members towards committed deliverables. Too many managers seem to believe that because they understand the need, purpose and process of an accountability initiative, staff are equally informed and on-board. Not so. Likewise the autocratic manager who push strongly for accountability are sometimes perceived as bullying and abusive. Rather than enhancing accountability they often create fear, resentment which in some cases results in sabotage: food not distributed or looted; vaccines not administered, essential forms and reports not completed. Managers who are unable to engage with and inspire staff are limited in their ability to deliver agreed targets.
  6. Ability to motivate and create collaboration. Successful achievement of results depends upon engaged, individuals willing to accept responsibility. This kind of commitment arises when people are included, respected and appreciated for their ability and contributions to the long-term success of projects. Managers need to know their staff, and allocate work to them that matches their strengths and their interests. Too many managers believe that by inviting their people to contribute they will lose authority, when in fact the very opposite is normally the case. Managers who consult with their staff and respect expert input earn the greatest respect.

Bottom line

If organisations are truly committed to increasing accountability to better guarantee success towards agreed deliverables they must invest not only in the mechanisms and systems, but in learning programmes and coaching for managers and people.

All managers must:

  1. Walk the talk, and demonstrate the added value of personal accountability.
  2. Understand their role and responsibility to the work and their staff.
  3. Be aware of their management style and potential cognitive biases.
  4. Learn the skills required to manage the tools.
  5. Appreciate the need to align staff with organizational and project goals.
  6. Be able to create an enabling work environment in which people can grow and take responsibility.
Accountability: It’s not about the forms. Lessons from the Humanitarian Sector