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Matt Bell is CEO of POP+ a Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) infrastructure body in Plymouth. He is also a Fellow of Practice with the GO Lab. In this blog piece he shares his views on accountability in the context of public services. He explores accountability and the challenges, as well as the concept of positive accountability and how this plays out in real life.

We need to rethink how we view accountability. When I observe about how we currently refer to accountability it tends to be because something has gone wrong and we need someone to blame. Or we don’t trust someone is going to be trying their hardest and so we need something to measure their progress against. I think this is an entirely unhelpful mode of thinking.

At its most productive, I think accountability means the fulfilment of a responsibility to the best of our ability AND an openness to challenge IN the spirit of learning. 

In simple cases accountability is one person to another. We might promise to do something for another and it’s normally obvious and verifiable to the other person that the responsibility is being fulfilled. But as we layer into this, working in a team, working as an organisation, working as a community it starts to get much more complicated, or even complex! The following question might start to arise “how do we know if responsibilities are being fulfilled, especially if it’s an area of expertise I don’t understand, successful fulfilment of the responsibility is hard to define or there is a lack of data?”

The challenge of accountability 

Often the people in receipt of the best data are those ‘being held accountable’. I would suggest this applies to many situations from line management to funding relationships. Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t often reward truth. Staff may feel their status or abilities might be damaged, grant recipients might fear prospects of future funding reduce. Or it might be as simple as hating to get something wrong and looking like we’re not in control – we all know we’ve done this! So, inevitably there is a bias towards presenting the ‘best side’ – it makes us feel less vulnerable. And so those ‘holding others accountable’ would be forgiven an inherent mistrust in data being presented in these situations. Finally, because accountability often flows in one direction, power creates a ‘fixed’ barrier to effective sharing of information, intelligence and development of solutions. 

What has this produced? Those in power have created more and more sophisticated mechanisms to overcome this dynamic – outcomes measures, performance management, reporting, independent evaluation. These are all designed (in large part) to overcome the positivity bias and seek to create objective measures that are not ‘gamed’. In my experience these mechanisms can provide useful data for discussion that leads to learning and insight, but all too often they are used to focus on where it’s going ‘wrong’ and find the culprit. If data is used inappropriately and accountability is mis-managed, we create a climate of fear. Information and intelligence stops flowing, innovation ceases, psychological safety disappears. 

This becomes even more acute in the realm of public services and the delivery of social good. In an ideal world accountability for those providing services flows in two directions – to the people receiving the service and to those who fund the service. Except in reality the funders have the power and the people receiving the service don’t. I believe this produces even greater dysfunction. Organisations get torn in two with senior management generally focussed on funders, the bulk of the workforce focussed on the people and middle management having to navigate the obstacles between the two. 

A counter cultural remedy  

At POP+ we’ve recognised this and identified a relatively simple but counter cultural remedy for this. Wherever we can we create the conditions necessary for networked accountability characterised by an appropriate diversity in stakeholders and clear responsibilities. We’re not alone in this - Buurtzorg home-care is a Dutch model of organising work that distributes accountability across a team of 12 nurses, removing the traditional power held in a management role. But I think this still leaves one big gap: Collusion. Where you can’t simply remove power from the equation (i.e. a manager), how do you create a mechanism which allows question and challenge not affected by the pursuit of power and create an environment that promotes the best of human behaviour? The hallmarks set out below, especially diversity and transparency go a long way to addressing this, but it is an area that would benefit from greater attention – send us your thoughts!

Positive accountability  

I suggest the exercise of positive accountability has these hallmarks:

  • Power is removed from the dynamics of accountability and where this is not possible, accountability is delegated away from decision makers.
  • We give legitimacy to independent actors that hold us to account over values/principles.
  • network of accountability exists that includes mutual accountability between peers?.
  • Responsibilities and basic rules of conduct for all stakeholders are clearly articulated.
  • Transparency applies across all stakeholders with no exceptions.
  • To get the best data and outcomes we need diversity in the stakeholders engaged in any process.
  • Focus on learning.
  • Spaces are provided for open deliberation and query. These spaces are carefully and thoughtfully convened. 

I think we need to start to see accountability as a robust process of exercising curiosity, discovery and learning through a range of relationships between diverse and independent actors. In my next blog I will explore how we have tested some of this in Plymouth through a funding scheme called Street-to-Scale. 

Street-to-Scale 2 – funding positive accountability

At POP+ we’ve been lucky enough to be able to test this through our Street-to-Scale funding. Working with we’re demonstrating how these hallmarks might look like in reality. 

Street-to-Scale is a novel approach to funding community action. It doesn’t use forms, thresholds and barriers - for good reason. The purpose of the funding is to generate as much community activity as possible so not having a constitution or a bank account shouldn't matter. Instead trust is put up front. We trust first, ask questions later - rather than the other way around. We use the conversations generated through WhatsApp groups to help form the right questions; questions relevant and appropriate for each group.  

The way it works is that any groups of people form a Street-to-Scale ‘bank’ to spend up to £1,000 on the activity they wish to carry out. They set up a WhatsApp group to communicate between one another and invite Ratio & POP+ into those group. One of the biggest insights from the initial testing is the importance of the two roles within the group. The ‘core’ group don’t spend the money, but help the group work well together and the ‘members’ get the credit cards to spend the money to achieve what the whole groups wants to.This designs in collaboration and accountability naturally sits right across the group rather than sitting with a few linear relationships. 

We’ve tried to design in the hallmarks in the previous blog to the way it operates. We have not been able remove power. Ultimately if it came down to it, POP+ trustees could make unilateral decisions and further up, Esmee Fairbairn could decide to cease funding POP+. Instead we have built in a network of accountability. This wide network of accountability brings with it a natural diversity in thought and experience.

Accountability that exists within the ‘banks’. The ‘core’ entrust the ‘members’ to spend the funds to achieve the aims of the group. Each member holds a card and can spend the portion of the funds allocate to the card – normally £100. They are therefore responsible for that money and accountable to the ‘core’ AND equally the other ‘members’. 

‘Banks’ are accountable to POP+. Through our relationship with the ‘banks’ we can ask questions about progress and what they are learning. We have appointed Learning Champions who have this responsibility. 

‘Banks’ are accountable to the Network of Networks. The Network of Networks supports POP+ to make decisions over the use of a delegated budget, part of which is Street-to-Scale. They are tasked with making a decision over what will happen next with Street-to-Scale. In this way the ‘banks’ are indirectly accountable to this group as they make this decision. 

POP+ is accountable to the ‘banks’. Feedback and learning about the process and Street-to-Scale development will go to the Network of Networks who will be able to challenge POP+ over progress and learning to date. 

Achieving transparency 

Transparency is achieved in a number of ways. The use of WhatsApp creates transparency in conversations, operating a common bank account means all financial transactions can be seen and audited centrally and in time, the data on the projects and actions taken will be fully available and discussed at POP+ Quarterly Events. Transparency and a focus on learning is also taken forward by our recent appointments of Learning Champions that will link in with the groups to promote learning and through the relationship’s accountability can flow (in both ways).

Deliberation and query are held throughout the process, but we are organising a range of spaces for discussion to be held in – Network of Network meetings and POP+ Quarterly events, an open opportunity for anyone to find out, question and challenge. 

As we develop this approach, we are developing clearer responsibilities and learning a huge amount. It is interesting that this is in constant development – so holding ‘to account’ is more akin to a negotiation than a black and white judgement. This way of working will get easier as we create an understanding of how we exercise accountability that doesn’t produce the unintended outcomes that can be produced by our existing mechanisms. It will be interesting to look at how resources can be used in new and different ways and how technology can continue to play an important role in aiding new ways of working.