Holding Accountability Accountable

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. —Peter Drucker

A Google search for the phrase “accountability culture” turns up millions of articles with titles like Building a Culture of Accountability, How to Create a Culture of Accountability in the Workplace, 6 Practical Ways to Create a Culture of Accountability, 5 Strategies to Create a Culture of Accountability–and so on. None of the articles questions the desirability of being accountable—it’s axiomatic.

Our accountability culture is the direct descendant of the efficiency culture, which arose in the early twentieth century. In 1910, during a labor dispute in the rail industry, Americans discovered “scientific management”—a new idea that was enthusiastically promoted by people such as Frederick W. Taylor, perhaps the first expert in efficiency. Applying scientific principles to management practice, he claimed, would produce rising wages, falling prices, and greater profitability, all at the same time. As part of the sales pitch, the claims were extended beyond businesses to every part of society—family life, religion, and, most especially, education. Efficiency promised to remake modern civilization. (For a comprehensive telling of this story, see Education and the Cult of Efficiency by Raymond Callahan, University of Chicago Press, 1962.)

Taylor himself admitted that many “charlatans and cranks” claimed status as efficiency experts and often profited handsomely. Nevertheless, Taylorism grew and thrived, emphasizing time and motion studies in place of traditional judgment, data in place of narrative. Over time, the movement evolved into jargon-ridden business wisdom that promoted slogans like Peter Drucker’s absurd maxim above, or the equally absurd “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” or the bombastic “In God we trust, all other must bring data.” (The latter is often attributed to W. Edwards Deming, the brilliant statistician who devised management principles during the second half of the twentieth century. Since Deming is also famous for writing, “Some of the most important things in life can’t be measured,” the attribution seems unlikely.) As before, the new movement drew cranks and charlatans who sold whacky advice and offered ludicrous consulting services. They made millions … they still do.

The accountability culture arose late in the twentieth century and remains ascendant today. On the face of it, accountability is hard to oppose. If accountability merely means “to be responsible for one’s actions,” it seems entirely sensible, even desirable. But perusing some of those millions of articles on accountability culture quickly shows that accountability is not principally about being accountable—it is far more expansive, far more complex, far more demanding. The accountability culture is a child of the efficiency culture. It involves performance indicators; it requires metrics; and above all it demands data. Accountability is driven by data! It replaces judgment by measurement, and that is what is supposed to make it scientific, objective, and superior to mere judgment.

Adopting the accountability culture is not the same as asking people to be accountable. Modern accountability exacts huge costs on individuals, institutions, and society. (It turns out you don’t ride for free when you’re driven by data.) The costs are described in a carefully constructed and beautifully written essay by Jerry Muller, The Costs of Accountability, which deserves to be better known and more widely read, especially by politicians. Muller holds accountability accountable, which proponents seldom do. Here is a brief synopsis.

Some of the costs of accountability are immediate and direct. Collecting data for No Child Left Behind consumed billions of dollars that could have been used to actually improve education. Colleges and universities continue to add more and more administrators in order to gather information on students and programs, much of it mandated by various accountability schemes. Police, hospitals, and businesses all devote enormous amounts of time, energy, and money to make themselves accountable, simultaneously making themselves less productive.

Some of the costs are philosophical. Muller writes: “By setting out in advance a limited and purportedly measurable set of goals, accountability mania truncates the range of actual goals of a business or organization.” He points out that the process makes formulating new innovative goals much more difficult. It virtually eliminates goals that are not easily measured This is a particularly disastrous cost in education, where traditional goals like socialization, creativity, curiosity, and intellectual self-reliance are often hard or impossible to measure. Accountability limits our goals.

And some of the costs are societal. Muller points out that expertise used to require intimate knowledge of the field, “but in the latter decades of the 20th century, ever more organizations … came to be headed by those who moved from one institution to another, often in unrelated fields….” The kind of expertise accumulated over a career is no longer necessary or even desirable. Leaders of institutions become interchangeable consultants whose principal talent is managing standardized measurements. Institutions are to be monitored and measured, but never trusted. This has been corrosive in all areas, but again it is especially corrosive in education. The great irony here is that the institutions that accountability was meant to improve eventually became more fragile, less trusted, and, sometimes, less trustworthy.

Monday, May 8, is the start of teacher appreciation week in the United States. As we hold our teachers accountable this week, let’s simultaneously appreciate them as experts—experts who have paid more than their share of accountability’s costs. Muller’s final paragraph will resonate with any teacher in America today.

“In the end, there is no silver bullet, no substitute for actually knowing one’s subject and one’s organization, which is partly a matter of experience and partly a matter of unquantifiable skill. Many matters of great importance are too subject to judgment and interpretation to be solved by standardized metrics. In recent decades, too many politicians, business leaders, policymakers, and academic officials have lost sight of that distinction. To paraphrase Lewis Carroll, ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, any metric will take you there.’”


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