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Improving Accountability in a Complex Environment

April 15 2019 - by Nadia Spencer- Henry, Debt Manager, Ministry of Finance and Corporate Governance - Antigua & Barbuda, and CLP Alumna

Public sector organisations are often criticized for lacking accountability. Often, it seems that persons who perform receive the same benefits as those who do not. Let’s face it - when you became a civil servant somebody probably told you (like they told me) just stay the course and eventually you’ll get to where you want to be.  Some of us leaders have run with this advice and we have simply stopped demanding accountability, as well as, stopped being accountable.

It is pretty easy to remain on the fence, and many managers adopt this position easily in a complex public sector environment. In my country, the civil service has grown tremendously since colonial times and the organizational structures have become more complex. It is easy for some functionality to be lost.  However, technical managers have the benefit of international guidelines and standards that can be used to develop appropriate accountability frameworks.

Public Financial Management practitioners have several international standards that should - if followed - help them to stay the course. These standards include the Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA), the Tax Administration Diagnostic Assessment Tool (TADAT), Debt Management Performance Assessment (DEMPA), and the Methodology for Assessing Procurement Systems (MAPS).  These standard-setting assessments have several things in common; the tools guide you to the weaknesses in your system and allow you to identify your strengths. They can be used as self-assessments or in collaboration with international partners. The assessment involves a wide group of stakeholders and allows the public financial manager to take a systems approach to reforming weak areas.

Having participated in several of these assessments, I’m aware that they haven’t done anything to support accountability.  The assessment in itself does not organically bring reforms or make managers feel the push to reform the weak areas identified. Generally, the Ministry of Finance and stakeholders enlist the support of external partners to implement reforms following an assessment and while this assistance is time-bound, the reforms may span several years. 

The international proponents of these standards like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the PEFA secretariat support efforts to draft a Responsible Accountable Consulted Informed (RACI) Model. This tool basically lays a road map for the country to get all the key stakeholders involved in the reform process. However, a country has to work within its resources both human and financial to improve on the scores achieved in the assessment.

As identified by Ron Ashkenas[1] and others, it is critical to identify the cultural patterns that characterize the organization and how these patterns can be overcome as a part of any reform process. Invariably, the public financial management standard setting tools identify the technical requirements without addressing issues such as culture.

Secondly, Ashkenas emphasizes that managers need to make it clear who is accountable for what and how results will be measured. Generally, the assessment tools point to cross-functional assignment and multiples of stakeholders. Managers need to communicate so that reform efforts are actually implemented across departments and units and to ensure that managers understand or appreciate the cost of failure.

Finally, appoint process champions, especially for activities that cut across different parts of the Ministry, Agencies and Departments. Process champions may not always have full authority for all of the resources, but they are a step in the direction of single accountability for dispersed activities.

No reform process is easy and keeping managers accountable can make the process even more tedious. However, understanding the idiosyncrasies of your organization, the cultural make-up and the key process champions can help to foster and maintain motivation for change, following any international assessment.

 [1] ‘Why Accountability is so Muddled and How to Un-muddle it’, Harvard Business Review in 2012.