Holding your hands up
Responsibility is a strange and many headed beast. On the positive end of the spectrum the word responsiobilty shows who is able to lead effectively, who can be trusted to make the right decisions and who bears the burdens of leadership at any level well.
On a less positive note, it also places huge burdens on those individuals which are often difficult to bear. Responsibility for ensuring a project is a success despite constant problems and fire fighting; responsibility for making decisions based upon little or no information; responsibility for doing the things that should be done rather than need to be done.
In the UK recently we have and are continuing to have the arguments over true responsibility and where it sits. The disgraceful practices which marred and caused the rapid downfall of the News of the World shocked the nation, with continuing furore surrounding those at the very top of the leadership chain. These individuals claim to have had no knowledge of the situations and operations taking place on their watch, by their staff, in their name; to crudely borrow a term from our American cousins they are pleading the fifth.
Yet again, this is an area where local government is not getting the credit it deserves.
As anyone even vaguely familiar with the sector will tell you, local government is entirely (some would say excessively) heirarchical. Every officer has a team leader, who reports to a manager, who reports to a service head, who reports to a director, who reports to the chief executive. Some individuals have many more layers than this at the bottom and the top, and the potential for local authorities to introduce executive mayors may result in a single individual assuming the mantle of responsibility for the entire Council.
On a bad day this set up – and the myriad and numerous committee, project board and other meetings which accompany it – means change comes slowly. New projects, especially those of a significant nature, often require approval two, three or even more rungs up that ladder before they can be started, with each level adding the comments and requirements of officers and managers who can’t help but want to ‘improve’ it or alter the plan in some way, Occasionally these comments prove useful and highlight additional risks or opportunities, but often they simply remove any semblance of risk or innovation.
However, each rung up or down, each comment received and acted upon, ties individuals to the project. With the habit of paperwork and record keeping embedded into local government officers it is a relatively straightforward process to track who had responsibility for which projects, and who had not just operational but also strategic responsibilty for them. Officers therefore usually enjoy a degree of rear-end covering, especially should they use project management techniques (which have been described not as tools to help do a job but tools to cover your back).
Therefore when things go wrong the responsibilty is more easily able to be assigned. Natural inclinations mean that officers often try to absolve themselves one way or another, but somewhere along the line someone will take the blame and their line manager will also shoulder some of the responsibilty for the foul up. The larger the foul up, the higher up the chain you go: for pretty major problems it is not common but also not impossible to see service heads quietly handing in their notice, occasionally with directors being forced out and very occasionally chief execs.
In a publically accountable and comparitively transparent sector (albeit not as transparent as some would like) it is extremely difficult to easily slip the ties of responsibility in the same way senior News International staff appear to be doing. With finances stemming from the public purse and with accountability ultimately sitting with an elected set of representatives, there are a number of mechanisms to ensure that wherever possible the most appropriate individuals are held accountable for the actions of their staff.
That’s not to say things are easy; it has been known to see prominent MPs and secretaries of state becoming involved for the most serious of cases, but the fact is that there are systems in place to force those with ultimate responsibility to take responsibilty for their actions. Whether these systems are internal and conducted by officers, whether tehy involve local councillors or whether outside individuals and organisations are involved, accountability is assigned and responsibility claimed.
So the next time you bemoan a Council officer who says “that’s not my responsibilty” remember that they might just be telling you the truth.