Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Cross Pressures of Accountability: Initiative, Command, and Failure in the Ron Brown Plane Crash(*)

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Cross Pressures of Accountability: Initiative, Command, and Failure in the Ron Brown Plane Crash(*)

Article excerpt


Current management trends emphasize leadership, initiative, and entrepreneurial approaches to administrative duties (Bryson and Crosby 1992; Hesselbein, Goldsmith, and Beckhard 1996; O'Toole 1995). Accompanying and, in part, driving the interest in initiative and entrepreneurial management is a heightened interest in greater accountability of public managers and a recognition that rules and process orientations toward accountability have not fostered sufficient responsiveness on the part of public agencies. In the public sector, these emphases have generated much enthusiasm and energy directed at administrative reform (Kettl and DiIulio 1995; Thompson 1993; Ingraham, Thompson, and Sanders 1998).

Contemporary management reforms at the federal, state, and local levels emphasize cutting red tape, empowering workers, streamlining process, and being responsive to one's customers (Osborne and Gaebler 1992; Gore 1993, 1995; Thompson 1993). These trends have extended into all levels of government and permeated even those organizations that one might expect to be somewhat insulated from management fads, namely the United States military. These reforms, which seek to change the management culture, must recognize and accommodate the expectations associated with the culture of accountability that has developed in this country over the years (Romzek 1998).

A troubling dynamic associated with these management reforms is a gap between the rhetoric and expectations of government reform and the reality of the blame-oriented, litigious American political culture. This gap is characteristic of the accountability environment within which public organizations and public managers operate. While management reforms encourage initiative and sometimes even necessitate entrepreneurial behavior--for example, to continue to provide high levels of service with reduced staff and funding--accountability dynamics continue to reinforce risk-averse rules and process orientations. For example, when entrepreneurial activities result in unwelcome outcomes, organizations are often quick to resort to accountability that emphasizes rules and compliance. This culture gap is likely to be particularly evident in organizations structured around principles of command and control, such as the military.

At first glance, accountability in the military is straight-forward: a strong hierarchical structure, a widely admired leadership development system, and a critical overarching mission all contribute to clear lines of authority and responsibility. The "can do" attitude of all the services has developed a long tradition of keeping those lines of authority intact in the face of danger, uncertainty, and unknown conditions. Leaders should, and do, demonstrate exemplary action, take responsibility, and accept accountability for their actions and for those in their command.

The clarity and simplicity that the above statements suggest, however, are more myth than reality. As an institution with strong emphasis on rules and a reliance on command and control approaches to management, the military faces a substantial challenge reconciling the many pressures in its administrative culture. These include military/ civilian, political/career, and inter-service conflicts and, most recently, the move from a "Cold War fighting machine" to sets of activities related to peacekeeping missions. This article explores the cross pressures individuals face when they are urged (and indeed expected) to demonstrate initiative and obedience to command while also operating within a web of accountability relationships that represent several different behavioral standards against which their performance can be judged.

This article analyzes the accountability dynamics facing various military officials involved with the crash of a military transport plane (the military equivalent of a Boeing 737-200) in Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 4, 1996. …

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