Magazine article Policy & Practice

Foxholes or Firing Squads: Rethinking Government Accountability

Magazine article Policy & Practice

Foxholes or Firing Squads: Rethinking Government Accountability

Article excerpt

Management-by-Fear is the current fad. Across the country, in conference rooms of every size, governors are looking at cabinet members' performance measures and demanding to know why the curve isn't bending. There are city managers berating department heads because the trend line is going in the wrong direction. There are federal appointees making up excuses for why the green light turned yellow on their dashboard. Again, nobody calls it Management-by-Fear. It's called accountability, managing for results, dashboards, scorecards, and STAT, to name a few. Different names, same assumption: The way we get better results is to hold people accountable for measurable goals. Unfortunately, not only do these accountability systems rarely work (affixing blame instead of fixing systems), they also produce devastating side effects (gaming the measurement system and increasing fear like we have seen in D.C. and Atlanta standardized test score scandals).

I used to believe very strongly in accountability systems. As a government executive and a consultant, I created and implemented every one of the buzzwords from the previous paragraph. And none of them made a bit of difference. Not because we didn't do them right. Rather, it's because we have gotten the notion of accountability all wrong.

My view on accountability was greatly changed by the stories of soldiers from World War II. My grandfather had fought in the war, but, like so many of his generation, he had chosen not to speak of it. I had no idea what he went through until I saw the incredible work of Stephen Ambrose, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks in the HBO mini-series "Band of Brothers." This graphic, eye-popping series followed Easy Company from the storming of Normandy Beach through the liberation and the eventual end of the European conflict. Each episode of the 10-part series showed a key battle through the eyes of one of the true-life characters. You saw what they saw and felt what they felt through some amazing acting and directorial magic. What was most memorable, however, were the last five minutes of each story, when the show interviewed the actual soldier depicted. Seeing the gentleness in their faces and the wisdom in their eyes, the bottled-up pain and their lifelong quest for a peaceful place to live out their days, brought me to tears. I appreciated my grandfather as I never had before.

If you've seen the series or know about the events, you know that these men displayed acts of unthinkable courage. They ran head-long into a hail of bullets. They dived on grenades and ran across enemy lines with little regard for their own life. How? How did the military breed that kind of dedication? How do they continue to do that? Why does a soldier give his life? Surely it's because he is accountable to his sergeant and doesn't want to let his sergeant down. And the sergeant is accountable to his major, and the major to his colonel. And all the way up the chain, everybody is accountable to someone above them.

Right?

Of course not. What the military knows, and what the soldiers in "Band of Brothers" revealed, was exactly the opposite. The front-line troops didn't feel accountable to their commanding officer. Heck, they didn't even like their commanding officer, and could care even less about his commanding officer. They were accountable to each other. They would rather take a bullet than see their friend take one. They risked their lives to save the man next to them, knowing full well that man would

do the same. …

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