Thursday, June 25, 2015

The tension between accountability and trust

On the one hand I think it is very important that people and institutions should be accountable for their actions. Human nature is such that if people are not accountable they will often choose to act in selfish ways that lead at best to mediocrity and at worst to corruption, exploitation, and waste of precious resources (financial, human, and environmental).

On the other hand, at some level you need to trust people and give them freedom to get on with their job. Too much regulation and oversight can be dehumanising, discouraging, stifle initiative, and also waste resources. For example, the fact that at most universities half of the staff are administrative should be a serious concern.

Consider the following contrasting situations. The levels of accountability and trust are wide ranging.

Sepp Blatter thinks that FIFA should be self-regulating and left to get its own house in order.

CEO's of mining companies will claim that they will "do the right thing" when it comes to environmental protection and the government should reduce regulations.

In one state university in the USA, after one gets a Federal government research grant, one must then undergo an extensive internal review of the project goals, procedures, and budgets. Regular internal progress reports are required in addition to the reports required by the granting agency. Faculty hire administrative staff to manage this process for large grants.

In one department staff and graduate students can use the stationary cupboard, the photocopier, and computer printers as much as they choose. No personal accounts are kept.

I have held grants ranging from $8K to $800K where the reporting requirements were comparable.

In one country a research grant can be spent in any manner and proportion that the PI (Principal Investigator) pleases: postdocs, students, travel, computers, equipment, ...
In another country the funding agency breaks down the budget and specifies exactly what can be spent on each item.

In one university when a PI wants to hire a postdoc, the decision is made solely by them. In another, the PI has to convene a selection committee including the department chair, a faculty member from a different department, and must include gender diversity.

In one university after a faculty member teaches a course they have to file a log showing the content of each lecture and it is checked whether they covered all the material stated in the course profile. At another university no one checks.

At one university if a faculty member wants to take even a single day of vacation it has to be approved by the department chair and logged. At another university no one even keeps track.

Notice how in some of the situations above the institution is clearing trusting people to make the best possible choices. In other situations there is clearly a lack of trust, even in the smallest matters.

How does one find the appropriate balance between trust and accountability?
I am not sure. I would welcome suggestions.

Here are some rough thoughts.

1. The level of accountability should scale with the level of damage that can be done by misconduct.
A mining company clearing thousands of hectares of pristine rainforest is not the same as a graduate student using the department printer to print a gossip magazine article.
I think we actually need significantly more regulation of the rich and powerful and much less of people at the grass roots.

2. Accountability structures need rigorous cost-benefit analysis.
Will the amount of money potentially saved [whether in increased productivity or reduced misuse of resources] be actually be less than the money lost through increased administrative costs, lower staff productivity to reduced morale, inefficient use of resources due to inflexibility?

3. We should be realistic about the limited effectiveness of accountability structures.
The rich, powerful, and gifted are very good at getting around them.
Yet politicians and managers seem to think if they design a new policy, send an email, and require a report everything is going to alright. People game the system.

What do you think? 


  1. seems to support your (unsurprising to me) contention that "at most universities half of the staff are administrative should be a serious concern", but also suggests a need for finer graining, since it includes maintenance, security, and other support services. That is, not all those "administrative" staff are paid huge salaries. Better to cite might be the ratios of a few statistics of academic to non-academic salaries, say of median and average salaries; perhaps a bar graph of academic and non-academic salaries. Be careful, however, if it turns out you have to pick the "right" statistic to support your argument (if you pick the "wrong" statistic you might find that academics are paid too much). Your one-sentence example seems to me significant insofar as the tendentious nature of the comment detracts from the rest of your argument.

    "the level of damage that can be done by misconduct" is a tricky concept; for example, how would we compare "the level" of rape of one student by faculty per decade to "A mining company clearing thousands of hectares of pristine rainforest"? "cost-benefit analysis" has similar problems, as always because whether a single dollar amplitude is positive or negative is rarely a very good model for a complex system. Your last comment, that "[students, academics, and administrators] game the system", is as good an explanation as any for why more administrators are hired (although I take "gaming" used in this sense also to be a tricky concept).

    1. Hi Peter,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments. They are well taken.

      I agree that the numbers and classification of university staff needs to be clarified. My concern here was not so much about the small number of highly paid senior administrators. Rather, it is the fact that there are now so many low level administrative staff who are needed to "fill out all the forms". On the on hand, I am glad they are there because otherwise teaching staff would be spending all their time doing the paperwork. On the other hand, it some of the "accountability" was replaced with trust there would be less paperwork and the money saved could be used to hire more teaching staff or technical staff to support laboratory research.

      I also agree that a "cost-benefit" analysis that focuses solely on money is problematic. Human values such as morale and personal dignity need to be factored into the equation.