Accountability, responsibility and the blame game

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In mid-August in Melbourne the winds get up as spring approaches. This August, too, the winds of public conversation have grown in force. From focusing on the people who suffer from the effects of the coronavirus on personal and public economies, and the need for public solidarity in accepting the hardships of the response to it, they have turned to accusation and blame.

Main image: Exterior Parliament House Canberra (Alex Proimos/Flickr)

The shift picks up popular frustration with the virus and its strictures, and seeks justification in the name of accountability. In a fine article John Warhurst has examined the complexities of accountability in its different dimensions. I would like here to reflect on the relationship between accountability and other essential aspects of public life: reflection, responsibility, and praise or blame with their attendant punishment and reward. The order and priorities within these need to be respected both in government action and in public comment.

The shift in tone over the last two weeks has been fuelled by enquiries into the failure of quarantine in New South Wales and Victoria, the evident failings of homes for the elderly, and more centrally by the coronavirus outbreak in Victoria and the steps taken to address it. The quarantining of overseas arrivals is a Federal Government responsibility whose administration is delegated to the State Governments. It was demonstrably ineffective in keeping infection out of the community. This failure is potentially embarrassing for all levels of government. It threatens the intergovernmental unity in responding to the virus and so public acceptance of the hardship entailed in this response.

The failure led to the refusal to allow federal officials to appear at a NSW enquiry, and to briefing by Federal Government sources against the Victorian response. This in turn resulted in concerted media attack on the Victorian authorities, in a focus on mistakes made during their response, and in the demand for the resignation of key ministers, all in the name of accountability.

Accountability is a necessary part, but only one part, of responding to a crisis. Any complete response includes four elements: accountability, reflection, responsibility, and praise or blame. Not only the presence but the order between these elements is important. The overarching and most needed aspect of the response is responsibility. Leaders need to take responsibility for responding to the crisis. In this they have a responsibility to their people and to their own conscience for doing so wisely and courageously.

To exercise responsibility, however, requires first that they be reflective. In response to a fast moving and always imperfectly understood crisis, they need to judge the situation calmly, to respond affectively to its human dimension, to seek and accept the advice of people with expertise about the situation, and to act decisively. In doing so they take responsibility for their actions and for their decisions not to act.

 

'Accountability is a necessary part, but only one part, of responding to a crisis.'

 

An essential part of their responsibility is to mirror a proper response to the crisis. The focus, calmness, perseverance and patent maturity that they display in placing the needs of the community and particularly its most vulnerable members above their own individual and political interests will model the response required of people more generally. In this respect, to my mind, Premier Daniel Andrews has been exemplary.

Political leaders must also be held accountable for their decisions. Ordinarily this accountability is initially exercised through Parliament as part of the decision making. When they face a national crisis, however, the need to act quickly and restrictions on Parliamentary meetings may mean that accountability comes after the event. Accountability must also be accompanied by reflection, and is best exercised through formal enquiries focused on learning from both the successes and the mistakes of the way governments exercised their responsibility in the crisis. Though focused on the past, its concern is for the future.

Finally, attached to accountability is the allocation of praise and blame. In crises these judgments should reflect the fact that decisions were necessarily taken in haste and often without access to relevant information that only later, if ever, became available.

Recent comments by politicians and media on the coronavirus have moved from focusing on responsibility to accountability, and have identified accountability with blame. They no longer support leaders in their responsibility to act on behalf of the whole society and its most vulnerable members and to encourage generosity of spirit in the community, but set out to blame them for the suffering that has accompanied those decisions.

When accountability is identified with blame, political leaders and their supportive media are tempted to shift blame to their political opponents and to evade their own responsibility. When they do this the focus of their reflection turns from responding to the constantly changing challenges posed by the coronavirus to devising plausible arguments in defence of their past actions. In this process the responsibility required by leaders and people to set aside their individual interests for the good of the whole community is eroded.

The media are right to emphasise the importance of accountability and their own role in ensuring it. That role, however, needs also to be set into a wider responsibility to support leaders and people in their responsibility to address the crisis in a way that places the good of the community above their own interests. In ensuring accountability, their primary role is to report what is being done, including the measures being taken, their impact on people directly affected by the virus and their impact on people affected economically and in other ways by the response. By and large they have done that well.

They should also provide a forum for reflection on issues raised by the virus for Australian society and for dealing with future crises. They will inevitably raise questions of accountability that will need further investigation, ensuring that they do not go unnoticed. But they should not set themselves as a court in which questions of accountability are decided, and blame is assigned. That is where some have been moving, and it is irresponsible.

To understand the importance of insisting on the shared responsibility of political leaders, of citizens and of the media, to set aside their own individual interests for the good of society as a whole, we need only consider Mr Trump’s United States. There irresponsibility has reigned in the response to the coronavirus at a terrible cost. The exercise of responsibility involves a disciplined focus and the stakes are high.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Exterior Parliament House Canberra (Alex Proimos/Flickr)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, COVID-19, accountability, responsibility, blame, auspol, Daniel Andrews

 

 

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Existing comments

Andrew, Thank you for your well-balanced article. I agree with it entirely. There is too much negativity around the media and some politicians, some of whom seem to find pleasure in exacting 'punishment' on perceived mistakes or transgression by elected officials, who bear the weight and responsibility for us, the governed people. The prime target of the above 'warriors' is Daniel Andrews; who, to me, has been the champion in this fight against COVID-19, not only in Victoria, but for Australia as a whole.
John Willis | 20 August 2020


I enjoyed this...... "accountability" is often a word thrown around, a little like a smoke screen and sometimes for that effect!. I suggest there is need for both leaders and followers to ensure there is alignment between Responsibility (as in ability to respond) - Authority (capacity to effect action) - Accountability (giving an account). Sometimes management expects results from someone for whom these 3 do not align. I can recall a number of examples while working in the public service, where lower minions are landed with impossible tasks and are left to carry the can when they don't achieve.
Doug | 20 August 2020


In fighting the virus, the one thing that is certain is that we cannot predict what will happen. It is hard to err on what we hope is the side of caution and conversely dangerous to relax. Mistakes are inevitable. But, in denying this truth, we are susceptible to greater mistakes, particularly relaxing too easily, both as individuals, by ignoring the hygienic practices, and as a community, by reducing restrictions. An opposition who sees its job to contradict the current practice is not being reflective nor accountable. It can only distribute blame and may cause greater missteps. Likewise, the media, swimming in a mass of "he said ...", "you said ..." challenging statements by one with statements by another, are not helpful, trying to cause "mis-speech" gotchas. Such divers statements by divers people require a proper examination by independent enquiries. Otherwise, we waste our time and miss understanding.
Peter Horan | 20 August 2020


Andy, a 'smashing' break-through discussion on one of the most pressing problems in an otherwise missing national debate on contemporary 'coronaviral' ethics! (You at your best!) Two points: it is possible to set up a system and method for 'critical reflection' even before responsible action is taken in this fast-moving crisis, but that would take extraordinary self-discipline and generosity on the part of gifted women and men. High quality media, like the ABC, are capable of providing this, even in an instance, but it would take immense forbearance, insight and leadership to differentiate between our latter-day Cassandras and other prophets of doom and constructive though (in emergency contexts) invariably unelected advisors. An Australia-wide Code of Ethics in readiness for all unforeseen and emergency situations of this kind should be an essential outcome of the current crisis, constructed to apply to all future crisis scenarios. The other point missing here is: in such a fast moving pandemic, given the fatal consequences of uncontained viral spread, immense generosity of spirit must be forthcoming when it comes to forgiveness. While our mistakes have catastrophic consequences, these are, in the end, but accidents, rather than acts of deliberate killing, regardless of their devastating consequences.
Michael FURTADO | 21 August 2020


"Accountability must also be accompanied by reflection" sounds like an examinations of conscience. And much of the rest of the article to my mind lacks the hard edges needed in this area of accountability and responsibility. What underlies the matter is the initial contracting, setting of goals and the areas of responsibility around those goals. Simultaneously you need to set criteria for measuring the success of the goal achievements. This can be done even with the accuracy of numbers in many cases. However, it is at the start of these contracts to do a particular job, to obtain a particular objective result, that the work needs to be done. It is irresponsible to start without these processes. There is no sense pretending to measure what was flabby, vague or unclear in the start. But often the beginning of a project or an appointment to a job is surrounded by emotions which leave essential detail in the assumptive area of, 'we are decent' 'we know what to do', 'we can leave all that stuff till later'. That contracting stage should also be accompanied by two other processes: what access does the project have to resources and power? And what could stuff this up and when that happens what will we do? (including crises-something will always happen) Then there is a framework with which to examine the matter during or after and something to which to draw the reluctant attention of the media. Then you can compare the building with the original blueprint.
Michae D. Breen | 21 August 2020


I remember the late Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls, saying that in England they had trial by jury, whereas in America they had trial by the newspapers. In some instances our media have become judge, jury and executioner. The COVID-19 pandemic is one of these instances. The chain of command in dealing with this pandemic is so tortuous that it is sometimes difficult to act in a timely manner and hard to attribute responsibility for failure. For some fortuitous reason we have muddled through. Our situation is much better than many/most similar countries. We shall muddle on. Not a heroic statement but somewhat comforting, a bit like the 'spit, string and a prayer' adage regarding the Commonwealth Air Forces in WW 2.
Edward Fido | 24 August 2020


Well said, Andrew. You remind us that we’re better than this, that we can do the hard work of making our community flourish again, that we are, in fact, responsible for doing our part. We’re looking pretty broken at present, but allowing ourselves to be further divided and judgemental is not the answer. Apart from that - Michael Furtado, what he said!
Joan Seymour | 03 September 2020


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