Accountability and Trust - It's Not So Easy Being Green

ArgumentumAdLapidem - [original thread]
The Problems With Institutional Legibility

Two comments:

1. Accountability is great, but hard to implement well.

I think a common failure mode of accountability/transparency is that it is implemented poorly. In an effort to achieve objectivity (or, more likely, to avoid accusations of subjectivity), metrics and checklists are put in place as the primary truth-discovery mechanism that is then used to feed the accountability/transparency machine. This fails because the metrics are not the goal, they are a proxy for the goal. The goal of the DMV manager should not be to get 99% 5-star ratings and an average wait-time of less than 30 minutes for his branch office so he can get promoted to super-manager. The goal should be to serve the needs of the customers quickly and comprehensively. But one the first can be boiled-down to numbers for algorithmic performance ranking.

Far better would a supervisor that visits each branch office regularly, and deeply understands the culture, performance, and attitude of each office, and evaluates the manager holistically. But such a system depends heavily on the incorruptible virtue of the supervisor. But let's assume such a virtuous ruler is impossible. In that case, it would be better to have less transparency, so that DMV managers who want to actually help people can do so without being handicapped by metrics. Transparency just means that even the well-meaning DMV managers have to play the metrics game, to catch-up to their game-playing peers, to the determent of all.

2. Trust and commitment to mission solve a lot of these problems.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, most bureaucratic structures are a defense against incompetence and lack of trust. If you have people who are loyal to the mission or the goal, you can basically give them the keys and trust that they will do the right thing. They are accountable (to the goal/mission), even without transparency.

If you feel the need to have transparency, it means the organizational culture is already diseased, because you don't trust each other. If you have to check their homework, it means you don't trust that they'll do it, or that they'll do it correctly.

I think transparency is trying to solve an unsolvable problem - how to create a loyal and selfless organization from self-interested and disloyal parts. It's not possible. The personal integrity of every person in the organization defines the organization. No amount of bureaucratic workflow tinkering will help. To the bad actor (the dishonest salesperson, the quack doctor, the company yes-man), all those metrics are just another layer of gameification that he will use to mask, obscure, or hide his bad intentions, and provide weapons for him to push out his more ethical rivals that are trying to reach beyond the metrics to the actual goal.