Don't Count Us Out

How An Overreliance On Accountability Could Undermine The Public's Confidence In Schools, Business, Government, and More

A Report from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation

At a time when citizens can hardly read a newspaper article about government, education, philanthropy, business or healthcare that doesn't talk about accountability and the imperative of institutions to provide more information to citizens, new research from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation presents startling evidence that the public and leaders hold vastly different ideas about what it even means to be accountable.

The report, “Don’t Count Us Out: How an Overreliance on Accountability Could Undermine the Public’s Confidence in Schools, Business, Government and More,” is based on new public opinion research. It outlines the five key dimensions of accountability as the public defines it and contrasts the public’s perspective with prevailing leadership views. The study also highlights three recent controversies—the mortgage crisis, school closings, and government recommendations on mammograms—to demonstrate how differing ideas about accountability propel miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Among the most important contrasts between public and leadership views on accountability are:

More Information Does Not Equal More Trust. Perhaps Less!

Typically, people know almost nothing about specific measures, and they rarely see them as clear-cut evidence of effectiveness. Many Americans are deeply skeptical about the accuracy and importance of quantitative measures. Most are suspicious of the ways in which numbers can be manipulated or tell only half the story. Many members of the public feel confused and overwhelmed by the detailed information flying past them in the name of “disclosure” and “transparency.” Many fear they are being manipulated by the complex presentations. More and more statistics do not reassure, so in fact, more information can actually lead to less public trust.

Accountability Requires Ethics—Not Just Rules

With accountability’s emphasis on setting benchmarks, collecting data, measuring performance, disclosing information and organizing system-wide reforms, many leaders see it as the principal way to ensure that their institutions meet their obligations to be accountable to the public and increase public confidence. But those mechanisms, while often valuable as management tools, fall far short of relieving the public’s most potent concerns, especially their fears about an ethical decline in the culture. “The public believes that accountability will fail unless institutions have an ethical culture to support them,” said Jean Johnson, Executive Vice President of Public Agenda. “Our research was completed before the Atlanta school cheating scandal, but in many respects, this is exactly what the public is worried about. The accountability system derailed because some of the people using did not act honorably and responsibly. “

Responsiveness is valued over benchmarks.

For the public, being able to reach someone who listens to you and treats your ideas and questions respectfully is a fundamental dimension of accountability. For most people, not being able to talk to someone is a signal that the institution doesn’t genuinely care about those they serve. The message is clear for those in government, education, philanthropy, health and other sectors who may fear being besieged by community input: The public wants a better balance and authentic mechanisms that allow them to be heard.

Accountability is not the exclusive domain of leaders – the public expects to be held accountable.

For most Americans, the return to real accountability is not the job of leaders alone. Time and again, people in focus groups spoke about their own responsibilities and the near impossibility of solving problems without a broad base of responsibility at every level of society. Institutions that embrace the idea of a public role in fostering institutional accountability must think creatively and proactively about how typical citizens can contribute their knowledge and actions to fulfill the organization’s mission. As the report emphasizes, giving people more and more information or giving them more and more choices without truly considering public priorities and concerns is likely to backfire.

This research, conducted through focus groups and interviews in six cities around the country, was designed to explore and reveal how the lay public defines accountability to test whether leadership efforts to increase it in key sectors like education and government are meeting the public’s expectations.

The report contains:

  • A review of common conceptions of accountability prior to this research
  • An analysis of the implications of this research for government, education, philanthropy, business, healthcare and other sectors
  • A summary chart comparing and contrasting leader and public perceptions on 10 dimensions of accountability
  • A discussion of other organizations’ survey research related to accountability
  • Three case examples in education, business and healthcare providing concrete illustrations of how the disconnect plays out time and again in America.
  • An appendix further exploring leaders’ and experts’ views on accountability
  • A detailed methodology section describing how the research was conducted and what can be generalized based on the evidence.

For more on the Kettering Foundation, click here:

Download the PDF of the Report

Don't Count Us Out

How an Overreliance on Accountability Could Undermine the Public's Confidence in Schools, Business, Government & More

Media Type: PDF

New research presents startling evidence that the public and leaders hold vastly different ideas about what it even means to be accountable.


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