Accountability a virtue in churches and banks

Accountability, that is individuals being held accountable for those matters for which they are either formally or practically responsible, is a vital link between leaders and their communities, whether they are members, supporters, shareholders or voters.

Jun 08, 2018

By John Warhurst
Accountability, that is individuals being held accountable for those matters for which they are either formally or practically responsible, is a vital link between leaders and their communities, whether they are members, supporters, shareholders or voters.

It can be achieved in various ways. For instance, both individual and collective ministerial responsibility are built into our Westminster system of government, which links the government and the public service to the parliament and ultimately to the people through a chain of accountability. But in other areas of life the links are less clear.

In practice, accountability can be a crude and, sometimes, harsh instrument when used in daily life. I often have sympathy for those who pay the price of collective failure even though they may not be personally responsible.

We see it in practice each time a football coach is sacked for a team’s poor results even though there might actually be nothing wrong with the coaching; it might be the players who are at fault. But sacking the coach is a necessary intervention for confidence to be restored among members and supporters and to show that at least someone has taken responsibility for the group's failure.

We are also seeing accountability in practice in public life following the startlingly adverse revelations of crime and corruption by the Royal Commission into the Banking and Financial Services Industries. The prime examples have come from the insurance giant, AMP, where the chair, Catherine Brenner, and three other board members have announced their resignations. Brenner has also effectively been forced off another board, and the rumblings have been heard right through the corporate sector.

For all their apparent harshness, such outcomes, which may be more symbolic than anything else, despite the individual pain and cost, are almost always positive. They serve as a pressure valve being released on built-up tension, as well as showing that the board must take ultimate responsibility for the actions of those in the organisation.

There are lessons here, too, for other major institutions under fire, like governments and the Catholic Church. In both areas, the mechanisms of accountability are weaker than they ought to be or, sometimes, practically non-existent.

Despite the inbuilt mechanisms of individual and collective responsibility in government, we see little of either in practice these days. When individual ministers do resign or are sacked it is now almost always because of personal crimes or sins, like evidence of travel rorts, conflicts of interest or sexual harassment, rather than because of the policy and administration failures of those for whom they are responsible.

Governments are so defensive that they will do almost anything to prevent the Opposition claiming a scalp. To do so would be an admission of failure in government policy or administration. A minister may be quietly dropped much later, but not with any admission of failure because that would implicate the leader or the government as a whole.

Within the church the same applies. The recent offer of resignation made as a group to Pope Francis by the entire Chilean hierarchy is a breath of fresh air. The sexual abuse crisis in the Chilean church, which has also engulfed the Pope himself, needed such a dramatic action as a sign of accountability to restore some credibility with the Chilean Catholic community and the wider public. As in politics, whether the resignations are accepted may even be less important than the gesture of responsibility which has been made.

Accountability in action is best when it is proactive. It loses its impact when it is resisted and comes as a last resort. Institutions of all sorts must be seen to be on the front foot in this regard. In Australia, what the Church has lacked is an obvious sign of accountability by leaders, whether of religious orders or dioceses, for the crimes covered up by institutional responses to child sexual abuse. General apologies don’t go far enough. Compensation is necessary, but also not enough. The reputation of the Church would now be higher if there were more obvious signals of accountability by those in charge. This would not imply personal but official responsibility.

Let’s hope recent events in many sectors lead to a widespread outbreak of accountability across Australia. --LCI (international. la-croix.com)

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