Accountability, responsibility and the blame game

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.

Aug 22, 2020

By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ,
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 conscience, for doing so wisely and courageously.

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.

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 or 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 in some countries, and have identified accountability with blame. They no longer support leaders in their responsibility to act on behalf of the whole of 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 interests for the good of the whole community is eroded.

The media are right to emphasise the importance of accountability and their role in ensuring it. That role, however, needs also to be set into a broader 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.

To understand the importance of insisting on the shared responsibility of political leaders, of citizens and the media, to set aside their own individual interests for the good of society as a whole. The exercise of responsibility involves a disciplined focus, and the stakes are high. ––Eureka Street

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