The Oversight Fallacy

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There is a persistent belief in this culture that when you have a problem, the way to solve it is to find blame, institute controls, and watch it more closely. If there is violence in a community, we want more police. If someone is shot, if students aren’t learning, if costs are high; we assign blame, pass a law, and watch like crazy. This process, which we sanitize by calling it oversight, has become the universal solvent. For all our love of watching, the measures that are never taken are the social and economic costs of oversight. The oversight function in this culture may be designed to provide a service, but it often costs much more than it benefits. There is some wisdom in the ironic saying that “research causes cancer in rats.”

The idea that what is intended to help often results in more harm is vividly addressed in a book by Ivan Illich, entitled Medical Nemesis. In it he describes what he calls iatrogenic illness. This is doctor-induced illness. Oversimplified, he claims that physicians have become so powerful in controlling the diagnosis and cure of disease that they can interfere with our capacity for mutual self-care and therefore our health.

He describes how helpers, including physicians, can cause sickness by the over-application of their tools, namely, prescription drugs and surgery. Illich thinks physicians undermine health by becoming too central to the process of healing, which in turn, discounts our own faith and capacity to care for ourselves. Our passion for oversight has the same iatrogenic effect: to wound what we intend to heal.

A cost is incurred the moment we start believing that if we closely and critically watch something, it will get better. When did we start to believe that the public pronouncement of evil ever got rid of it?

Three structures that symbolize how control and inspection undermine institutional effectiveness are city councils, not-for-profit boards of directors, and boards of education. There is much nobility in the willingness to serve as a public official or to volunteer to be a member of a board, but when we think that oversight is their prime mission, and we construct the role of board member and elected official to act as judge, examiner, and jury, we corrupt the role.

Here are some iatrogenic effects of council and board leadership—ways they damage what they are intended to help:

A small question can incur a large cost. Elected officials and board members continuously demand more data and more study. They often ask 50¢ questions that require $100 worth of response. Every request for more data generates paid staff time to answer it and much of the time, when the data is provided, the issue has moved on and the official or board member forgot that they asked the question.

Elected officials and board members do not suffer any consequences for the demands that they make. They are exercising power over a system in a way that has no personal consequence to them. They demand cost reductions; squeeze jobs, products, or services; and use the media to manage conflict, yet the elected official or board member’s position is untouched by what they initiate. They can be punishing and never guilty and incur costs they never pay for.

Elected officials and board members are temporary participants in complex systems that they have little experience with. Only in the public sector do we have amateurs influencing control over a domain that they did not grow up in. They therefore act more out of personal ideology than personal experience or knowledge. If they are wrong, there is little accountability.

The act of oversight reinforces monarchy. It establishes the stance of a superior looking down at the response of an inferior. Watch a city council meeting and simply look at the room. The elected officials own the high ground and look down upon the people they are there to serve. Similarly, boardrooms are designed for status and power. These settings and the way the meetings are conducted breed a sense of unearned royalty that unnaturally serves the status needs of the official or board member, often at the expense of the operating well-being of the institution.

As a result, board members and elected officials develop an exaggerated sense of their own importance. Instead of developing the humility of service, this special class thinks they exist for the sake of corrective action. What evidence do we have that the call for corrective action actually leads to an answer?

Oversight breeds defensiveness and anxiety in what it watches. It carries the ill effects of blame, which is to discourage risk and reduce honest conversation. It reduces trust by highlighting the vulnerability of those being overseen and reinforces the power and innocence of those doing the looking and judging.

We justify the oversight function by the need for public institutions to be accountable to the community. True, but there are other ways to achieve this accountability. To constantly place an institution under the shadow of inspection and review undermines it. Oversight is appropriate where fraud or dishonesty is in question, but this
is rare.

Rethinking the Role

  1. Shift the role from oversight to advisory. Let the community get involved through what we would call an advisory group rather than the legislative role of council member or board member. Take the power and status out of the role and restrain it to one of help and service.
  2. Establish a guideline that any study requested by a board member should require ten hours of personal participation by the board member in the study. Let them join in paying the price of their questions.
  3. Civil servants and paid staff should regularly evaluate council and board members. These assessments should be made public to all board members and should be framed as an organization improvement process. Accountability for contribution should flow in both directions. If oversighters want to evaluate staff, fine. Just make the opposite true.
  4. Make dialogue the purpose of their meetings. Meet in flexible spaces where the status differences between board, staff, and citizens disappear and where real conversation is encouraged. The pompous settings where the groups meet make this difficult. Let the setting carry the message that we come together as partners and advisors rather than barons and monarchs.

Of course, the problem with our oversight obsession is broader than just the role of boards and councils; they are just a symbol of the problem. The whole quality movement recognized that while inspection may identify a symptom, it did not help much with improvement. We need to apply this insight to the broader society and stop passing laws and looking for someone to blame every time there is a crisis. The real concerns of safety, health, the well-being of the next generation or the effectiveness of our public institutions will be solved by building stronger communities, not by creating more avenues for criticism and enforcement.

When we begin to value insight above oversight and invest more in connection than in correction, we make real accountability possible, and we can put to rest the belief that blaming our institutions and those who run them creates any social good.

Reprinted with permission of The Association for Quality and Participation from the May 2000 issue of News for a Change, Cincinnati, Ohio. Copyright 2000 All rights reserved. For more information contact AQP.