Source: Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation | There seems to be an assumption that everyone agrees on what the term “accountability” means. A new report by the Kettering Foundation and Public Agenda, however, suggests that this may not be the case when it comes to public institutions such as schools, public agencies, legislatures, and so on. The public’s view of accountability at these institutions does not necessarily match up with how the leaders of those institutions see and measure the concept.

This research, conducted through focus groups and interviews in six cities around the country, was designed to reveal how the lay public defines accountability in order to test whether efforts to increase it in key sectors like education and government are meeting the public’s expectations. The report, Don’t Count Us Out: How an Overreliance on Accountability Could Undermine the Public’s Confidence in Schools, Business, Government and More outlines five “key dimensions of accountability as the public defines it” and contrasts the public definition of accountability with “prevailing leadership views.” Despite considerable efforts by public and private institutions to build confidence by adopting tougher accountability measures—such as an accounting of how tax dollars are spent or the measurement of school-related outcomes—Americans are still largely “disappointed” in public institutions.

The study highlights these main findings:

  • More information doesn’t necessarily result in more public trust, since most Americans are “skeptical” about the accuracy or importance of accountability measures, including how the latter can be “manipulated.”
  • While metrics and benchmarks can be valuable management tools, the public sees them as “falling short” when it comes to ensuring that institutions have “ethical cultures”—a “potent concern” of many Americans these days.
  • To the public, “Being able to reach someone who listens to you and treats your ideas and questions respectfully is a fundamental dimension of accountability.” In other words, the public values responsiveness more than benchmarks. But a way of measuring responsiveness is frequently absent from accountability systems.
  • For most Americans, the job of deciding on the metrics or benchmarks to be included as part of accountability assessments should not be the exclusive domain of “public experts,” but rather, a wide range of “typical citizens” who can contribute knowledge and suggest techniques to strengthen accountability. 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.”

Essentially, the study’s authors say, “The public needs more than just numbers; they need genuine two-way communication and relationships that build trust” between them and their legislators, school administrators, and other institutional leaders. But the authors suggest that there is one other area that needs equal attention: philanthropy, which they say has “fewer true accountability mechanisms than any other field.” However, there is one dimension of accountability in which philanthropy may be strongest: the “publicly stated moral convictions of its leaders.” How to measure that will, perhaps, be the biggest challenge of all.—CMG