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Accountability and Authority, 6/26
the case for well-run institutions
One of my tropes is that government agencies and non-profits are more likely to be dysfunctional than profit-seeking firms. Another trope is that the dream of doing away with banks and other formal institutions is impractical. One way to express this is in terms of the alignment between accountability and authority. Nonprofits and government have too little accountability. Distributed network systems create too little authority.
Being accountable means that in order for you to do well, the people you are supposed to serve have to do well. If a profit-seeking firm’s customers do not do well, ultimately the firm will fail. In a non-profit or government agency, the people you are supposed to serve are those that the organization’s mission is supposed to address. You are supposed to be making life better for cancer sufferers, or children in low-income families, or what have you.
Having authority means having the resources and decision-making power to get things done. A licensed physician has the legal authority to prescribe certain medicines; an amateur healer lacks such authority.
Accountability and authority ought to be proportional to one another. If you have authority without accountability, then you are in a position to abuse power. If you have accountability without authority, then you are probably being set up to fail.
The position of “project manager” in an organization often comes with no formal authority but with a lot of accountability. Projects typically require work by people from different parts of the organization. You have no formal authority, because the people on your project team report to their line bosses—you may have no direct input into their compensation. But top management expects the project to be completed.
I have come to admire great project managers. I would argue that they are intrinsically set up to fail, but the best ones nonetheless succeed. Project managers must have both analytical ability and outstanding people skills. I knew one project manager, P, who was able to inspire such intense team spirit and personal loyalty among her project staff that they would go all-out to complete the project. One of her colleagues offered this backhanded complement: “She’ll always get the project done. The trick is to make sure that it’s a project that should be done.”
Project management aside, if I told you that a prospective boss liked to hold you accountable but would not give you authority, you probably would say “That’s crazy. I don’t want to be set up to fail. I’ll pass on that job.”
The combination of low accountability and low authority makes for sullen employees. Think of the stereotypical Department of Motor Vehicles. Or think of workers on an American automobile assembly line, circa 1970. They didn’t care if a rivet was missing or a fitting was off.
Japanese auto makers gave assembly-line workers authority and accountability for product quality. Famously, they gave any worker the authority to stop the assembly line if the worker saw problems. American management eventually copied this approach.
The opposite of the sullen, drone employee is the entrepreneur, who combines strong authority and strong accountability. Not everyone is psychologically suited to the sort of pressure that comes with that.
The combination of strong authority and weak accountability is the one that troubles me the most. It concerns me that so many people seem to want that combination. And even worse, our society seems to be creating positions for them. Bureaucrats. Non-profit workers. Activists.
One solution to the problem of people abusing authority is to get rid of authority altogether. Decentralize everything and put it on the blockchain! Code all of the rules in software, and we won’t need any bureaucrats!
I am skeptical of this notion that we can replace institutions with software. Engineers cannot anticipate every possible use-case or abuse-case for the systems that they build. There is a saying that “If you try to make something idiot-proof, someone will just make a better idiot.”
I am old enough to remember when open-source software was going to be the solution to everything. But end-users need more handholding than the open-source software community will provide. If you are confused by Linux, you can’t call tech support. And if your crypto assets disappear, you can’t call customer support or count on help from the government.
I think that the problem of getting accountability and authority straight is one of the biggest challenges that we face in large-scale society. I believe that what Martin Gurri calls the revolt of the public is a reaction against institutions that have too much authority and too little accountability. But the resulting protest movements have neither authority nor accountability. By themselves they are not the answer.