Authority and Accountability

accountabilityThis is a guest post by Thad Lurie, Chief Operating Officer at EDUCAUSE.

au·thor·i·ty:  the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine.

ac·count·a·ble: subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable.

Questions around authority and accountability in organizations can be heavily entangled with both cultural challenges and process questions, and are not easily addressable. These factors often lead to complacency around confronting the issues, which in turn can allow them to become entrenched elements of the organizational culture.

Technology provides a fascinating lens through which to view some of these issues, mainly because the gray area that exists around system ownership and governance causes quite a few of them. Take the organizational website, for example. It can be ‘owned’ by marketing, technology, a web team, a content team, communications, or any combination of the above (and more). We are immediately faced with the issues of authority (who has the final word for making structural or design changes?) and accountability (who is accountable for the results of and response to said changes?). I can’t give generic answers to questions like that, but they highlight a key realization: that decision making authority and accountability must live together.

Let’s say that again – decision making authority and accountability must live together.

I doubt I’ll get any arguments against this idea. The alternatives—vesting authority without accountability, or holding someone accountable for a decision they did not make (or possibly support)—both seem illogical, so you think we’d follow this rule fairly consistently in organizations.

Not so with technology! Technology creates many of these difficulties because you often have a subject matter expert (who knows A, but not B) and an IT staffer (who knows B, but not A), and they have ‘shared’ responsibility for something. The collaboration is important, but when we simply ignore the authority/accountability confusion, we usually end up frustrated. Approaching these sticky situations with consistency and clarity will lead to better outcomes.

This principle isn’t limited to technology – whether you’re talking about budgeting, content, policy, or anything else, it is important to have a shared foundational principles that assists with consistent decision making; a north star, as it were. Clarity around accountability and authority is a good place to start.