Sunday, June 24, 2012

Accountability: when ‘too much’ diminishes its worth

I (want to) trust you to do the right thing

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.
Confucius, 551 BC - 479 BC

A few comments about ‘accountability’ have crossed the twitter deck this past week or so, much to do with overdoses of the same in education but also, again, with regard to our LNP government in Queensland. It got me thinking…And while I am reluctant to quote twee confucianisms, I just happened upon that one above. It came to symbolise the week I’ve been having.

Accountability and transparency demands are desiccating our education and, if we’re not careful, our governments. For me, of course, the two, education and government, are intricately linked. Often, the accountability we think is required, and the government responses, are horribly at odds. It’s another point of the social contract we seem to have mucked up.

Accountability too, seems to be one of the odd sorts of mechanisms we are to be subjected to at various times of our lives…sometimes it is fair enough, other times it stifles. It is interesting that just as we are emerging from our teen years, in that usual battle of the minds under parental supervision and responsibility, as we learn for ourselves responsibility and, yes, accountability for our actions, we get to taste just that short ‘byte’ of freedom. We should emerge from the home as responsible, respectful junior adults; we get to our jobs—perhaps via university, perhaps through other pathways—and suddenly, we are back to that level of accountability, for everything. (I was once asked how many paperclips I required from the small box of the same...)

The level of accountability demanded of my workplace, the university, for example, is ‘unaccountably’ high. It stifles, it demands of us time that would be better spent teaching, researching, thinking and writing—the reasons most of us get into (or stay in) the academy in the first place. The idea that ‘accountability’ is a priority also tends to stifle the educational promise of students at the tertiary level.

I know, at the beginning of a semester, what I want to teach and what needs to be taught in a course. But I teach very contemporary subjects. Indeed, for one of them, on Northeast Asian security, there is always conjecture at the beginning of the semester as to whether or not the Korean Peninsula will be there at the end of semester… And, if I’m doing my job properly, I also need an element of flexibility to allow students to explore and contemplate the various topics—and I don’t always know where that will go either. I certainly don’t want to stifle them in their prognostications but by the same token, I don’t want them to be ‘locked in’ at the beginning with ‘expectations and outcomes’. Both sides need that element of serendipity of discovery that a good, nay, great tertiary education can give you.

I’ve come to see this level of accountability through the lens of ‘trust’…indeed, the lack of trust and a contrived sense of taxpayer entitlement. It’s a culture that’s been crafted by governments in the last couple of decades and it constructs a very narrow sense of ‘society’ and what we might be. Accountability, to the degree we experience it these days, says to me ‘we don’t trust you to do your job, we need to know everything you are doing and when and how you are doing it’. Perhaps we can ease off a little and we’ll al be less (dis)stressed.

As I was reflecting on the notion of accountability, it occurred to me that here in Queensland we are fast approaching that contrivance of government: the ‘first 100 days report’. Like anything that might have been a good idea at the time, this idea of focussing on the first 100 days has become, I fear, a mechanism of populist accountability that puts the wrong sort of emphasis on what we can expect from our government, and what our government ought to be doing on our behalf.

These ‘first 100 days’ reports are attributed to US President FD Roosevelt’s first one hundred days, as part of the New Deal and a way to restore confidence in the wake of the Great Depression. There might have been good reason for that then. These days, however, it just seems to be an exercise for governments to try and be seen to be ‘doing things’ and sometimes, I suspect, the desire to ‘tick boxes’ overrides the sense and consideration needed to govern well. Indeed, as part of the election campaign, the LNP published a glossy 10-page pamphlet on the first 100 days…pages of dot points and promises of what will be done. Lots of ‘commence’, ‘scope’, ‘establish’, initiate’…but not a lot about what sort of society we might become, the philosophical underpinnings which I think governments should also convey to the populace. I also want a government that will govern beyond the first 100 day 'milestone'. Sometimes, like a semester-long course which is part of a three or four year degree, a little serendipity goes a long way. 

There will be further posts about trust, I think it is something we really need to reinvigorate. These higher levels of accountability have, I think, diminished our ability and our willingness to trust others. We ought to revise our notions of trust—our society depends on it, now more than ever.