The Meaning of Accountability

August 17, 2011 Topic: Public OpinionState of the Military Region: AfghanistanUnited States Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

The Meaning of Accountability

For Robert Gates, "accountability" translated into "heads will roll." Much will be lost if Panetta follows his predecessor's lead.

David Ignatius, in his column on Wednesday, has another paean to Robert Gates and his tenure as secretary of defense. I will not replay what I have offered previously regarding how reputation and reality have diverged on this subject. But the piece by Ignatius raises one of the very issues involved in the divergence: accountability, and how and where it is applied and should be applied. Ignatius raises it as an expression of doubt about Gates's successor, Leon Panetta:

Gates managed to find a balance between supporting the troops and holding senior officers accountable. This will be a challenge for Panetta, whose initial reaction to the December 2009 suicide bombing of a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, was to fend off what some CIA officers said was well-deserved criticism of agency members’ tradecraft. Will he take action once the field investigation is completed into the downing of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan that killed 22 Navy SEALs?

Any calamity in public service is followed by demands for heads to roll. Head-rolling gets equated with accountability. But such an equation only assures that someone is being held “accountable” for being in some position associated with some untoward event that happens to become public knowledge. It does not necessarily mean accountability for deficient or negligent performance of duties. Untoward events have many possible causes, some of which can be attributed to poor performance and some of which cannot.  And only some instances of deficient or negligent performance of duty lead to untoward events, especially publicly known ones.

The equation of head-rolling with accountability is compatible with the practice in one of the military services—the navy—of holding the captain of a ship responsible for anything bad that happens to the ship, with everything responsibility means in terms of being relieved of command and suffering lasting and even terminal damage to the officer's career. That practice is a highly imperfect way of matching negative consequences with negative performance. Sometimes when something bad happens to a ship the skipper screwed up, but sometimes he didn't. Whatever happened may have been more a matter of circumstance and luck than of anyone's performance. It may have involved the performance of other members of the crew, even though the captain did everything that could reasonably be expected of a captain to train, direct, and discipline the crew. The practice does nothing to apply consequences to a captain who does screw up but whose poor performance, through luck or compensating good performance by other crew members, does not happen to lead to some nasty event for the ship. And the practice regarding ship captains takes attention away from applying appropriate consequences to either good or bad performance at other levels.

Despite all these flaws, one could still make an argument that on balance the navy's practice makes sense. Any alternative way of trying to apply accountability would have flaws, too. And at least with ships at sea, given the physical separation and independence of action involved, there is extra reason to focus attention and responsibility on whoever is in charge of the ship. But the reasoning weakens when applied to other types of military or civilian hierarchies, where it usually is not clear that any particular level should be presumed to bear a special share of the responsibility. In organizations in which Robert Gates had a senior position, the level that bore the brunt of anything that went wrong was usually whatever level happened to be just below Gates.

Whether in the seaborne navy or in other organizations, it is important to realize that the imperfect application of consequences for untoward events has bad consequences of its own, for the organization as well as for individuals. Members of the organization see the disconnect between the quality of the performance and the nature of the consequences, and they lose faith in the fairness of the organization. Any incentive to strive to do a better job is weakened. And when a career is ruined mostly for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the organization loses the services of someone who might otherwise have still made useful contributions to it.

The downing of the Chinook in Afghanistan immediately raised the usual questions about whether someone in a position of authority had screwed up. Should, for example, that many elite troops have been concentrated on one aircraft in a hazardous operation? Last week I took part in a radio discussion about that event. One of my fellow guests, a former SEAL, when asked such questions took the appropriate posture of not trying to second guess the commanders involved. As he correctly noted, no one doing the second guessing could know all of the circumstances that led to the operational decisions that were made.

The secretary of defense should not be judged by any of us out here in the world of commentators and second-guessers simply according to whether he rolls heads Gates-style in response to the costly incident in Afghanistan. Maybe, after all the inquiries and investigations are through, head-rolling would be an appropriate response. But maybe not. Maybe it would instead be a catering to the general appetite for heads to roll and for “accountability” supposedly to be achieved after a tragedy like that. If it is, I would consider such a response to be poor performance of duty by the secretary of defense (and I would wish he could somehow be held accountable for such performance).