Accountability Lite

More talk and less action is making government the perfect place to shirk executive responsibility.

"These events occurred on my watch. As secretary of Defense, I am accountable for them, and I take full responsibility." -Donald Rumsfeld

"A nation, especially one doing the business of empire, needs high officials to be highly attentive to what is done in their departments-attentive far down the chain of command, as though their very jobs depended on it." -Columnist George F. Will

Accountability has been a hot buzzword in government for quite some time. Search the Government Executive Web site and you'll find nearly 800 references to the concept in the past seven years.

Much harder to find, however, are examples of actual accountability in practice. Agencies are supposed to be responsible for the performance of their programs, managers for their treatment of employees and workers for their job performance. But rarely do failures in these areas result in serious consequences. At the highest levels, when bad things happen, mere buck-stops-here declarations apparently are supposed to suffice.

That seems to be the extent of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's accountability for the horrific abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. What happened after he stepped up and boldly took "full responsibility" was precisely nothing. In fact, two days after Rumsfeld testified about the abuses before the House and Senate, President Bush gave him a ringing vote of confidence at the Pentagon, delivering the kind of interim performance review that any federal employee would be pleased to receive: "You are doing a superb job."

In government, the concept of accountability has become so watered down as to be almost meaningless. It's hard to believe, but the corporate world-that would be the post-Enron, post-WorldCom, post-Martha Stewart corporate world-actually has the government beat when it comes to taking meaningful responsibility for one's actions.

Take the case of former Pentagon procurement chief Darleen Druyun and her misadventures in lining up a post-government career at Boeing. When the story broke that Druyun had negotiated for a job at the defense contractor without recusing herself from ongoing negotiations on a huge tanker lease deal, Boeing fired Druyun and the executive who arranged her hiring, Michael Sears. Boeing Chairman Philip Condit then accepted responsibility for the events that occurred on his watch, and did something about it-he quit. That doesn't exonerate him, nor does it necessarily mean that other action won't or shouldn't be taken against him or other company officials as the probe of the Druyun hiring widens. But at least he took some responsibility.

Government, on the other hand, is beginning to specialize in "accountability lite"-which is actually a fairly generous definition, because it's truly not accountability at all.

Any reasonable concept of accountability implies that a price must be paid for the failure to live up to one's obligations. But up and down the chain of command in the federal sector, fingers always seem to be pointing elsewhere. After publication of photos showing a grinning Army Pfc. Lynndie England mocking a group of naked Iraqi prisoners and leading one by a leash, her lawyers stretched the "I was just following orders" defense to new lengths. "People told Pfc. England, 'Hold that leash,' told her to smile, so they can show the photos to subsequent prisoners," said Carl McGuire, a member of a team of lawyers representing England.

Told her to smile? She was under orders to enjoy the humiliation? Please.

Ironically, the Abu Ghraib controversy comes at a time when Rumsfeld has successfully fought to add more accountability in the Defense Department's civilian ranks by tying the pay of employees and managers more closely to their performance ratings.

But what about accountability at the highest levels of the civilian bureaucracy for failures of leadership, management, training and discipline that have devastating consequences like those at Abu Ghraib? When you're really accountable, you pay the price. And when you're a political appointee, who serves at the pleasure of the president and is never guaranteed job security, the price is your job.

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