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Shared accountability in partnerships

We’ve got solar panels and an electric car.  Which is great.  We fuel a good proportion of our mileage on pure smugness.

However … there’s a setting on the charger that lets you charge the car only when there’s an adequate surplus, so you’re just using solar and not the grid.  But if the sun goes in, the car has a huff and won’t start charging again until you drive it forwards and backwards a little way.

An issue worth taking up.  But who with?  The charger people or the car people?  I haven’t even tried, so far because of the fear that they’ll each just point the finger at the other and do nothing.

In a sense, this is a problem of shared accountability.  Until the cause, or causes of the problem can be identified, they are both responsible. 

The same thing happens in other contexts.  When something goes wrong on the computer it could be the hardware or any of a multitude of software programs, apps or drivers.  A problem shared is a problem ignored.

More relevant for this blog, there are also problems of shared accountability in partnership working, whether that’s through a Health and Wellbeing Board, an ICS or one of the myriad other partnerships that proliferate locally.

When there is a problem, or something needs to be done, the more people who could take action, the greater the risk of any responsibility or accountability being diluted and therefore less chance of anyone doing anything.  If you think you are the only one spotting a problem (whether smoke seeping from under a door or someone being attacked) you are more likely to take action, than if you think several other people have also seen it.

There are other problems of shared accountability in partnership.  Are you to hold people accountable in proportion to their contribution to the outcome?  If so, you have the problem that it’s often impossible to disentangle the different causes and effects – who did what, with what result?  And even where you can see what different people did and the result it had, how do you compare something which is quick and simple but crucial (such as a key conversation, bringing someone on board), with something else which is equally important but takes an awful lot of time and effort to make its contribution (such as the hard slog of, say, designing and implementing a new process)?

Equally, while there may be an overall net benefit of the partnership activity, there may not be an equality between who contributes and who benefits, which may affect people’s incentive to take action, but always raises the question of how far partners should be held accountable for things they don’t benefit from.

So, what can be done?  That depends whether you are on the inside or the outside.

If you’re on the outside – such as the government, or the local public – trying to hold to account a partnership of, say, local public bodies, one option might be to treat every member of the partnership as just as responsible as if they were the only body.  That could be hard to pull off though.

It probably means using whatever levers are at your disposal (whether voting, publicity, providing funding) and applying them to all the partners either equally or in proportion to their perceived responsibility (even though, as already suggested, that may be conceptually and practically impossible to do fairly).

If you are within the partnership – if, for instance, your attempts to improve health and reduce inequalities includes the public themselves – then accountability doesn’t really come into it.  It’s just a question of how to achieve the objectives.  You may have the job of trying to motivate and encourage colleagues.  You have to work out the best ways of working together.  But in the end, the reward is the prize of achieving your objectives.  If you fail, you just don’t win the prize.

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