A number of things recently have made me wonder about what I think of as the British desire for accountability. Accountability is probably the wrong word. What I mean is the tendency to have lots of procedures and checks to make sure that everything is being done properly and that money is not being misspent.
As far as I can tell there are two reasons why we do this. One is that we no longer trust people and therefore feel we need to check that everyone is doing their job properly. The other is that an awful lot of money spent in the UK is public money and consequently there is a belief that the taxpayer deserves to know that this money is spent appropriately.
In principle this is all fine. I do, however, have a suspicion that at best this continual checking really does nothing, and at worst actually has a detrimental effect on whatever is being checked. Why do I think this? It is my sense that people work more effectively when there is an element of trust. They will also feel more comfortable making decisions as opposed to continually worrying about whether or not what they are doing will be judged at a later stage to have been the wrong thing to do. This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t follow procedures, but they should feel comfortable using their judgement when they encounter something that doesn’t seem to fit the known procedures. Another factor is the cost of the continual monitoring. I would very much like to know if anyone has worked out how much public money is spent making sure that the rest of the public money is spent properly.
This may seem like I am advocating a completely free and unchecked system, which is not the case. I do think, however, that if a new procedure isn’t going to have a positive effect on the system then in general we shouldn’t introduce it. Also, if we start spending so much money checking a system rather than actually doing something productive with the money, then we should consider changing the procedures. Do I think the end justifies the means? Not quite, but I do think we need to have some sense of what impact the various procedures will have on the end product and we should be willing to modify how we do things to optimise the end result.