Performance v. Accountability

29 Jul

A now defunct effort to create an community driven performance indicator system for the city of Buffalo.Last year, I attempted to lead a project that would create an indicator system to go with Buffalo’s 2030 comprehensive plan. I discovered within the plan a call for a performance indicator system or a collection of data points that were used to check the city’s progress towards its 2030 vision. When compiled into a document, a person should be able to check it and know how well a community or organization is progressing towards its comprehensive plan. The best systems ask very simple questions that cover what people expect and allows them to believe that everything is alright. For example, a town in Oregon wanted to know the quality of its air. After a long and deliberative process to find the right performance indicator, the citizens decided that the big question that allowed them to know was “Can clearly we see Mount Hood?” With this question, they were able to legitimately say that their community must be doing well to curb air pollution, since macro-particulate pollution occasionally blocked the view of the city’s key tourist attraction. It can be argued that the question is not a valid measure of air quality, but that doesn’t matter. The point is that the citizens have a shared experience that tells them how well they are doing to keep their vista pristine, how well are they performing, and how well they are learning to address a shared problem.

While developing the project, I learned that Buffalo had an indicator system that was directed at accountability. As I looked into it, I learned that the program had city officials present before a council a series of self reported stats that would serve as a basis of judgment of the quality of official’s department. The unlucky official that presented an honest data set to the council would be threatened with their job (i.e. livelihood) when the data went in a direction unfavorable to their likings. So the program was either a self service of indulgence or a person presenting their own head to be chopped off. Life is never as simple as a data set, and so I became aware of the concept of accountability-based indicator systems. I examined the concepts of performance and accountability, where I learned that there is a large difference captured well in the origins of the English words, which are presented in the table below.

Concept (word) Origins
Performance 1530s, “carrying out of a promise, duty, etc.,” from perform + -ance. Meaning “a thing performed” is from 1590s; that of “action of performing a play, etc.” is from 1610s; that of “a public entertainment” is from 1709. Performance art is attested from 1971.
to perform c.1300, “carry into effect, fulfill, discharge,” via Anglo-Fr. performir, altered (by infl. of O.Fr. forme “form”) from O.Fr. parfornir “to do, carry out, finish, accomplish,” from par- “completely” + fornir “to provide” (see furnish). Theatrical/musical sense is from 1610.
Accountability “liable to be called to account,” 1580s; see account + -able. Related: Accountability; accountably.
to account c.1300, “reckoning of money received and paid;” from O.Fr. acont “account,” from à “to” + cont “count,” from L.L. computus “a calculation,” from L. computare “calculate” (see compute). Sense of “narration” is first attested 1610s. The verb meaning “to reckon for money given or received” is from late 14c.; sense of “to explain” (c.1710) is from notion of “answer for money held in trust.” Transf. sense of “value” is from late 14c. Pl. accounts used as a collective or sing. in phrases such as to give accounts (of something), mid-13c. Phrase by all accounts is attested from 1798. Accounting “reckoning of numbers” is from late 14c. Phrase no accounting for tastes (1823) translates L. de gustibus non est disputandum. Modern French differentiates compter “to count” and conter “to tell,” but they are cognates.

The distinction is the difference between using a data set (which is always a conceptual game) to learn or to be right or wrong. Performance is a process of growth and continuous improvement while accountability is Caesar’s thumb signaling a subjective judgment that condemns or redeems.

I will talk about the implications between accountability and performance in organizations and personal life in future posts.

“The ancient Romans had a tradition: when one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: he stood under the arch.” ~Michael Armstrong


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