Since the Enron bankruptcy and related financial scandals, the word “accountability” has become newly popular among corporate managements and their government accusers. So far I see little evidence that my clients (corporate or government) are any more willing than before to make themselves meaningfully accountable to their stakeholders and critics. But it’s early days. In the hope that there may actually be an accountability surge coming, now seems a good time to write about the relationship between accountability and outrage management.
Accountability, Trust, and Control
In a nutshell, accountability reduces stakeholder outrage for two reasons: It replaces the need for trust (and paradoxically increases trust); and it offers a decent halfway measure in the direction of sharing control.
I was recently asked to review a draft manual for health departments on emergency communication. Inevitably, there was a section on how to build trust, or at least avoid eroding trust. Its list of trust-related factors included honesty and openness, empathy and caring, competence and expertise, etc. The draft didn’t mention accountability.
Yet accountability is trust’s secret weapon. The great paradox of trust is that the more you ask for it, the less you get it. Instead of asking to be trusted, therefore, smart organizations find ways to be accountable – that is, ways to be able to prove what they say; ways to have neutrals or, better yet, opponents looking over their shoulder and certifying their integrity; ways not to need to be trusted. In keeping with the trust paradox, accountability often leads to trust. If I know I can easily check up on you, and I know you know I can easily check up on you, I may well decide that you wouldn’t dare cheat me … and I may not bother to check up. But that’s a side-benefit. The main benefit is that whenever I doubt you, instead of torpedoing our relationship I simply check up.
My clients tend to assume their “trust problem” is that stakeholders don’t trust them. It is often true that stakeholders don’t trust them, but it doesn’t have to be a problem. (Arguably it is a societal achievement; excessively trusting publics are far too likely to be gulled.) The problem, I think, is that my clients expect stakeholders to trust them, and haven’t figured out how to deal with activists and neighbors in the absence of trust. Of course it is wise to act in trustworthy ways, to deserve to be trusted. But an excessive desire to be trusted leads many companies and government agencies to pass up opportunities to be accountable instead. This is monumentally self-defeating.
Why do so many companies and agencies resent being held accountable, and avoid reducing the demands on trust by instituting accountability mechanisms instead? The answer, I think, is ultimately a matter of injured self-esteem. Being trusted means being accepted as one of the “good guys.” Most of my clients yearn to be trusted. They feel they deserve to be trusted. And they therefore feel insulted when they are not trusted.
Also at issue is my clients’ attitude toward their stakeholders. In order to apply your mind to the problem of proving your claims (which is the essence of accountability), you must first accept the legitimacy of others doubting your claims. If such doubts strike you as insulting and inappropriate, you may flat-out refuse to be accountable. Even though your claims are true and provable, you may be willing to let your stakeholders go on doubting you rather than accept as legitimate their right to make you prove what you say. Very few companies adopt this attitude when the doubter is a customer, a supplier, a prospective merger partner, or even a regulator. Companies accept that these organizations have a right to doubt them, perhaps even a due-diligence obligation to doubt them. But when the doubter is a neighbor or an unqualified, biased, discourteous, “self-appointed” activist group, corporate noses tend to get bent out of joint. And easy opportunities to build in accountability and demand less trust go unnoticed.
Accountability isn’t just a way to demand less trust, need less trust, and paradoxically get more trust. It is also an answer to the enduring problem of control.
Sharing control is probably the single most effective way to reduce stakeholder outrage. The classic example is driving a car; 85% of licensed drivers feel safer behind the wheel than in the passenger seat. If you want to minimize my outrage, therefore, let me drive. Unfortunately, while sharing control will reliably reduce your stakeholders’ outrage, it will just as reliably increase the outrage inside your organization. So it’s a tough sell internally.
If sharing control is letting your critics drive, accountability is letting them back-seat drive – letting them watch you drive and yell at you that you’re a rotten driver. Most people don’t like having to listen to back-seat drivers, but faced with the choice between tolerating the back-seat driver and letting the back-seat driver drive, we usually prefer to tolerate the back-seat driver. Accountability is thus a compromise. It reduces stakeholder outrage pretty effectively, though not as effectively as sharing control. Since it evokes less internal outrage (your outrage) than sharing control, it may be easier to get implemented.
The purest cases of accountability are symmetrical and reciprocal … and begin to look and feel a lot like sharing control. When two children need to divide a single piece of pie, for example, the age-old method is that one cuts, the other chooses. In much the same spirit, “radical accountability” might mean fashioning two roles, an implementer role and an oversight role, and then letting your stakeholders decide which one they want for themselves and which they’ll leave for you. If that sounds crazy, try reversing things: Your stakeholders design the two roles and you get to pick. I once actually persuaded a consulting company managing a nuclear waste cleanup to try this approach with one project, but before the effort got very far the U.S. Department of Energy changed consulting companies (for other reasons, I assume).
You don’t need perfect symmetry to get some benefit out of accountability. The relationship between the implementer and the oversight committee can range all the way from one extreme (the implementer has the real power and the oversight committee rubber-stamps) to the other extreme (the oversight committee has the real power and the implementer does the scut work). One cuts and the other chooses is a tried-and-true way to divide the power evenly. Usually, you don’t want to divide it that evenly. Usually you’ll design a powerful implementer role for yourself and a less powerful oversight role for your stakeholders. Within reason, that’s okay. But when the accountability becomes mere window-dressing, it stops reducing stakeholders’ outrage. It can even backfire and increase stakeholders’ outrage when they belatedly discover the fraud. Pro forma accountability is worse than none at all.
Accountability and Being Small
One of the enduring truths of life, I think, is that virtually everybody feels small. Certainly this is true in a controversy. Some react to the feeling by “crumpling”; they act as small as they feel. Some react by “puffing”; they try to act big, and often try to convince themselves they really are big. And of course they may be big … but they feel small anyway. Even the CEOs of huge companies feel small, and spend considerable time complaining about how powerless they are at the hands of bureaucrats, activists, employees, financial analysts, whomever. In all my years of consulting, I have never yet consulted for Goliath.
Because people feel small, they tend to see everyone else as bigger than they are – stronger, more powerful, more in charge. Large corporations are a natural target for this projection. Outraged stakeholders looking for someone or something big to blame for their troubles find just what they’re looking for in the large corporation. Just to make matters worse, companies are generally run by puffers, not crumplers. The smaller management feels, the bigger it acts. This confirms the stakeholders’ projection. Even though you don’t feel like Goliath, in short, people are inclined to think you’re Goliath, and all too often you act like Goliath. All of which makes you exceedingly likely to end up a slingshot victim.
There are times and places in which it is useful for a company to act big. But the middle of a controversy you hope to defuse isn’t one of them. In managing controversy, your goal should almost always be to make as small a target as you can – to avoid becoming a lightning rod for outrage,or in the language of psychiatrists, to “stay out of the projective field.” Think small. This does not mean insisting to your stakeholders that you are small. “We’re just a poor little multinational corporation, the activists are the real Goliath” is not a viable message. In fact, it often helps to acknowledge that you know others see you as the 800-pound gorilla in this and every situation. But try not to act like the 800- pound gorilla.
What’s difficult about acting small is that corporate managers spend years training themselves to act big. Cultures differ on how much self-aggrandizement is considered appropriate, but even in otherwise self-effacing cultures, company spokespeople tend to project size and strength. It’s a hard habit to reverse.
What does all this have to do with accountability? Accountability makes you smaller. It makes the people you are accountable to bigger. That’s a major part of its value, and a major part of its unattractiveness to my clients.
Accountability and Credit
This section could be entitled “When Bad Companies Do Good Things.” Or, to be fairer: “When Companies People Think Are Bad Do Things People Are Glad They Did.”
My clients often do “the right thing” because they feel they must. This isn’t a criticism; it’s the way capitalism is supposed to work. Companies are charged with an obligation to maximize profitability for their shareholders … but not just profitability in the current quarter: long-term, sustainable profitability. In order to achieve this, well-run companies monitor the environment, including the regulatory and public affairs environment, trying to figure out what they should be doing now to maximize future profits. If stakeholders badly want you to do X, it is probably going to be in your interest to do X, or some version of X, sooner or later.
Once you have decided to do X, you get to decide what to say about why you did it. This is where many companies make a big mistake. Impelled by self-esteem needs, they tend to claim they did X because they wanted to, rather than because their stakeholders wanted them to and made it better business for them to acceed than to refuse.
Consider two different claims a manufacturing plant might make: “We stopped polluting the stream because we love fish more than profit” versus “We stopped polluting the stream because our stakeholders made us stop, because companies don’t get to earn a profit any more unless they protect the fish.” The second claim is much likelier to be true, of course. Moreover, it is much likelier to be credible. When a company makes the first claim, we tend to doubt that it stopped polluting the stream at all; since it is obviously lying about its motives, we assume it is probably lying about its behavior too. Finally, the second claim is far likelier to please the activists, regulators, and other stakeholders who actually did make you stop polluting the stream, and who very much prefer that you not try to steal the credit for their achievement.
One of the benefits of an accountability strategy is that it enables you to give away the credit for your good behavior. (I am not suggesting that you will enjoy giving away the credit, only that you will profit from doing so.) Even better than giving away the credit: Get your stakeholders to take the credit. Best of all, get an extreme, activist stakeholder to take the credit.
Activists will never, never tell the world that you are doing the right thing on your own – that there is therefore no further need for activists. There are only two possible niches activists can fill. Either they announce that you are doing the wrong thing, or they announce that they have succeeded in making you do the right thing. Your most important decision with respect to the activists is which of these two roles you prefer for them. And the essence of my argument is that the second role is a lot more profitable for you than the first. In the language of industry, I am recommending that you outsource moral credibility.
For years, the McDonald’s restaurant chain had been under pressure from environmentalists to serve meals in something greener than the polystyrene clamshell. Suppose McDonald’s had decided unilaterally one day to make the switch. “This is an example of our deep environmental commitment,” the company spokesperson might have announced. “Paint the Golden Arches green!” As always happens when companies claim credit this way, the activists would have been furious and the public would have been skeptical.
Instead of following the typical course, McDonald’s entered into negotiations with the Environmental Defense Fund (now called Environmental Defense). They negotiated an agreement under which McDonald’s committed itself to abandon polystyrene, and EDF committed itself to police the switch, to hold the company accountable. At their joint announcement, the McDonald’s spokesperson said relatively little, while the EDF spokesperson called it a victory for the environmental movement. When reporters asked the McDonald’s rep if he agreed that this was a victory for environmentalists over his company, he said – the words almost catching in his throat – “yes.” Others at the company let it be known that they weren’t even sure the switch was environmentally desirable. But they were sure that environmental groups and the majority of customers wanted them to switch, and McDonald’s intended to respond to their demands.
The result: Environmental groups that might otherwise have attacked the change as too little too late, as more symbolic than real, as “greenmail,” took credit for it instead. More than a decade later, McDonald’s still ranks high on lists of environmentally responsible companies.
Let’s suppose you manage a juice box company in the United States. While public acceptance of juice boxes (aseptic packaging) is high in Europe, in the U.S. it is greatly reduced by the recycling problem. A sandwich of three different substances, juice boxes are hard to recycle. Your technical people tell you that the product compresses to next-to-nothing in a landfill anyway; a juice box recycling program, they say, makes no environmental sense. But your marketing people tell you such a program would pay for itself in reduced disapproval and increased sales. What do you do?
- Stick to your technical guns. Explain to the public why juice boxes shouldn’t be recycled.
- Develop a recycling program. Explain to the public that it demonstrates your environmental commitment.
- Develop a recycling program. Explain to the public that it may not make technical sense, but it’s what people want.
- Set up an environmental advisory board. Negotiate a recycling program. Let them do the explaining.
If you like the fourth answer best, you’ve got the point.
There are two lessons here. First, if you are trying to assess the pros and cons of becoming more accountable to your stakeholders, include on the “pro” side the opportunities accountability mechanisms provide to let your stakeholders take credit for your good behavior. This makes your good behavior more credible, and gives your critical stakeholders a role that meets both their needs and yours. Second, if you have already built some accountability into your relationships with stakeholders, don’t forget to let them take the credit! Few corporate behaviors are more common, more self-defeating, and more irritating than to defer (or lose) to stakeholders over whether or not you’re going to have to do X, then proudly announce to the world that you are doing X “voluntarily.” The cost of doing X is money you have already decided to spend. Whether X is cost-effective or not, the task now is to get as much benefit out of it as possible. And the benefit is far greater if you frame X as an example of your accountability than if you try to claim it as an example of your wisdom, altruism, and trustworthiness.
Accountability and Contracts
The gold standard for accountability is the enforceable contract. A contract doesn’t necessarily equalize power, but it does formalize power, giving each party explicitly acknowledged, enforceable rights. Even those who view regulatory law as a fraud and tort law as a crap shoot are likely to feel protected by a good contract. (To see the difference, imagine doing business without contracts. Wait for a regulator to make your customers pay their bills. When a supplier is late with a key delivery, try explaining to a judge that it’s “just not right,” as opposed to pointing to a contract provision requiring on-time deliveries.) The same reliability that contracts bring to your business relationships they can bring as well to your stakeholder relationships.
Suppose the neighborhood is upset about heavy trucks rumbling down residential streets on their way to your factory. Negotiate an agreement that specifies routes and hours, and a “fine” for infractions. No one has to prove damage or negligence to invoke a stipulated penalty. Neighbors just have to prove the contract infraction occurred: “Truck on the wrong street? That’ll be $10,000.”
Apart from their ready enforceability, contracts have another big advantage. Contract negotiation forces both sides to moderate their claims. Most legal and political battles feed on exaggeration; those trying to stop you have every reason to exaggerate how bad things are, while you have every reason to exaggerate how good things are. Not so in negotiation. Suppose you’ve been insisting in the media that a proposed new facility will never emit detectable amounts of dimethylmeatloaf. “Good,” say the neighborhood negotiators, “then let’s write a contract with a stipulated penalty of $100 million if the monitors detect trace levels of dimethylmeatloaf.” You will quickly concede that “never” means seldom and “none” means only a little. The neighborhood must similarly abandon its claim that emissions will be sky-high and constant, lest you use those claims to establish a standard that is laxer than they want it. With a contract in the offing, they don’t dare claim your factory will emit huge amounts of dimethylmeatloaf, because they don’t want an agreement in which less-than-huge amounts are considered tolerable.
Want to build an incinerator? Encourage nearby residents to incorporate as a neighborhood association and appoint a bargaining team. Instead of promising that stack emissions will be “within the limits in the permit,” work out a separate set of limits with the neighborhood, with shared oversight of the data and stipulated penalties each time a parameter is exceeded. Instead of promising that property values won’t go down (and commissioning studies to prove it), simply bond for property values – so if you’re wrong and they do go down, it’s your problem, not the neighborhood’s. If you can convert all your safety claims into enforceable contract provisions, neighborhood opposition should dwindle. And if you can’t, neighborhood opposition is justified.
Think about the contract a gold mining company negotiated with a consortium of environmental groups to get them not to oppose a new mine. Some of what they bargained for was straightforward mitigation: a shelter to reduce dust; transplanting cactus to be replanted after the reclamation; additional reclamation beyond what was demanded by law. And some of what they negotiated was simply the opportunity for private enforcement of public obligations. Whole sections of the relevant government regulations were copied into the contract. For a company that plans to obey its permit, reproducing the permit requirements as contract provisions has zero cost; but for an activist group that believes enforcement is spotty and companies get away with a lot of violations, having their own enforcement hammer is a huge victory.
The most interesting clause in the contract is a royalty provision. The coalition gets so much per ton of ore. But the provision doesn’t stop there. If the coalition judges (in a formal vote) that the mine is being managed in an environmentally responsible way, it can spend its royalty as it chooses. If it votes that mine management is creating environmental problems, on the other hand, it must spend its royalty mitigating those problems. The agreement leaves the activists free to take serious problems seriously, but it gives them an incentive not to take trivial problems seriously. The question of how serious the mine’s problems really are, relative to other area problems, becomes an internal debate for the environmental groups instead of a fight with mine management. Depending on the activists’ judgment about the mine’s performance, the mine becomes either a source of funding to fix major environmental problems or a major environmental problem itself. But they can’t have it both ways. Contract accountability, in short, is reciprocal.
I am not arguing that companies have a moral obligation to negotiate binding contracts with their stakeholders. You probably do have a moral obligation to consult with your stakeholders, but that’s about all. You owe them a chance to be heard, not a say in the final decision. (This is also what government regulators owe you.) But a binding contract just might be in your interest. In the mining example I just gave, the company had already reached the conclusion that it would never win permit approval for the new mine if area environmental groups fought it. A contract that enabled the groups to tolerate the mine (and to tell their own stakeholders they had won unprecedented environmental concessions) was the only way the company was going to get access to the ore. Even when a contract isn’t your only path forward, it may be your cheapest path forward – cheaper than the volatile mixture of litigation, political warfare, and reputational damage it can replace.
Especially when stakeholders’ worries are foolish, an enforceable accountability mechanism (that is, a contract) is the best bargain conceivable. At least three or four times a year, a corporate client complains to me that the community is concerned about a possibility that is, in fact, an impossibility. The laws of chemistry and physics guarantee it won’t happen, my client assures me … and tries to assure the stakeholders, to no avail. My answer is always the same: Bond against it. Promise it won’t happen, and stipulate a huge penalty if it does. Then try to convince your own lawyers, actuaries, and risk managers to approve the contract, since the laws of chemistry and physics guarantee it won’t happen. Sometimes this strategy results in an agreement that takes the issue off the table. Other times it just teaches my client that there are those inside the company who share the stakeholders’ worry (and therefore won’t approve the enforceable promise), which means my client must stop insisting the worry is foolish.
What is foolish, I think, is the notion that a contract is antithetical to trust – a notion grounded in your own emotional investment in being trusted. Your company would never take that position with respect to customers, suppliers, or merger prospects. (For that matter, does anyone still believe that couples build a more trusting relationship when they avoid the marriage contract?) In a relationship where power is divided fairly equally, binding contracts foster trust because they give each side clarity about what it must do and what it can count on the other to do. We trust each other more – and behave more flexibly, trustfully, and trustworthily – when there are explicit and enforceable promises to fall back on if needed.
What about when power is unequally divided? The less powerful side in any relationship is the side that is likeliest to need a formal agreement. Informality serves the powerful. But the real role of contracts in unequal power relationships is far more complicated than that. There are at least two reasons why you may find use for a contract even with people and groups you could easily overpower. First, low-power antagonists tend to be the ones who are likeliest to behave irresponsibly, unreliably, and unpredictably. They may not get what they seek, but quite often they wreak havoc on their opponents’ plans, achieving a spectacularly expensive lose–lose outcome. My files are full of cases where a powerful company ignored a virtually powerless “troublemaker” … who proceded to make far, far more trouble than the company could ever have imagined. A contract that meets the low-power troublemaker’s needs can be a cost-effective way to stabilize the business environment. The second reason is a more extreme version of the first. Informality may provoke low-power antagonists to rebellion. By institutionalizing the prerogatives of the less powerful, contracts make the power imbalance more tolerable, and thus more stable. For better or for worse, this is true of accountability generally. Accountability of the strong to the weak protects the weaker party and reduces the power imbalance. In so doing it protects the relationship itself, including the power imbalance that’s left.
Accountability to Whom?
The easiest sort of accountability to talk a company into is usually accountability to a neutral third party. That can be genuinely useful – if your stakeholders agree with you that the third party is really neutral. This means two things. First, your stakeholders must agree that the third party doesn’t lean your way, isn’t (for example) a long-time industry expert who sees virtually all problems as small problems. Finding an expert both sides consider truly neutral is extremely difficult – and that’s the easy part.
The hard part is convincing your stakeholders that the third party will remain neutral even though he or she is working for you. Imagine reversing the situation. Greenpeace has hired a reputable, not-especially-activist consultant, complete with Ph.D., to assess whether you have contaminated the groundwater. When the consultant’s report concludes that you have, will you accept the report on the grounds that the consultant has solid credentials, or will you complain that it is, after all, a Greenpeace report? Whatever it takes for you to trust a Greenpeace report, that’s about what it will take for skeptical stakeholders to trust your report. A third-party expert probably isn’t enough.
This mistrust of experts, moreover, is justified by the data. The correlation between the findings of published research and the preferences of the funders of that research is a strong and robust correlation. My wife, Dr. Jody Lanard, calls this “the ouija board heuristic.” To an embarrassing extent, studies find what their sponsors hope to find. This is unlikely to be the result of dishonest scholarship. It may be, in part, the result of the funders’ influence over how research problems are framed, how methodological options are resolved, how uncertain results are interpreted, and how decisions to publish or not publish are made. It may be that researchers, like most human beings, unconsciously absorb and try to satisfy the expectations of the people they work for. It may be that funders choose researchers who share their predilections in the first place. Whatever the causality, the finding is real. It justifies the skepticism with which opponents greet industry-funded and activist-funded research. And it demonstrates the need for accountability.
If accountability to neutrals is the easiest sort of accountability for most of my clients to tolerate, accountability to extremists is the hardest. Perhaps the most common mistake companies make in their efforts to be accountable is trying to exclude the extremists. It’s an understandable mistake. These are the people who are making your life hell. Why would you spend time with them if you could possibly avoid it? And you can avoid it. In fact, many activist groups work hard to get you to exclude them, recognizing that this adds to their influence. Some have become extraordinarily skilled at pushing management’s buttons, at making demands that sound reasonable to the public but not to you. Polarization is their most important tool. They are better off crashing the meeting or marching around outside the meeting than walking into the meeting, invited and welcome. They are better off complaining that you won’t give them the data or charging that you faked the data than sitting on the team that collected the data.
You, on the other hand, are better off with them on the team. (U.S. President Lyndon Johnson once said of a political opponent, “I’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”) Once you see through their polarization strategy and welcome the extremists to the table, their free ride is over. Now they face a difficult choice. If they accept your offer, they lose a lot of their free-wheeling independence; they can’t play so fast and loose with the data when they helped collect it. Worse yet, they risk seeming co-opted. In terms of contributions, media coverage, and above all the loyalty of their most dedicated members, losing an all-out fight benefits an activist group nearly as much as winning it – the only disastrous course is compromise, sell-out. On the other hand, if the activists turn down your offer of involvement and the chance to hold you accountable, they risk being marginalized. Potential new supporters and low-involvement contributors are a lot more moderate than dedicated core activists; they won’t join or stay with a group that keeps rejecting chances to influence the outcome.
There is no need to choose between accountability to neutral third parties and accountability to extremists. You can do both: Bring in a neutral third party as consultant, then tell your consultant to be as accountable to the extremists as to you.
Probably the most important aspect of the Brent Spar controversy was the outrage generated by Shell U.K.’s assumption that it could sink an oil platform into the North Atlantic without consulting its European stakeholders. (It got the permission of the U.K. government, but pretty much ignored everyone else.) But the substantive issue was also important – whether the contents of the Brent Spar were highly toxic or not. Shell had data that said the contents were pretty benign. But when Greenpeace commandos occupied the platform, they collected their own samples, which they soon announced were extraordinarily toxic. To resolve the controversy, Shell hired Den Norska Veritas (DNV), a highly respected Norwegian science consulting group. DNV’s instructions were unusual. Don’t make the same mistake we made, Shell told its consultants. View yourselves as working not just for us, but for all the relevant stakeholders, including Greenpeace. Ask their advice on how to proceed, and report your results to them on the same basis as to us. What had been a credibility battle between Shell and Greenpeace – a battle Greenpeace couldn’t lose – began to shape up instead as a battle between the Known Universe and Greenpeace. DNV’s findings, when they were announced, were going to be hard for Greenpeace to disavow. Faced with this dilemma, Greenpeace back-pedaled, announcing (well before the DNV results were in) that it had discovered some data collection errors in its samples from the Brent Spar, and it was withdrawing its toxicity claims.
Accountability to moderates is often less painful than accountability to extremists. Both are useful, especially in combination. What isn’t very useful is to exclude the extremists and involve the moderates instead. This reliably undercuts the moderates, who are then easily painted as sell-outs. Either they lose credibility with the public (in which case you’re not going to get much benefit from being accountable to them) or they start acting tough to prove they didn’t sell out after all (in which case you might as well have dealt with the extremists in the first place).
If the extremists turn you down, on the other hand, you can safely work with the moderates instead. But you have to keep dramatizing that the door is still open, that you see each group as different and you want all of them to hold you accountable. Even something as hokey as a permanently empty seat at the table can help make the point that you’re not excluding the extremists; they’re excluding themselves. Among other advantages, this helps protect the moderates from the charge of selling out. Even so, it shouldn’t be your goal to get the extremists to bail so you can work with the moderates instead. That’s your fallback. Your goal should be to get the extremists inside the tent.
A brief furor in the U.S. over the possible health effects of new carpets (from the glue that holds the fibers to the backing) came to a head when one clinical ecologist reported a study in which a new carpet sample killed test mice, one family filed a lawsuit claiming Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, and one state attorney general announced an investigation. A carpet industry trade association hired me to help deal with the problem. It had already decided to replicate the study. Since no one would be greatly impressed by a carpet industry study exonerating the carpet industry, I persuaded the group to invite “the enemy” to join them in supervising the study.
The clinical ecologist, the plaintiffs’ lawyers, and the state attorney general all said no; all preferred to remain free to attack the industry’s findings rather than having helped reach them. So much for accountability, my client groused. (It had taken great courage to issue the invitations, and it was painfully anticlimactic to be turned down.) But we didn’t give up. We considered inviting the dominant local newspaper, which could hire its own experts to make sure the study was done properly. We thought about bringing in state regulators from other states, in hopes of embarrassing the most relevant state attorney general into changing his mind. Finally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided to attempt a replication, with all interested parties free to tag along. No mice died … and the issue was well on its way to oblivion.
In a much more local controversy, a client belatedly discovered that it had been emitting unpermitted chemicals literally for years. It reported its misdeeds to the relevant state and federal regulators, and ultimately paid a whopping fine; it also stopped nearly all the emissions, and secured permits for the rest. That satisfied its accountability obligations to the state and federal government. But the community was, understandaby, exceedingly skeptical. In an ongoing effort to foster community accountability, the company:
- Hired a consulting firm to study the illegal emissions and estimate their health impact.
- Established a Community Advisory Panel (CAP) to oversee the process.
- Paid for the CAP to hire its own consulting firm to review the first consulting firm’s report.
- Scheduled a series of open public meetings and briefings of local government.
- Encouraged the CAP to schedule its own meetings and briefings, so the CAP would itself be more accountable to the community at large.
- Paid for independent third-party monitoring of ongoing emissions.
- Arranged for the monitoring company to do additional sampling on dates specified by the CAP and unknown to the company.
- Encouraged the CAP to remain open to local activists.
- Met separately with all activists who sought a meeting, whether they were on the CAP or not.
What is most interesting about this list is the continuing need for multiple accountability mechanisms. Working things out with the state and federal governments didn’t obviate the need to deal with local government. A rapprochement with local government didn’t obviate the need for a CAP. An active and effective CAP didn’t obviate the need for separate meetings with activists too alienated to serve on the CAP. And everybody involved needed access to their own independent experts. The underlying assumption throughout the process had to be that nobody could afford to trust the company, or even to trust the company’s accountability to others. So every stakeholder needed to be convinced, separately, that there was simply no way the company could cheat and not get caught.
Especially important, I think, was the role of the community’s most extreme activists. Two of the three most distraught individuals agreed to serve on the CAP. They often irritated the CAP’s more moderate members, forcing the company (and the paid facilitator) to work hard to keep them in the group. The third (let’s call her Susan) never joined. Susan sometimes tried to attend CAP meetings; other times she boycotted, often citing emissions and health risk as her reason for staying away. The company’s endless willingness to listen and respond to these three “extremists” was essential to its substantial success in rebuilding a decent relationship with the community. Uninvolved but skeptical community members tended to measure the company’s responsiveness largely by its responsiveness to Susan and her two colleagues. More mainstream and more heavily involved community members, meanwhile, cemented the new mood of cooperativeness largely in contrast to Susan and her two colleagues. Every time Susan got a respectful company response to an off-the-wall claim, some of the people in the room breathed a sigh of relief that Susan was there to protect their interests, and some of the people in the room rolled their eyes and resolved to keep their own statements reasonable so as not to sound like Susan. In large measure, it is accountability to the Susans of the world that is the best measure of an accountability effort’s effectiveness.
The best answer to the question “accountability to whom?” is accountability to everybody, especially to the people and groups you least want to be accountable to. Remember, the purpose of accountability is to reduce stakeholder outrage. You accomplish this by not asking to be trusted, by coming as close as you can to sharing control, by making yourself and your company “smaller,” and by getting your critics to take credit for your good behavior. Whether you rely on a formal contract or something more casual, if you really hate it there’s a good chance you’re doing it right.
Copyright © 2002 by Peter M. Sandman